By the time you read this, the Synod on The New Evangelisation for the Transmission of the Christian Faith will have started. The title is a rather cumbersome one, but one hope the participants will get down to work and do what it says on the tin.
The Vatican has published a list of those taking part, including a group of “experts” and a group of “auditors”. It makes interesting reading, and can be seen here. It is nice to see, for example, that there are participants from the Palestinian Territories and from Lebanon, as well as several experts on Islam. But this is something we should expect from Benedict XVI, so recently returned from Lebanon, given his longstanding interest in the Islamic world.
But what really intrigued me about the list was the inclusion of a French couple, Marc and Florence de Leyritz, who are leading lights in Alpha France.
I have written about the Alpha course before now in the print edition of the Catholic Herald, and I am very pleased to think that two experts on Alpha in a Catholic context will be present at the Synod. After all, the Alpha course has been instrumental in doing for many people just what the Synod’s title implies, that is, transmitting the Christian faith.
When I wrote about Alpha for the Herald, there were some interesting letters in response from people whose opinion I value. Alpha, it seems to me, is primarily a method, an approach, an instrument that enables you to evangelise. Faith, we know, is caught rather than taught, and Alpha is a good way of bringing people together and getting them interested in faith; putting them in the sort of environment where faith seems not weird or odd (as it so often does in contemporary Britain), but rather the most natural thing in the world. Once that spark of interest is aroused, then one can go one to deliver the content of faith, the teaching. But Alpha is right, as I see it (for I am no expert) in putting experience first.
Thus one should not worry that the Alpha course is going to replace RCIA or the sort of instruction that priests traditionally give converts one to one. That is not its purpose. It is for those making the initial enquiry.
Those who do not “get” Alpha might like to picture this: when on holiday I sometimes go to mass in lay dress. In some churches I see a sparse congregation gather, but by the end of the Mass I think that, really, it is remarkable that anyone is there at all, so cold and unwelcoming is the feel of the place. The congregation might speak to each other, but they ignore you, the stranger. This has been my experience, and it is an uncomfortable one, and a common one. Sometimes people say to me that they have been attending Saint X’s for several years “and no one has ever spoken to me”. A congregation like that is not really open to new members.
What was it the Bible said about “I was a stranger and you made me welcome”?
But there are welcoming churches. Years ago, I went to Mass on Christmas morning in Maraval, Trinidad. I had just flown in the night before. One of my brothers was going to pick me up after Mass, but the Mass ended rather earlier than I expected and I was left standing in the car park twiddling my thumbs. The congregation left the car park bit by bit, and each of them stopped, seeing the stranger, and asked me if I would like to come and join them for breakfast. I was rather taken aback, being so English, but after a time I realised that his was the local way, the Christian way. So, whenever I think of what a welcoming church ought to be like, I think of that church in Maraval. Kudos to them. And I think too of all the churches I visited in Kenya.
What Alpha does is provide us with a strategy (there may be others too) through which we can be welcoming to people, in a way that is natural and actually quite English. It enables us to evangelise over the dinner table, without even talking much about religion. It replaces talking about faith (though that happens too) with “being faith”.
Those people who invited me to breakfast in Trinidad all those years ago – they didn’t say “Do you want to talk about the Christian faith?” Rather they showed it in action. They too were evangelists, perhaps more than they knew.