BY CHRISTOPHER GUNTY
Catholic News Service
Editor’s note: Archbishop William D. Borders was born in Washington, Indiana, in 1913. At that time, Washington was in the Diocese of Indianapolis, which also included Evansville. Our thanks to former editor Paul Leingang for this information.
BALTIMORE (CNS) — Did the Apollo 11 mission make Archbishop William D. Borders bishop of the moon?
Before Archbishop Borders became the 13th archbishop of Baltimore, he was the founding bishop of the Diocese of Orlando, which was established in 1968, covering 13 counties and 9,611 square miles in central Florida.
One of those counties, Brevard, is home to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, from which the U.S. has launched space missions since the early 1960s. (A fun fact about the area code for Brevard County: It’s 321, as in “3-2-1 liftoff.”)
The Florida Catholic newspaper of July 25, 1969, features a headline “Religious leaders praise landing of men on moon.” Then-Bishop Borders is seen in a front-page photo taken during a tour of the launch facilities on the eve of the July 16 liftoff for Apollo 11, the first mission to land men on the moon. The bishop and New York Cardinal Terrence Cooke are standing not far from the launch pad with the massive Saturn V rocket behind them.
In an article below headlined “Will moonshot affect theology?” the newspaper’s editor, Father David Page, asked various religious leaders to reflect. Cardinal Cooke said, “From the viewpoint of the moon, it will immediately become apparent to man that we on Earth are really only one family; and I think if this only sinks in, it will have tremendous spiritual significance in terms of lasting peace, understanding and brotherhood.”
Rabbi Aryeh Lev told the Florida Catholic the moon flight was another example of God revealing new things about his creation.
At the prelaunch banquet honoring the interfaith leaders, there was some tongue-incheek banter about whose diocese included the lunar territory, with Bishop Borders contending that since the mission was being launched from his diocese, it was his responsibility.
Bishop Borders apparently made that claim when he met later that year with St. Pope Paul VI for his “ad limina,” a meeting required of diocesan bishops every five years to greet the pope and discuss issues with the heads of various Vatican departments.
The pope had eagerly followed the moon mission on television and was photographed checking out the moon through a telescope at the Vatican Observatory near Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer home.
According to a remembrance written in 2016 by Renae Bennett, Orlando’s diocesan archivist, “During his visit, Bishop Borders mentioned to the pope that he was the ‘bishop of the moon.’” Responding to the pontiff’s perplexed reaction, Bishop Borders explained that according to the 1917 Code of Canon Law (in effect at that time), any newly discovered territory was placed under the jurisdiction of the diocese from which the expedition that discovered that territory originated.
“Since Cape Canaveral, launching site for the Apollo moon missions, was in Brevard County and part of the Diocese of Orlando, then in addition to being bishop of 13 counties, he was also bishop of the moon,” Bennett wrote. That would add more than 14.6 million square miles to the Diocese of Orlando, making that diocese the largest in the known universe. It’s not known whether St. Pope Paul VI affirmed that claim.