Close Encounters: A priest and a mysterious U.F.O. sighting

Manning a military searchlight in late August was no comfortable task, but Sergeant Berger’s job would become more difficult than he ever imagined. Around 8:15 on the first night of the carnival, among the aerialists and rides, his searchlight spotted a “glowing disc.” And this was not a one-time occurrence. Nine times in the following months, the parish searchlight would illuminate the impossible: a flying saucer. Unlike Father Brasky’s saw blade, the case at Saints Peter and Paul remains unsolved.

Making Sense of Mystery

The early days of flying saucer reports were full of practical jokes—along with serious, confounding sightings from military officers and pilots. Readers, and most reporters in the media, were not sure how to juggle such a contrast. From the start, the problem with flying saucers has been, among other things, a semantic one: If U.F.O. stands for unidentified flying object, then any attempt to categorize a sighting makes it an identified flying object—something else entirely.

Even today, whenever we talk about U.F.O.s, we are engaging in endless conjecture. We are always trying to imagine what they might be. With our eyes to the heavens, squinting at fast-moving discs and sporadic lights, the mind wanders. Yet in the mid-20th century, enough people reported strange objects in the sky that the government took notice. Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study of U.F.O.s, compiled over 15,000 sightings between 1947 and 1969. Nearly 700 were labeled unexplained, but another 1,000 were categorized as unknown. While the difference remains debatable, and is likely a result of poor terminology, the conclusion is clear: Although most U.F.O. reports were easily and eventually explained, a small number were scientifically curious and enigmatic.

Scientifically curious and enigmatic, though, does not make for great entertainment. Aliens do. The rest is cultural history. From the rise of the contactee movement (people who claim to have had contact with extraterrestrials) to popular films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and TV series like “The X-Files,” U.F.O.s have become interchangeable with aliens. If an object courses through the sky, we reason, someone, or something, must be flying it.

These sightings are certainly interesting to U.F.O. buffs, but what do they have to do with the Catholic Church—beyond a few priests who saw strange objects in 1949? U.F.O.s and faith both occupy a surreal space: the porous border region between the prosaic and the profound. Imagine a woman sees a glinting disc in the night sky. She first thinks it is a star, but then watches it bounce and bobble and speed into the distance. She might scratch her head and move on, but if she keeps thinking about that light, she must make a decision based on conjecture. Either she saw something entirely reasonable and typical—a plane, the planet Venus, a spotlight aimed at the sky—or she accepts that she has an unknown experience. And once she accepts the fragility of her perception, she opens the door to even more possibilities.

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