The text which follows is the extended version of an interview I recently offered LRT Radio in Lithuania, in preparation for supporting Lithuania’s International Evangelisation School. The edited version, in translation, can be heard on the radio site.
Our guest today is Fr Gareth Leyshon, a Catholic priest from the UK. Fr Gareth has been a parish priest for 12 years, but now works full-time with the Sion Community for Evangelism. Fr Gareth, could you tell us something about yourself and the community you belong to?
It’s great to be with you today! You could say I am on my 4th career at the moment! I was given my first computer in 1982. I learned to program when I was still at school. In the 1980s there were lots of “learn to program” magazines. I earned some money writing articles for them. But I was more interested in astronomy, so at school I specialised in maths and physics. I went to Oxford University for three years, and then went home to Wales for my PhD. I spent four years studying dust falling into black holes in distant galaxies – that was my 2nd career.
During the 1990s, I went on many Catholic retreats for young adults. The “Youth 2000” movement invited young people to spend time praying the rosary, adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and listening to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Towards the end of my degree, I went to one of these retreats and asked God what I should do next. Nothing clear came to me in the prayer time, but I drove a friend home from the retreat. In the car, we talked about our futures. I remember saying: “I don’t know what I’m going to do next but when I become a priest…” I stopped talking, I was so surprised at those words coming out of my mouth! So in 1999, I handed in my PhD thesis in July and started seminary in September.
Every Catholic priest either belongs to a religious community or works under the authority of a local bishop. I applied to the Archbishop of Cardiff, who is responsible for South-East Wales, and one county in England across the border. I was ordained priest in 2007 and my 3rd career was in parish ministry. I spent 6 years in one parish in the Welsh Valleys, which used to be a centre for coal mining and iron making, but had become a university town. Then I served in several parishes in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales. But I sensed God was asking me for something more – which is why I asked my bishop for permission to join the Sion Community for Evangelism.
I learned about Sion Community in the 1990s, when I met two of its founder members who had become teachers in Wales. When they started a family, they had to leave full-time mission work. Then in 2006, I spent three months training with Sion Community. Although priests spend six years in seminary, I didn’t feel well equipped to share the Catholic message with people who weren’t believers. How do we help people with no faith discover that God is real? How can we show Catholics who no longer attend church that God is inviting them to meet him there? What can we say to Catholics who do go to Mass, to help them discover that Jesus is alive and wants to speak to their hearts? Why don’t many Catholics want to invite other people to come to church and know Jesus? My bishop gave me permission to attend a three-month course with Sion Community to find out.
As a newly ordained priest, I had no free time to keep up my links with Sion Community. But in 2016, my bishop made some changes to my duties which gave me enough space to become a part-time, or ‘Associate’ member of the community. That meant that I could help out with parish missions – going to another parish for a week to preach at daily services and assist with confessions. It also meant I could attend the two community gatherings each year, spending time with other Catholics – mostly laity, not clergy – people who were passionate about sharing the message of Jesus. During those years of part-time membership, I experienced an overwhelming joy every time I assisted with a mission or attended a community gathering. This led me to ask my bishop for permission to leave my parish and be a full-time missionary – so I began my 4th career, as a Sion Community Missionary, in January last year.
Before coronavirus, the full time missionary work took me to parishes in Scotland, Ireland and Wales for weeks of preaching. I also helped our school mission team to work in several schools in England. With school pupils, we use music, drama, videos and, for the younger children, puppet shows, to share the message that God loves us and Jesus wants to teach us how to love other people. Right now, we cannot visit schools or parishes. We are learning how to make video resources and connect with young people, safely, through social media.
Are you a Catholic believer from your childhood? Which love did come first – science or faith?
I became a Catholic when I was 16 years old. Wales in the 1970s was a Christian culture. Most children were sent to some kind of church – Anglican, Methodist, Baptist or Catholic. Even the Government-run schools had Christian prayers every morning. Both my parents grew up as members of the Anglican Church, but stopped worshipping when they were teenagers. Dad isn’t sure that there is a God – he would call himself agnostic. Mum believes there is Someone but doesn’t let it affect her life. I was baptised as an Anglican at 9 months – my grandfather was an active member of that church, and made sure that happened. When I was old enough to go to children’s church, my parents sent me to a local evangelical group called the Salvation Army.
My love for science came long before I took an interest in God. As a child, I loved reading books, and would go every week to the children’s library in town to borrow something new to read. At the age of 7, I discovered the science section. As soon as I had read a book about space, I wanted to know more – within a few months, I had read every astronomy book they had! Then my parents bought me a telescope so I could study the planets and stars at night.
Faith only came to me when I was 11 years old. I learned about Bible stories from Sunday School with the Salvation Army – and at weekday school. But I never asked myself if I thought they were real. I knew how to say the right words when it was my turn to pray, but I never asked if I was really ‘talking to someone’. Then, in February 1985, my grandmother died. It was the first time I’d lost a grandparent when I was old enough for that to hurt. I said the first serious prayer of my life: “God, if you are there, look after my grandmother – and show me you are real.”
