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It is good that the Alpha course will be represented at the Synod

The method offers Christians a way to live the faith

By on Monday, 8 October 2012

Cardinals attend the Mass for the opening of the Synod AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

Cardinals attend the Mass for the opening of the Synod AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

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.

  • Mikethelionheart

    Good news.
    There is a real cowardice amongst Catholics about evangelising. 
    Too often people give that St Francis quote about evangelising without using words. Fair enough, but I always suspect that’s just an excuse for not bothering and that those people are not evangelising with or without words.
    When I came back to Christianity my obvious first course of action was to go to a Catholic church (having been ‘raised’ a Catholic). However, no one spoke to me, the place seemed dead and dull, the mass was meaningless and boring (Catholics really do think people will just know the importance of the mass without it being taught to them) so I ended up in a protestant church where people seemed like what I thought Christians should be like, people made a fuss and made an effort to actually teach Christianity (blimey, imagine if Catholic priests actually did that).
    Every Catholic church should be a centre of evangelisation. 
    Every Catholic priest should be offering catechism classes.
    What, exactly, is the point of spending thousands on training priests up to a nearly doctorate level of education for 5 to 7 years and then when they actually are priests all they teach is 5 minute light and fluffy sermons that say very little.
    Our churches should be bustling centres of community, teaching and evangelisation.

  • kentgeordie

    Lion-hearted Mike is so right to say that our churches should be both evangelically fervent and warmly welcoming. I echo both his experience and the sentiment expressed in the article: I’ve been coming here for years and nobody knows my name. We have so much to learn from the protestant churches in this regard.
    What to to about it is another trickier matter. I don’t think tea and biscuits after Mass is the answer – you pluck up your courage, you go into the hall, and nobody talks to you. We need to change the culture, which is a difficult task, but like everything else in every organisation, strong leadership can be decisive.

  • Charlie Angel

    Some very good points here, both in the main article and comments below.

    I am a convert from a Methodist background and one of the big differences that I found  in church culture was this very issue of a friendly and welcoming environment at Mass, particularly for newcomers. And as has been noted, just saying ‘there’s tea and coffee afterwards’ is not going to be enough if everybody stays in their familiar huddles and doesn’t notice strangers.

    One simple solution – although it requres some level of organisation and commitment – is a common feature in Methodist churches and can work extremely well. A team of volunteers commit to being stewards. They have name badges and a clearly defined role. They stand at the door and welcome everyone as they come in. But they’re not just there to hand over hymn books and say good morning. They keep an eye out for newcomers and make sure they’re felt welcome. Even simple things like telling them where the toilets are especially if they have children. The latter being extremely important – if new families don’t feel welcome, then surely it’s obvious that it doesn’t bode well for the future of a community?

    And even more importantly than welcoming newcomers as they come in, the stewards then make sure that they are positioned at the back at the end of worship. This way they can be there to chat further and stop the quick getaway that is inevitable if people are too nervous to introduce themselves. If the right stewards are picked then they can be the perfect host – just like at a party – and introduce the stranger to those that they think might be good people to talk to.

    Yes it’s a commitment and I can hear the groans already of an overworked priest who doesn’t want to contemplate yet more teams to organise. But with a little delegation to someone who knows the congregation and the right characters to pick, then you can have an excellent resource within your community. And remember – that garrulous chatty type might not particularly want to do the cleaning or flowers but ask him or her to be the official host of gathering, and they will readily step forward.

    And with that, a church is transformed from the cold unwelcoming sepulchures that we have all experienced to the wam place that embodies Christ’s welcome.

  • Benedict Carter

    I totally agree on the welcoming front. Not sure about all the name badges though, it sounds like a Las Vegas Convention. 

    In Moscow our Anglo-Irish Parish Priest makes a point of asking newcomers to briefly introduce themselves to everyone before Mass starts. Any he misses are pointed out to him before the bell sounds. This works at making the person feel part of the parish very quickly and easily, and afterwards there are always people going up to the newcomer and saying “hello” and having a chat. This is how it should be – the welcome comes from the parish to the new member, not the other way round.

    Alpha Course: Father, you don’t give any details at all about how it works. Can anyone write about this?

  • EndTimes101

     If it is anything like the CofE version then you won’t like it Benedict….

  • Benedict Carter

    I had a sinking feeling in my stomach when I read Father’s article. 

    Why can’t we just go back to the “Old Evangelisation”? It means stuff like:

    a)  You know the Catholic faith inside out;
    b)  Not only CAN talk about it but you look for ANY opportunity to talk about it;
    c)  You show your Faith in public – I for instance in any cafe or restaurant make a small Sign of the Cross and say Grace before eating. I look down while I’m doing it, but I know people notice and some will no doubt think about it. 

  • EndTimes101

     Good post, though im not sure i would put it down to cowardice where the average Catholic is concerned. They just don’t have the skills or learned even a few basic techniques on how to approach people or deal with rejection. Even basic sales techniques would be better than nothing in terms of approach. Then what about content once you have someone engaged? It is fellow Catholics that need to be evangelised first…. try and find a Parish with a Catechism class for Catholics or even a weekly scripture class. In my experience in London it is very rare….

