From the mailbag:

There Will Be Signs In The Sky, The Stars, We Are Told -- Or Is It Just Planet Venus?

 Christ said that there would be signs in the sky, and so many look for them in the twinkling of towering night lights that seem to be just such a sign.

Or is it just the planet Venus [left]?

That question is asked because last week we ran a small note from a nun in a new order that calls itself Les Thereseans (followers of the Little Way of St. Therese), which called attention to what she, a fellow nun, and a priest perceived as one such omen. In that note the foundress, Sister ReneÚ Mauser, asserted that there was an "unusual" object in the firmament to the west-northwest, and said that a local researcher first tried to explain that it was Venus, but changed his mind and said it was the North Star (Polaris, which is in the Little Dipper) and then Saturn when they countered that Polaris was more directly over head.

"Obviously, there is something up there that is not normal in the night sky, whether we can see it here only because of our location, I do not know," said Sister Mauser, who lives in a rural part of north-central Iowa.

Within hours, our mailbox was full of notes from folks around the world who reported the same.

A simple astronomical marvel, or a sign? Or both?

The position in the sky -- in the west-northwest -- and the times during which it is most often reported (around 9:30 but often up to 11:30 p.m.) indicate, in most cases, that it has been an unusually luminous display of the earth's "sister" planet.

"Some people are rather surprised when I tell them that Venus has been an evening object since mid-December," says astronomer Joe Rao of New York's Hayden Planetarium. "I've had conversations with people who staunchly claimed that Venus 'wasn't there just a week ago' and that this is the first time that they've caught sight of it. Of course, earlier in the year, Venus was considerably lower in the west-southwest sky, and setting much earlier in the evening (before 7 p.m.). But now the view is much better.

"On Feb. 22, Venus crossed the celestial equator as it plodded northward into the northern half of the sky. With each passing night, as its angular distance from the sun slowly increased, its declination in the sky was also improving in a northerly direction. So Venus' altitude at sunset began to noticeably increase and it also continued to set a bit later each night.

"Then, on March 11, most of the U.S. and Canada went on Daylight Saving Time, which meant pushing clocks forward one hour. Venus was now setting an hour later in the evening: for most locations it remained in the sky until after 9:30 p.m."

And very bright: what they call a -4.0 magnitude [see chart]. That's thirteen times brighter than the brightest star. The only brighter objects are the sun and moon (the latter of which has been dazzlingly close to Venus in the past several days).

Because it is close to earth, Venus does not twinkle, as a star does. Its bright whiteness holds steady, while stars seem to both flicker and even change color, explain astronomers. "During the first seven months of 2007 Venus will perform like an actress starring each evening in a brilliant performance," noted an article in "Viewed in the western twilight, this planet appears dazzlingly bright to the unaided eye, and more so in binoculars. It will rise higher each evening and will continue to grow in prominence all during winter and on into the spring."

By April, it had been noted, it would be increasingly evident "that the planet is making an unusual excursion into the deep-night sky."

There is a feeling to it, however, that has made many wonder if there isn't more than meets the eye. Our advice: an ear to the ground and eyes to the sky!

"About a month ago, I was totally freaked out by the bright star in the western sky as well," wrote Terry David of Landenberg, Pennsylvania. "I even called out my whole family to observe it, because it was flickering with beautiful colors. The kids told me, it's just a star, perhaps the North Star, and that the sky was just unusually clear that night. I was almost tempted to think it was a UFO, not really believing in that sort of thing."

"I noticed the very bright star in the western sky late at night and mentioned it to my friend who said that it was Venus but it was far too bright and I felt something strange about it and somehow felt that it was not Venus," wrote Ilona Fisher of Swindon, Wiltshire, in England. "I didn't argue with her as I was not sure which star it really was."

"The object is unusual not only because of its profound brightness and size, but the colors and sometimes apparent changing aspects," argued Sister Mauser, along with a fellow nun, Sister Donna McPhail, a religion teacher, and their spiritual director, Father Rubin C. Spinler.

"When we first viewed it, the 10th of May, it was a reddish orange. Now it is more brilliant in color and seems to have a shimmering bluish green at the left side. It seems to be irregular in shape, and the rays emanating from it have increased in number and their length! On two different occasions, we both saw red dots that looked like flares, approaching this object, and both times these little red dots fell down just before they reached the area around the rays of it. This object is in the right upper fourth quadrant, and located just at the arch of the dome of the firmament, and as far as we know, unless the earth is out of its proper orbit, Venus has never been sighted here. We are not seeing the moon next to it! That's the most puzzling part. And we are seeing other lights and movement of them around it."

But in most cases, from what we can tell, viewers have sighted an object coinciding with sky charts that show Venus.

"The very bright star in the western sky after sunset is the planet Venus," noted one amateur astronomer, Paul Doucet. "The scientist who called the sister was right when he said it was the planet Venus. I don't know why he changed his mind and said it was the North Star because that is certainly wrong. If he is a scientist he must have been misunderstood. When the sister said 'she knew full well that the North Star was in the Big Dipper,' she was again wrong because this is not so. The North Star is the first star in the handle of the Little Dipper." 

