Food, a presentation and a discussion. That’s the simple-yet-successful format of Alpha, an evangelization resource that offers an open invitation to anyone desiring to know Jesus and the Christian faith better.
“A Taste of Alpha,” introducing interested parishes and ministries in the Archdiocese of New Orleans to the ways in which it can be used, was held on Jan. 25 at St. Angela Merici in Metairie.
“It’s an evangelization resource that brings people together to inquire not only about their faith but the possibility of faith,” said Dominican Father David Caron, vicar of evangelization in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, who coordinated the event.
Unwrapping what Alpha is was Joshua Danis, a Catholic with a bachelor’s in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville who is national associate director of Alpha Catholic Context.
He described Alpha as a place for honest faith-sharing and a new way to connect to people who are receptive to faith but don’t want to be beaten over the head with dogma. Alpha is an easy first step to faith or to return to it.
“Someone needs to feel like he belongs before he’s going to believe,” Danis said. “It is the best, easy on-ramp that I have experienced. Alpha is the place where we can begin that relationship that leads to a transformation (that leads to the church).”
What is Alpha?
Alpha was developed by Holy Trinity Brompton, an Anglican church in London. By the 1990s, its use had expanded to other faiths, including the Catholic faith, and is now approved by the Vatican. Today, there are 66,000 active Alpha courses in 169 countries and in 112 languages worldwide.
➤ Alpha is first a meal.
“When we eat together, something special can happen,” Danis said. “Meals break through barriers of self-protection and allow people to get more intimate with each other.”
➤ A short, compelling explanation of the Gospel follows. Parishes are encouraged to use produced videos with insights from multiple Catholic leaders. Through presentations of how Jesus transformed the lives of the saints and people today, participants begin to see how Jesus could impact their life.
“All talks are richly filled with insights directly from Catholics,” Danis said. “The goal of Alpha is to teach all those things that all Christians hold and agree upon.”
The core of the 11-week period happens in small-group conversations where people express what they feel without being challenged. This affirmation by others often leads to wanting to hear and share more, Danis said.
“What we found, more than 99 percent of people don’t have an intellectual problem with Jesus Christ … usually what they have are … emotional or spiritual wounds that are the lens from which they view spirituality,” Danis said. “In the context of Alpha, we create an opportunity for them to vocalize whatever that is. If they put it aside, it allows them to take Jesus Christ and allow him to be the lens from which they view reality.”
After 11 weeks, a Holy Spirit retreat weekend is held to offer participants deeper theology and show how the Holy Spirit is a mover within the community of believers. “If you don’t create a space for the Holy Spirit, you are wasting your time,” Danis said.
Once a parish does Alpha, he said, a Beta resource (created by parishes) continues that ongoing relationship and formation of these new disciples, whether they are totally unchurched – those farthest away from the church – or have been churched through catechism and the sacraments but have never encountered the living Jesus Christ.
What Alpha is not
➤ “It is not an in-depth catechesis,” Danis assured. “It is a spoonful of water” touching on the fundamental concepts of faith. It should be a transition point by which the church follows with in-depth catechesis.
“This isn’t easy,” he said. “It’s slow. It takes time, but it is successful.”
➤ “It is not a program. It is a means of transformation – reaching people where they are; beginning faith conversations; beginning community life in a new way. If we take this as an opportunity to teach people how to really listen and share their faith, then it becomes a launching pad for the things we really want to happen in our churches.”
➤ It is not merely a Protestant tool. “More Catholic churches are using Alpha than any other denomination.
Alpha resources are free and also available in Spanish and Vietnamese.
How it came to archdiocese
The benefits of Alpha in a Catholic context as a tool to build parishes was reinforced to Archdiocese of New Orleans leaders in several ways. Alice Hughes, director of the Religious Education office, said several archdiocesan leaders heard about Alpha at an “Amazing Parish” conference in 2015. For Father Caron, the idea was bolstered after eight bishops attending his evangelization talk during the Dominicans’ 800th anniversary in Rome mentioned they had Alpha in their dioceses and asked if the Archdiocese of New Orleans was doing it.
“Should we not be bringing this resource to the archdiocese for parishes to prayerfully reflect whether or not this can be a great resource for the local community to engage those who want to know more about their faith?” he asked those attending Jan. 25.
“The primary audience is those who don’t know the Lord at all, but it is open to anybody,” Father Caron said.” For some people, Mass is not the entrée (to faith). This might be the safe place to explore faith.”
Father Caron reiterated that it was not a program, for programs don’t save people.
“Jesus is going to save us, and Jesus and his church are going save us through the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Alpha gels with the Office of Evangelization’s mission to improve catechetics for the one third of Catholics in the archdiocese who attend Mass; to help those who have left the church and those who don’t believe in any form of religion. It also supports the church’s missionary efforts.
“We want to evangelize like Jesus,” who used a team to help spread his message. While the message hasn’t changed, “strategies to spread the message have.”
Father Caron said Alpha’s format is tailor-made for New Orleans where people love to pass a good time together over food. He hopes Alpha discussions lead participants to the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) and the sacraments.
“This is about planting a seed,” Father Caron said. “It is resources supporting a cultural change that will save us through prayer.”
Father Beau Charbonnet, pastor at St. Angela Merici in Metairie, experienced Alpha’s potential at Lakeview Christian Church in March 2016, and plans to offer it.
“The fellowship was incredible, the hospitality, the way they fed you – first through your stomach and then about the relationship with Jesus in a very loving and personal way,” he said. “Powerful bonds were formed at the table. I drew closer to Christ from it, and I wanted to bring it back to our church. This works as a means of evangelization and can be an incredible tool and outreach to bring people back and ultimately into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Discover more about Alpha at Alphausa.org/catholic or call Father Caron at 267-9650.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.