Catholic Church reburies ‘heretic’ Nicolaus Copernicus with honour

Frombork, Poland - Nicolaus Copernicus, the “heretical” 16th-century astronomer who was buried in an unmarked grave nearly 500 years ago, was rehabilitated by the Roman Catholic Church this weekend as his remains were reburied in the Polish cathedral where he had once been a canon.

The ceremonial reburial of Copernicus in a tomb in the medieval cathedral at Frombork on Poland’s Baltic coast is seen as a final sign of the Church’s repentance for its treatment of the scientist over his theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun, declared heretical by the Vatican in 1616.

Copernicus, who lived from 1473 to 1543, died little-known at the age of 70 and was buried in an unmarked grave beneath the floor of the cathedral at Frombork. DNA tests five years ago identified his bones and skull by comparing them with hair found in his books kept at the University of Uppsala in Sweden.

On Saturday the remains were blessed with holy water and ceremonially reburied in the main body of the cathedral under a black granite tombstone describing him as the creator of heliocentrism and decorated with a golden sun encircled by six planets.

The move comes nearly two decades after the Vatican rehabilitated Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer who was persecuted by the Inquisition for developing Copernican theory and forced to recant.

Monsignor Wojciech Ziemba, the local archbishop, said Copernicus had left a legacy of “hard work, devotion and above all scientific genius.” Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, the Primate of Poland, said at the ceremony that he deplored the “excesses of zeal” which had led to Copernicus being branded a heretic.

Copernicus was not persecuted in his lifetime for his heliocentric views, which only came later to be seen as a danger to the faith. His treatise, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was published shortly before he died on May 21, 1543. The Vatican only struck it from its list of banned books in 1835.

This month the Vatican published the first volume in a series of archive documents relating to the Inquisition. Leen Spruit, a Dutch-born expert on the censorship of science in Rome, told Catholic News Service that Copernicus had been “virtually ignored” by censors until Protestants began praising his work.

Scientific works by Copernicus and Galileo were not condemned until they were published in the vernacular rather than in Latin, he said, “because then they could be more dangerous for a broader audience.”