What happened next is difficult to put into words. Over the next few weeks, I had a definite sense that Someone was there when I prayed. I would pray for lost things to be found, and they would be found quickly. I read about the different religions in the world. Who was this Someone I was connecting with?
Later that same year, I started Secondary School, and was given a Bible to read. You might have heard of the Gideon Society, who leave Bibles in hotel rooms around the world? In Wales in the 1990s, they tried to give every child a copy of the New Testament and Psalms. The gift came with a request to read the Bible every day, and it came with a 2-year reading plan. So in 2 years I had read the whole of the New Testament. It seemed to me that the Someone I was connecting with by praying was the same Jesus I met in the pages of the Bible. There was no other religion in the world whose founder had passed through death and returned alive!
Much of what the Bible asked me to do, I was already doing. I tried my best to be kind, help other people, and forgive quickly. But there was one thing Jesus asked me to do that I wasn’t already doing: to eat his flesh, and drink his blood. I was still going to church on Sundays, but the Salvation Army didn’t offer Holy Communion. So I read about the other kinds of church, and I discovered that the Catholic Church had believed for 2000 years that when a priest blessed bread and wine, it really becomes Jesus’ Body and Blood. I also read about places like Lourdes and Fatima. If the Mother of Jesus was appearing and asking people to pray the rosary, the Catholic Church must be doing a good thing! So at the age of about 14, I decided that I wanted to be a Catholic. But it took two more years for me to find the courage to tell my parents and start going to Mass! I became a Catholic at the Easter Vigil in 1990, at the age of 16.
So I fell in love first with science, then with Jesus, then with the Catholic Church. Science was my first loved, and it shaped my decisions for university. I applied to the famous Oxford University and was accepted to read Physics. There, I fell in love with a girl for the first time in my life – but it didn’t work out. I started thinking about priesthood before I left Oxford, but the chaplains there said I was too new as a Catholic to be ready to make that decision. Instead, I worked in another English University, Nottingham, as a chaplain’s assistant for a year. Then Cardiff University offered me a funded place to research Black Holes!
Gravity is the most powerful physical force in the universe. A star shines because it’s a nuclear reactor, but when it runs out of suitable fuel to burn, gravity takes over. It’s the heat from the nuclear reactions which keeps the heart of a star bubbling up at a particular size. When a star reaches the end of its life, its heart collapses and its outer shell is blown off into space. You’ve probably seen beautiful pictures of space clouds from the Hubble Space Telescope? Many of those are the outer shells of exploded stars. But gravity can crush the heart of the star into something so tiny that, with all the matter piled up in one place, nothing – not even light – can travel fast enough to overcome the gravity. That’s what we call a Black Hole.
We think that many, if not all, galaxies have a black hole at their centre. A galaxy is a collection of hundreds of millions of stars bound together by gravity. The stars swirl around each other, often forming spiral patterns – but if they travel too close to the heart of the galaxy, they will be torn apart by the Black Hole and add to its power. The more stuff that falls into the black hole, the stronger it gets. But like water flowing down your plughole, stuff can’t fall straight into the Black Hole – if too much of it tries to go in at once, it creates a ring with the inner edge falling in first. My PhD work was to study these rings, and see if light from the hot gas there behaved in the ways that scientists predicted. My conclusion was that it did – but the evidence was not strong because the signals were so hard to measure.
Half-way through my PhD I had to start thinking about my next career move. Did I wish to become a teacher? Did I want to continue scientific research? But that was when I drove home from a youth retreat and found myself declaring that I wanted to be a priest!
Can faith and science fundamentally match together? How do you personally reconcile the fact that you are PhD in astrophysics and a priest?
Any scientist is a truth-seeker. How does the Universe work? What does the evidence say? We build on our knowledge of things which are certain, to explore ideas which are uncertain. Scientists have good imaginations. We produce thousands of ideas! But we must test our ideas against the real world, and nature is always right! A professional scientist needs lots of humility; the scientist must always recognise truth, even when it means letting go of his or her own ideas.
My journey into faith was also a search for truth. What do the different religions in the world say? Which one matches my experience of prayer? Which one makes predictions which I can test out in my life?
I had several data points to work with. First, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead – and hundreds of martyrs died in the first Christian century for insisting that it was true. Second, the places that the Virgin Mary had appeared, asking people to go to Mass and pray the rosary. Third, the things Jesus said about people who follow him. Would we experience answered prayer? Would we experience the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit? When I was a very new believer, God seemed to give positive answers to my simple prayers for lost things. I don’t get instant answers to prayers now, but I understand that is part of growing up with God. There comes a point where God says: “Do you love the things I can give you, or will you love Me even without them?” So I would say that my choices to believe in God and to become a Catholic were very ‘scientific’ decisions.
