Eclipse showed glory of creation, say Boston priests who witnessed it

BRAINTREE -- For Father Bob Connors, the traffic was awful, but it was worth it.

On April 8, Father Connors, episcopal vicar of the Archdiocese of Boston's South Region, and thousands of others traveled north to see the total solar eclipse, the first to pass over North America since 2017 and the last until 2044. The round trip from Boston to Colebrook, New Hampshire, was 400 miles in order to see an event that lasted just over three minutes. To Father Connors, those three minutes felt like a prayer.

"Thank you, God, for creation," he said aloud as the sky darkened around him.

Father Connors, Father Paul Soper, and Bishop Mark O'Connell spoke to The Pilot on April 9 about their experience viewing the total solar eclipse. Bishop O'Connell and Father Paul Soper, best friends since their time in seminary together, embarked on a 400-mile road trip to Greenville, Maine, to see it.

"I wasn't even sure I was breathing," Father Soper, the Archdiocese of Boston secretary for ministerial personnel and director of clergy personnel, told The Pilot. "I was just in awe watching it."

"It was a goosebumps-type thrill when it happened," Bishop O'Connell told The Pilot.

Along with being pastor of the Westwood Catholic Parishes, Father Soper has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and astrophysics from Harvard University. He has published some papers on the subject, but according to him, "they're not very important papers. Nobody reads them."

"I fell in love with the starry sky when I was a boy, and I would go camping with the Boy Scouts," said Father Soper, whose own father was a scientist.

He also "fell in love with Jesus and the Eucharist," which made him want to become a priest. While observing the eclipse, his two loves were connected.

"I think (the eclipse) reveals something very important about God," he said. "God made the universe rational. The universe proceeds according to laws, and because it does, it's understandable."

He said that moments like the eclipse, in their "beautiful simplicity and exotic complexity," are invitations for people to explore and understand God.

"It's the power of God's creation," Bishop O'Connell added. "Sometimes the world feels so random, and yet this is so precise. This moment of time, me standing right there... It could've been predicted a thousand years ago. It's the opposite of chaos. It is order and it is God's creation revealing its precision."

April 8 marked the second total solar eclipse that Father Soper and Bishop O'Connell traveled together to see. They drove over 1,300 miles to Tennessee to be in the path of totality during the 2017 eclipse. Father Soper has seen some annular eclipses, in which the moon does not completely obscure the sun, but those "aren't nearly as intense."

He and Bishop O'Connell went to a parking lot, paid the fee, brought out chairs, and sat back to watch the eclipse. They made sure to wear their safety glasses, which only allow 1/100,000th of the sun's light to pass through. Father Soper recalled that, for the first 45 minutes of the eclipse, everything looked the same. Then, the world began to get darker. Night fell during the daytime. The temperature dropped from 65 degrees to what felt like 40 degrees. The stars came out early. He noticed Venus and Jupiter in the sky.

"All of the colors begin to wash out," he said, "and you're seeing things like you do before the sun rises or after the sun sets... It's black and white. You see it in grayscale."

He described the eclipse as resembling a glittering diamond ring as the last of the sun was blotted out. When the moon completely covered the sun, he, Bishop O'Connell and the rest of the crowd of onlookers could safely remove their glasses.

"Then, all of a sudden, boom," Father Soper said. "The moon has gone across the sun, and it's just sitting there. Everything has changed. The birds start to go crazy, because evening's come way faster than usual, and way earlier."

When the moment of totality came, the people rose out of their seats.

"I don't think anyone can say why they stood up," Father Soper said, "but you stand up when something important happens."

All three priests described hearing crowds cheering in the distance as the total eclipse crossed the sky, only for it to reach them, then pass on to more cheering crowds on the other side.

"You just have to cheer," Bishop O'Connell said, "because it's just so amazing when it pops into the total eclipse."

Father Connors described seeing the eclipse as "mind-boggling."

"It was a total spiritual experience," he said. "There's so many TV and pictures, but those thousand words from a picture don't even come close to seeing it (in person)."