By Deacon John McGregor
Over the past 50 years, the Catholic Church has placed an extraordinary emphasis on the laity’s role to evangelize their everyday environment. Pope Paul VI in his encyclical, Evangelization in the Modern World, writes that “she [the Church] exists in order to evangelize.” (14) Clearly, the renewal of the missionary impulse can be seen in the documents flowing out of the Second Vatican Council and those subsequent to the Council.
However, lay Catholics often feel inadequately prepared to evangelize and in fact confuse evangelization with certain forms of apologetics, which in fact, may be useful for winning arguments but not very useful in bringing others to Christ. And bringing others to an encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ is precisely the work of evangelization. Still, many lay Catholics, themselves, have never been evangelized, making the work of sharing one’s faith in a pluralistic culture extremely difficult or nearly impossible, especially one that is largely populated by a non-Catholic prevailing religious ethos and an increasing number of secularists. The old saying, “you can’t give what you don’t have” comes to mind.
So, if evangelization is about bringing others to an encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ, then maybe what is needed is a means of inviting others into a neutral environment where they can deeply consider, possibly for the first time, the real meaning of life, the real reason we are here, how to begin anew after all that has happened in their life, and how Christ provides the answer to all of life’s enduring questions.
To this end, of creating a neutral place where a person can honestly ask questions and voice disbelief, all without anyone judging them, our parish at St. Jude Pearl has begun using the Alpha course. Our first Alpha, earlier this year, included about 34 guests, most of whom were members of St. Jude. However, our second Alpha has over 40 guests and more than a dozen are non-parishioners. Additionally, St. Jude is running a Youth Alpha with over 30 young people participating.
Alpha was developed in the 1970s by the Anglican Church as a way to help those who were unchurched or who had simply drifted away from the church to hear the fundamental message of salvation – the kerygma. Alpha has had wide success throughout the world and has been used in over 100 countries, is available in 100 different languages and has been experienced by more than 24 million people. Alpha has found great success in the Catholic Church and is lauded by such renowned Catholic figures as Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household, Father Mike Schmitz, who regularly produces podcasts for Ascension press and by many bishops and archbishops in the United States and worldwide.
So Alpha is Catholic and ecumenical, precisely because it focuses on the fundamentals of the Christian faith: God loves you, unconditionally; Jesus is the human manifestation of God; and Jesus’ death and resurrection has reconciled the world to God.
So how does an Alpha work? It begins with a meal, followed by a short video (less than 30 minutes), followed by table discussion and sharing (for about another 45 minutes). There is never any force applied, nor coercion used. Guests attending Alpha are invited to share whatever they think, to be heard without being judged and to be invited to encounter Jesus, where they are, as they are. Alpha can be run in a parish center, at a university meeting room, in someone’s home, almost anywhere. And all of the videos, discussion materials and training materials can be downloaded absolutely free at www.alphausa.org.
Alpha provides a framework and a neutral environment for inviting people to encounter Jesus Christ. Lay Catholics, who feel uncomfortable witnessing to others in their everyday environment may feel a lot more comfortable simply inviting their friends and coworkers to an Alpha. “What’s an Alpha?” they may ask. One can reply, “It’s simply a place where we share a meal, watch a video and discuss life’s most important questions, all in an environment where nobody will judge you or criticize you for your answers.” In this environment, one’s friends or coworkers will have an opportunity to encounter the Person of Jesus Christ and in doing so, we will be actively participating in the Great Commission given by Jesus to the whole Church, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19)
(Deacon John McGregor of St. Jude Pearl is the director of the permanenat diaconate and director of operations for the Diocese of Jackson.)