Why does the Universe exist? There are three ways of answering that question. One is to say it had no beginning and has ‘always’ existed so it doesn’t need a reason. Another is to say that ‘God made it’ – but any small child will then ask, ‘Who made God?’. The third is to come up with a scientific reason why a universe can start existing – and because the universe contains everything that exists, that’s a problem of creating something from nothing. For the last 100 years, science has studied ways of creating ‘something from nothing’, which happens as part of what we call quantum mechanics. At the level of individual atoms, the universe is fuzzy, and for a very short moment of time, particles can come into existence and then disappear again. This is called the ‘Casimir Effect’ and although it sounds strange, it can be measured in a laboratory. We have demonstrated that mathematical truth is powerful enough to make things start existing. It’s not such a large leap after that to imagine that mathematical truth can make something exist which doesn’t disappear in a fraction of a second, too! So as a scientist, I would say that it is Truth which makes the Universe exists – but as a believer, I would say that Truth is another name for God.
Now, did God have to nudge the Universe as it grew and developed to produce what we see today? Did God have to set the laws of physics just right so stars would have time to shine for millions of years? Did God nudge the origins of life on earth or the development of human beings? I don’t know. I believe that God CAN intervene and work miracles. But the history of science tells me of many examples where we first said “That step in the history of a star or a species is so unlikely that only God could make it happen” – and then we discovered something we didn’t know before which gives an explanation with no need for God’s help! So I will never rush to say “God is the answer!” when faced with a difficult science problem.
There are some Christians who find it difficult to accept all that science tells us. If you believe every word in the Bible is literally true, then you quickly run into problems with science. When you add up the ages of everyone in the Old Testament, our world seems to be about 6,000 years old; the scientific evidence says 4,600,000,000. Archaeologists say human beings have been around for 300,000 years and in Europe for 40,000 years. Of course God COULD have created the world 6,000 years ago making it look like it had been around for millions of years already; without a time machine to go back and check, there’s no way to tell the difference! But as Catholics, we are not required to take every word in the Bible literally. We can read the Book of Nature as well as the Book of Scripture – God speaks through both. Even St John Paul II said that they theory of evolution was ‘more than a hypothesis’, recognising that it was the best scientific explanation for the origin of human life. But that doesn’t stop me believing that God adds a spiritual essence, a soul, to each new human being, and that soul continues to live after the body dies.
I no longer work in scientific research; my ministry as a priest requires my full attention to other duties. But I still identify myself as a ‘scientist’ and I rejoice that there are priests who do work as full-time scientists, some of them running the Vatican Observatory!
How do you talk about God to a modern person? What is actually more important – to know God by intellect or to have a living experience with Him?
Let’s start with the word ‘God’. I’ve learned, in my ministry as a priest, that this word, this name, means different things to different people. Often I am approached by a young adult who went to Catholic School, and now wants to have a baby baptised. I ask, “Tell me the story of where God is in your life?” Usually the person will say: “I got baptised, made my first communion, went to a Catholic School, maybe got confirmed” – and I say, “I’m glad the Church was such a big part of your life. But where was God?”
Now one of two things will happen. Half the time, the young adult tells me about church again. For these young people, the word “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. The other half will say: “God is always there. When I am sad, he makes me happy. When I need help, I pray.” That’s better, because at least they know God is a Someone. But they haven’t realised that Jesus came to help us know God as our Father; they don’t know that God asks us to connect with Him at Mass because he loves us. I once spoke to a young Polish woman and asked: “When you were confirmed, didn’t they tell you that God was a Father who loves you?” Her eyes opened wide – and for the first time, she heard it and believed. I’m sure they don’t forget to tell children that message in Poland – but it was only on that day that she was ready to hear it.
In the same way, as a child I learned many stories from the Bible, but I didn’t ask whether I believed they were true until my grandmother died. Then, suddenly, it mattered to know the answer! Now, when I work with children preparing for First Communion, I always say: “You’ve learned lots of stories from the Bible. But do you believe Jesus rose from the dead? Do you think he really came to help us know God Our Father?” Until it becomes real – until it becomes personal – our faith isn’t a living thing. So absolutely, it is important to not just know God in our minds but connect with him in our hearts.
In philosophy, there are many so-called ‘proofs’ that God exists. They use logic to show that there must be a First Cause, an Unmoved Mover, a Ground of all Being. It makes sense that to avoid an infinite chain of cause and effect, something or someone must be at the beginning. For some people, this kind of logic is enough to come to know that God exists. But this kind of God, a powerful Truth that summons all things into existence, can feel quite cold. Jesus came to show us that God is not an impersonal, mathematical, force but a loving person who longs to know us as his children.
In my time as a Catholic, I’ve met many people who have had a deep emotional experience of becoming aware of God’s love – a personal love for them alone. I’ve never had that kind of experience; my journey is an intellectual one of knowing that Jesus speaks truth and so I am certain that God is present as a loving Father. I might never experience that love emotionally until I die and reach heaven – but the knowledge that it is true is enough to commit my life to the work of a priest and of a missionary.
Jesus said “Go and make disciples of all nations.” My calling is to invite people to listen to Jesus and follow him, trusting that this will give them a beautiful life not only in this world but for eternity. Not everyone accepts the message – but Jesus gave us the Parable of the Sower to warn us that many of our seeds will fall on ground which is not ready. To any modern person willing to listen, I will say: Seek the Lord and you will find him – but be warned, this is a life changing experience. So God says “seek with all your heart”. If you are ready for your life to be transformed, dare to do what I did. Say: God if you’re there, show me!