Blessed as the Church is, with hundreds of millions of highly intelligent men and women over the course of the last two millennia, it’s admittedly difficult to keep track of them all.

Among the greatest contributors to modern science, Catholic and otherwise, have been the Jesuits. But one Jesuit shines out from them all ― German scholar and polymath, Cardinal Athanasius Kircher.

For almost the entirety of his professional and professed life, Kircher was one of the greatest scientific minds in the world. It’s hard even now to find his equal — not only in his depth of scientific and historical understanding, but also its breadth of knowledge and professional experience.

Historian Paula Findlen called him “the first scholar with a global reputation.” Historian Alan Cutler described the priest as “a giant among seventeenth-century scholars,” and “one of the last thinkers who could rightfully claim all knowledge as his domain.” Historian Edward W. Schmidt referred to him as “the last Renaissance man” and “a champion of wonder, a man of awe-inspiring erudition and inventiveness” whose books were read “by the smartest minds of the time.” The Encyclopædia Britannica calls Fr. Kircher a “one-man intellectual clearing house.”

Dedicated as he was to empiricism, Fr. Kircher wrote extensively about his scientific experiments and eagerly synthesized and incorporated into his own research the findings of nearly 800 scientists and physicians with whom he was in correspondence.

He was the first scientist to financially support his research through the sale of his books. In fact, he wrote 40 major works in the fields in biology, physics, mathematics, acoustics, music therapy, engineering, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, comparative religion, theology, history, Egyptology, Sinology (i.e., the study of China), linguistics, geology and medicine. He is known as the “Master of a Hundred Arts.”

Kircher’s research was cutting-edge in every field. However, admittedly, he had a couple clunkers when it came to his Egyptological studies. He mistakenly misinterpreted some hieroglyphs, thinking they were symbolic (which they are not). So, we can only assert that he was super-duper smart and was otherwise terribly, terribly human. I’d like to have the same sentiment engraved on my tombstone.

Despite his mistakes, he’s still referred to as the Father of Egyptology and made the subject into a field of serious study. He was the first to note the connection between ancient Egyptian and contemporary Coptic. He also recognized the relationship between hieratic and hieroglyphic scripts and was the first to investigate the phonetic value of Egyptian hieroglyph.

He was one of the first people to observe microbes through a newly-invented microscope upon which led him to expound Germ Theory ― the idea that malaria and the plague (i.e., the Black Death) was caused by an infectious microorganism rather than “bad air” or heat, or dampness or a misalignment of the stars. In fact, he even recommended hygienic means to prevent diseases, including isolation, quarantine, burning the infected person’s clothing and wearing facemasks.

Among his inventions, Fr. Kircher also created a magnetic clock, the megaphone and several automatons. One particularly odd machine he cobbled together was a device he called Arca Musarithmica―an aleatoric music composition device that was capable of creating millions of church hymns by combining randomly selected musical phrases. It was based on Bl. Ramon Llull’s first computing device created two centuries earlier.

He had several run-ins with Protestants who wanted him dead simply because of his membership in the Catholic Church, but martyrdom eluded him. He also begged his superior to allow him to evangelize in China but the missionary’s life was also denied him. Still… he didn’t do too badly.

He wrote the world’s first sinological encyclopedia, China Illustrata (i.e., “China Illustrated”), documenting all known aspect of Chinese culture, tradition and history. He even pointed out the existence of Christians in China in the sixth century AD.

Ever the foolhardy empiricist, Fr. Kircher ordered his men to lower him into Mount Vesuvius’ crater in 1638 immediately before a major eruption in order to examine its interior. This research helped him posit subterranean oceans around the world. This theory was later confirmed by subsequent researchers. Kircher’s ideas also led later researchers to conclude that the water of these subterranean oceans was produced in the planet’s mantle rather than from ice-bearing asteroid impact billions of years ago.

He also offered the first theories of evolution describing ecological adaptions of plants and animals as the mechanism by which changes were made in living creatures. This ultimately influenced yet another devout Catholic, Jean-Baptist Lamarck, to formalize the idea into an actual evolutionary paradigm.

People often mistakenly ascribe the so-called “magic lantern” ― a precursor to modern movie and slide projectors. However, Kircher was well-familiar with the device and warned against believing charlatans who could use the lantern to fool the gullible and uneducated. Perhaps L. Frank Baum got his idea for the Wizard of Oz from Fr. Kircher’ denunciation of humbuggery and quacksalvery. Thus, in addition other being amongst the world’s first empirical scientists, Fr. Kircher was also the first scholar to advocate for zeticism, also called scientific skepticism ―the investigative means by which we can determine truth from fabrication. A zetetic is a scientific skeptic who demonstrates open-minded objectivity.

In 1633, he was called to Vienna by the emperor to succeed Kepler as mathematician to the Habsburg court. However, court intrigue put the kibosh on that idea and the priest was assigned to Rome to continue his scholarly work, instead. Unfortunately, the change in plans didn’t get to him so he innocently and dutifully made his way to Vienna. On the way, his ship was blown off course and he landed in Rome. He shrugged off the miscommunication and set about teaching mathematics, physics and Oriental languages at the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University) for many years before being released to devote himself to his own research.

Cardinal Kircher is one of the crowning intellectual overachievers of the Church. He’s proof of what good living and critical thinking can accomplish.