"I am reading with interest the note about the bright evening object," said Umberto MulÚ Stagno of Malta (Europe). "I want to write as an astronomer and also as a Catholic. I can confirm (and assure ) you it's definitely Venus, and it's been visible above the evening western horizon around the world since December 2006. Please note that Venus spends six to eight months in the western sky and is visible as the brightest object one can see apart from the sun and moon. It might be a dazzling sight and very impressive."

Indeed, the positioning always seems to be the same: west-northwest, which indicates the second closest planet to the sun.

Case closed?

"I just assumed it was Venus until I read your e-mail," said Arline T. Kendrick of Daytona Beach, Florida. "It's very bright, twinkling, and elongated... almost looks like a lighted cross in the night sky."

Stars that turn splendiferous color and even yield symbols like Aramaic lettering or the Cross have been seen from Fatima to Medjugorje.

Ironic it is that Venus is also known as the "morning star," as is the Blessed Virgin.

"I had trouble in identifying a star in Medjugorje last week -- I know well where Venus is but this bright one was a bit south-east over [Apparition Hill] where we were praying at the Blue Cross," wrote Tom Warner of Madison, Wisconsin. "Maybe I had a bit of jet lag but it did seem out of the ordinary." 

"I remember thinking at the time that this might be something like what the shepherds saw the night Jesus was born," said a reader from southern Connecticut.

"I have seen the star every night for some time now!" wrote Maria Leavitt of Racine, Wisconsin. "The first time I saw it I thought it was an airplane. I watched but it didn't move. I went back for my glasses to have a better view of it, and behold how beautiful the sight! I have called it an angel watching over us."

Sister Mauser, who has more than a passing interest in astronomy, says that the object is in the constellation of the "Herdsmen."  "No wonder it looks like the star of Bethlehem!" she said.

Indeed, this was something others perceived.

"I felt it was just like the Star of Bethlehem, like what the three wise men must have seen and followed," wrote a viewer named Jean Marie Paparelli -- one of the hundreds who contacted us, believing it to be a manifestation, or a prelude to one. "I love to look at it and it sparkled and glitters."

"This bright star has given men hope," wrote Corinne Aird of Hagersville, Ontario. "I really believe that it must be a sign of some kind. And I have often wondered if it is similar to the Star of Bethlehem."

A prophesied "light"? Might God use Venus to speak to our intuitions?

The mail came from Wales to Portland.

"About 280 degrees west over the Mediterranean a bright orange light which sometimes turned red was suspended in the sky," said a viewer in Italy.

"If you watch it close enough it appears to move closer to you, then fades back into its place," said a woman in Kansas.

"Wow, that is the brightest I've ever seen Venus!" said Joe Tritz of Custer, Wisconsin.

In one instance, a viewer from Texas described the object as to the southwest. A second Texan claimed that it behaved "very strangely." Signs? Illusions? Can not God use natural events as precursors? And is this an example?

"I live in Sydney, Australia, and am seeing the bright star that sometimes changes into a luminous Cross and I am seeing this for some time now and I make the Sign of the Holy Cross and kneel down for I know it came from God," intoned another viewer.

There was more than met the eye. There was "something inside that says it is unusual," in the words of another.

Or is it?

"It is beautiful and gives me a sense of peace each time I have seen it," said another in California.

"Look for it to become a silver Cross," said a woman in South Carolina. "This is our Lord Jesus leading His flock. As in times of old, events of biblical proportions are taking place."

In some cases, viewers wondered if it might be the Hubble, the space station, or a Russian craft. Through a telescope, two viewers in Ohio said it resembled "colliding black holes." Another said an exploding supernova. "Through binoculars, it appears to be different colors with shafts of light moving away from it in different directions." And so it went!

"We here are not trying to alarm, or sensationalize in any way, we are just telling you what we see!" said the sisters. "So far, we are seeing something much larger and brighter than any sighting of Venus in our past sightings over the years of our life. Our priest friend stated as he looked at it last night through binoculars: 'This is not a planet.' In fact, it is not one unit or mass and is actually made up of groupings of light! Some brighter than others with some movement. The groups of light look metallic in substance, not organic at all. He says that he actually saw pieces breaking away from the center core of this object. This may explain those red flare-like things we saw several days ago, except, we saw them going up to it and then falling away! Let us pray it is Venus, because we all know what awaits in days to come in God's holy will," adds Sister Mauser. "We can see what looks like Venus about a fist away from the moon, yes: we can see this also. But the object in question is far, far from the moon!

"For your information: our local TV news channel, the same one Sister Donna phoned days ago asking about the object, did a feature on the news this evening. They showed a picture of the night sky with the moon and a star immediately to the right of it, not very far away, perhaps a fist's width. They  told everyone this star is Venus. They did not pan down several many more fist widths, to the bigger, brighter object that is there now, and show this on the news, only the star close to the moon. So if the public sees this now, most will be somewhat confused because it does not match the photo on the news, but most people will probably just accept the experts, and doubt their own instincts."

Time will tell. Venus? The "love goddess"?

What astronomers predict is that in early June Venus will display a "half-moon" shape and then, during July, a large crescent. By July 12 it will double in size and be magnitude -4.3. "The planet will be most striking then," says "But with this final burst of glory, Venus will quickly fade, sliding back into the solar glare and vanishing from our view at the start of August."


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[resources: Tower of Light]