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In a live streamed video call into the heavens Thursday, Pope Francis connected with astronauts aboard the International Space Agency and jumped right into the big question: What is our place in the universe?
Francis, the first pope to call the space station and second to speak to astronauts orbiting the earth via video call, conversed with Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency, Russian cosmonauts Alexander Misurkin and Sergey Ryazanskiy and NASA astronauts Randy Bresnik, Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba.
During his 23-minute call from the Vatican Library in Rome, Italy, the pope spoke in Italian and Nespoli translated for his fellow crew members.
“Your little glass palace in totality is greater than the sum of its parts, and this is the example that you give us,” Francis said through a translator.
He asked Nespoli, “What are your thoughts regarding the place of man in the universe?"
“Holy Father, this is a complex question," Nespoli replied in Italian as NASA TV displayed an English translation for viewers. “When we speak of these much more internal questions of where we come from, I remain rather perplexed. I think that our objective here is that of knowing our being and to fill our knowledge to understand what's around us. But on the other hand, an interesting thing is that the more we know, the more we realize how little we know.”
Francis also asked why they became astronauts and what they love about spending time at the ISS.
Ryazanskiy told the pope he was honored to continue his family’s legacy. Ryazanskiy’s grandfather had worked on the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, which launched in 1957.
Francis, who has long exalted the role of grandparents, marveled at his response. “That's our strength: Never forget roots. It does me good to hear this! Thank you,” he said.
Bresnik described the overwhelming joy of looking outside and seeing “God’s creation from his perspective.”
“As we see the peace and serenity of our planet … there's no borders, no conflict. It's just peaceful,” Breskin said. “We hope that an example of what we can achieve together [in space] sets an example for the rest of the world.”
Pope Francis’ conversation with the astronauts, particularly Russian cosmonauts Misurkin and Ryazanskiy, also marked a small step toward softening Vatican-Russian relations.
When he asked the astronauts what they thought about Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s verse that love is the force that moves the universe, Misurkin said he had been listening to the audiobook of Antoine de St. Exupery’s “The Little Prince” and was moved by the young boy’s understanding of love.
“Love is the force that gives you strength to give your life for someone else,” he told the pope.
Francis, overjoyed by Misurkin’s response, said, “It's clear you have understood the message that St. Exupery so poetically explained, and that you Russians have in your blood, in your humanistic and religious tradition.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.