One of the most popular “learning experiences” that has emerged during this time of New Evangelization is the Alpha Course. I know from experience how powerful this workshop is, and hope that we will be able to bring it to our parish family at Assumption Parish.
Designed for anyone considering returning to the church, those who are trying to understand the Christian faith better, and any Christians who would like to brush up on the basics, the Alpha Course offers answers to many of the key questions we often ask ourselves when it comes to living the full life God intended. If you fall into any of the above, then Alpha is for you!
Beginning in 1983, Pope John Paul II called the Church to a “new evangelization: new in its ardor, methods, and expression.” In his 1990 encyclical The Mission of the Redeemer he explained that the New Evangelization is a renewed proclamation of the Gospel, especially in those countries “where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel.” He emphasized that all Catholics are called to share in this mission: “No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples.” This emphasis on evangelization builds on the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation Evangelization in the Modern World (1975). Since then, Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have strongly reaffirmed the call to the New Evangelization.
Alpha is series of ten interactive sessions designed to present the Gospel and the essentials of Christian faith in a dynamic way that reaches the hearts of men and women today. Each session includes a meal, a video talk, and small group discussion. There is also a retreat experience in the middle of the course. Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, is meant to introduce first-order questions of life, such as “What is the meaning of life?” Alpha is an opportunity for people to ask any question about the Christian faith or the meaning of life in a non-threatening environment. As a result, Alpha leads many participants to become Christians or to deepen their Christian faith. Over 23 million people around the world have experienced Alpha and interest continues to expand across all denominations.
The main audience for Alpha is non-believers or “seekers,” especially people outside of any church who are willing to explore the meaning of life. However, churchgoers and even strong Christians often have a spiritual awakening or renewal of their faith through Alpha. Alpha focuses on the initial proclamation of the Gospel, but other tools should follow afterward for catechesis and deeper spiritual formation. Alpha offers specialized sessions designed to meet the needs of a variety of groups including youth, college students, military personnel, marketplace workers, prisoners, or in any environment where guests can gather and one or more small groups can be formed. Principally, it is the same Alpha offered in a variety of contexts.
In calling for a New Evangelization, recent popes have emphasized the need for Catholics to encounter Christ personally themselves, and to invite others to faith in him both by word and by the witness of their lives. Alpha is a powerfully effective tool for accomplishing these aims. The Alpha talks communicate the essentials of the Gospel in an attractive, compelling way that reaches the hearts of those who are seeking, questioning, doubting, or thirsting for more. Participants in Alpha—both those who are already practicing Catholics and those who are not—often experience a profound personal encounter with Christ in which they discover his love and are moved to commit their lives more deeply to him. At the same time, Alpha provides a simple, non-threatening setting to which Catholics can invite their unchurched friends, neighbors and coworkers who are interested in exploring questions of faith. Alpha is a means of evangelization that is not intended to be all encompassing. Rather, it serves as an initial proclamation of the Gospel which necessarily requires continuing catechesis and ongoing spiritual formation.
All the talks take place weekly. Following an introductory talk on exploring the meaning of life, Alpha offers three talks on the person and message of Jesus, followed by three talks on how to grow in faith. Then there is a retreat experience focusing on the Holy Spirit and an invitation to faith. The “retreat” sessions takes place on one Saturday ending by the early afternoon. The final four talks focus on personal transformation and healing, mission, and becoming part of the church. Here is the list of talks:
Introduction: “Is There More to Life Than This?
Talk 1: Who is Jesus?
Talk 2: Why Did Jesus Die?
Talk 3: How Can We Have Faith?
Talk 4: Why and How Do I Pray?
Talk 5: Why and How Do I Read the Bible?
Talk 6: How Does God Guide Us?
Retreat talk 1: Who is the Holy Spirit?
Retreat talk 2: What Does the Holy Spirit Do?
Retreat talk 3: How Can I Be Filled with the Holy Spirit?
Retreat talk 4: How Can I make the Most of the Rest of My Life?
Talk 7: How Can I Resist Evil?
Talk 8: Why and How Should I Tell Others?
Talk 9: Does God Heal Today?
Talk 10: What about the Church?
The Alpha retreat experience invites guests to experience conversion and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Although Catholics have already received the Holy Spirit through Baptism and Confirmation, various factors, including the effects of a predominantly secular culture, can hinder these sacraments from reaching their full fruitfulness in an individual’s life. There is need for an actualization or “fanning into flame” of the gift already received (cf. 2 Tim 1:6). Think of it like this: the Holy Spirit is like a pilot light in a gas oven—always present but not necessarily seen or experienced. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is like turning up the gas, as the early Christians experienced in Acts 4:31. Recent popes have emphasized the need for the Church to experience a new Pentecost in order to carry out the New Evangelization: “Renew your wonders in our time, as though for a new Pentecost….” (Pope John XXIII homily, Christmas Mass, December 25, 1961) and “It is the Paraclete Spirit, the Comforter, who grants us the courage to take to the streets of the world, bringing the Gospel! The Holy Spirit makes us look to the horizon and drive us to the very outskirts of existence in order to proclaim life in Jesus Christ.” (Pope Francis homily, Pentecost Mass, May 19, 2013)
According to Pope Paul VI, evangelization must use means best suited for communicating the Gospel to men and women of our times, including the witness of an authentically Christian life, explicit preaching, proclamation of the Gospel during the Liturgy of the Word, catechetical instruction, the use of mass media, personal contact, integration with the sacramental life, and popular piety properly understood. The General Catechetical Directory further explains that Catholic methodology should involve inductive and deductive methods, small groups, and reflection on human experience.
The U.S. Bishops’ document on the New Evangelization, Disciples Called to Witness, points out that 77% of Catholics do not attend Mass on a weekly basis. Of the 23% who do, only a small proportion identify themselves as disciples of Jesus or share their faith with others. This indicates that the vast majority of Catholics are missing something essential. As Saint John Paul II pointed out, many Catholics have been catechized without ever having been evangelized. That is, they have never heard “the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith.” Alpha provides this ardent proclamation and thus serves as an excellent tool for the re-evangelization of lifelong Catholics.
If you wish to hear again or for the first time the ardent proclamation of the Gospel, then RSVP to the invitation to “Come and See.” You can find out when the next Alpha Course will begin by calling the rectory (631-585-8760) and leaving your name and phone number, or by emailing Maria at email@example.com.