|Fr Stephen Dingley|
Meeting Fr Stephen at St John’s Seminary in the delightful country village of Wonersh was going to be interesting, but maybe rather dull - given his obvious academic qualifications. On arrival at what must be described as a slightly faded version of one of the famous Oxbridge Colleges, one was ushered up the grand staircase to Fr Stephen’s study. Knocking on his door felt very reminiscent of visiting the headmaster for a reprimand. “Come” was the response. Well, a smile that could melt the largest iceberg appeared in the doorway. Relaxation was instant and we settled down with a mug of tea to talk in his book-lined place of work.
You were born at a very young age. What is your background?
“The Smile” became even broader.
Yes, I was very young! I was born in 1965 in Sutton and I come from a Catholic family – although my mum was a convert when I was about 7 years. My father was born in Malta and came to England in 1936 and my parents and sister, we are all very close. However, I inherited a non-Catholic grandfather, which did create some tensions at times.
One of my earliest memories was watching the moon landing and then making a rocket out of cardboard. I was 4 years old!
How did you start on your vocational journey?
I guess it all started when I was at the John Fisher School in Purley, a place which has produced a notable number of priests. Having said this, at the time my mind was set on going into the sciences as a career and one day getting married. However, I should explain further – at 13 years old there was this nagging notion that I should go into the priesthood, but I quite clearly told God this thought was stupid. My blood ran cold at this prospect!
Next, it was university in Cambridge…but that thought still would not go away. One day I went to the university chaplain to try to sort out my mind. His advice was to take on the research project I had just begun and, when completed, to consider what I wanted to do. So I followed his advice.
Research, which lasted 4½ years, took the form of work in radio astronomy. It was a very happy time in my life, but after a while I felt that there would be more to my life than astronomy.
So, where did you go from there in the world of science?
Research was a good thing as it deepened my sense of what a wonderful place God has created. I have a fascination with the vastness of space, with God being the ultimate in the universe and in our lives. Astronomy has been especially important from when I was an undergraduate.
Having finished my research, I took a few months’ “gap” to decide where my life was going.
After a while and with a degree of anxiety I spoke to a number of priests, eventually plucking up courage to ring Fr Kieran O’Brien, who was vocations director. I was shaking! It was a crisis moment and I was beginning to realise that my life was out of my control as God had a plan for me to follow. It was He, through Bishop (now Cardinal) Cormac, who would determine what happened next. My feelings were confirmed a few months later when I was offered a job in my old laboratory. I did not accept this offer as something was telling me I had another path to tread.
It was an odd feeling finally applying for the priesthood. Having resisted for so long – and having finally given into what seemed like a lot of pressure from God – what would happen if I was turned down? How would I feel about it then? Frankly, I just didn’t know.
Interestingly, my parents were not surprised. They said they had guessed long before!
At this point did your scientific experience (and since then) give you any concerns over your Faith and what you were about to do?
Quite the opposite, in fact. One of the most precious things I gained at the John Fisher School was a clear understanding that religion and science go together very happily. I would not have taken this decision to offer myself for priesthood, let alone come here to St John’s and do the job I am doing if I had concerns.
Part two tomorrow