  • Michaeljohnwhelan

    I don’t like the idea of newcomers introducing themselves before Mass starts. I have a stammer and it can be excruciatingly embarrassing to stand up and introduce myself. I cannot even say my own name at times. I would definitely avoid any church were this happened.

    God bless.

  • Cjkeeffe

    Alpha is a CoE plaything. And from what i’ve seen not much cop. We should use teh Echoes course run by Maryvale Insititute or The Evnagelium programme by the CTS. It would be nice for catholics to recieve catholic cathchitics (spelling??) rather than CoE lite programmes.

  • scary goat

     Overall, to be honest, I have had good experiences in these things, but I do know how important that is. I remember the little old lady who recognised that I was an “outsider” and slipped into the seat beside me and told me that I can go up for a blessing and explained what to do and when, I remember the nuns who made sure to come and chat with me, the ladies who made the effort to come over and speak to me in the coffee-morning, and the priest who was waiting outside by the door after Mass to greet the people, and realising that I was a stranger, engaged me in conversation, and then realising that I was non-Catholic, invited me for a cup of tea and a chat.  It makes the world of difference to have a warm experience, whether you already know theoretically why you have gone there or whether you have just wandered in to see what’s going on.  It takes so little effort to be aware of the people in surrounding seats, and it’s so easy to notice what “category” the stranger is in so as to be able to approach them appropriately, a foreign Catholic who might just need a little help finding the right page in the Missal, a complete stranger who hasn’t got a clue, a young non-practising couple with a baby, etc.  It’s not difficult to be friendly and it’s something we all need to make sure we do.  Christmas is a very obvious opportunity that we should be aware of.  A lot of “others” turn up at Christmas, just for a “romantic” experience, the icing on the cake…..they must be aware of some feeling of wanting something deeper than just a shopping-binge-greed-fest for Christmas otherwise they wouldn’t be there at all, and the impression we give at these occasions is probably more important than we realise.  

  • Hermit

         My practice is to greet people with a smile or a jerk with the hand. As a rule others answer. But since I do it regularly and to anyone that I encounter, by time those who fail to somehow answer will start responding.

         In my heart I feel God’s loving greeting passing through me onto others and I convince myself that what is important is not that others greet me but that I greet others. Genuine love expects nothing.

  • JabbaPapa

    Alpha is less crappy than what existed previously.

    errrr, that’s it.

  • Edwards-j18

    Not everybody wants to be welcomed. When,as a wavering Anglican,I started attending Mass some 55 years ago,I really appreciated the formality and dignity of the atmosphere. I was anonymous,and preferred to be so. Now,as a Catholic,I dislike going to Mass at churches  where “welcomers” give one a hearty greeting – I feel that this detracts from what should be a dignified occasion.

  • HaveSeenItAll

    It would be so much easier for Catholics to evangelize if their clergy gave up the medieval costumes, and the Church placed itself under the authority of Holy Scripture, instead of clinging to the arrogant view that the Church wrote it, and her traditions are equal to it.   And heterosexuality in the priesthood would definitely be the trend if the idiotic celibacy rule for clergy was done away with.  However, the old men in the costumes would never yield to that idea.  It’s too threatening to the good ol’ boys’ hierarchy.  God forbid that the Roman Religion Corporation would let go and let God transform it.

  • Benedict Carter

    Oh, I see.

    “You will evangelize better if you stop being Catholics”.

    Ahhh! I just saw the “old men in the costumes” line. That’s “Point Number 18″ in the Militant Atheist Guide To Hounding Catholic Websites” booklet, isn’t it? Or is it Point 7 in the equivalent born-againers booklet?

    And someone might have thought you were serious, or even had a brain.

  • UsedToBeOne

    Why can’t you just get reborn by the Holy Spirit and quit being deluded by sacramentalism?

  • Benedict Carter

    And fair enough too.

  • Benedict Carter

    It’s the “Invasion of the Born-Againers”, a B horror movie if ever I saw one. 

  • Mikethelionheart

    We were born again when we were baptised. Just as the apostles taught, not that you’d know anything about real Christianity.

    Go back to thinking that memorising chunks of the Bible means understanding it and that parroting the nonsense you hear from the pulpit about Catholics makes you informed.

    Oh, and here’s a suggestion, tell the people in your church to try, just once, going to church with the intention of worshipping God instead of the intention of being entertained and seeing your mates in your religious social club.

  • theroadmaster

    Alpha is a good entry point for people into the Church who happen to be loosely aligned with Christianity, moderate in their Faith or those from agnostic/atheist backgrounds who are spiritually inquisitive about the appeal of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Although this program of Christian initiation found it’s initial grounding in protestant, evangelical circles,it’s appeal is now firmly cross-denominational and many Catholic churches across the global have adapted it to meet their own outreach to others.  While this program has proved very effective in bringing many thousands if not millions into the broader Christian Faith, it is no substitute for the discovery of the much deeper and wider, doctrinal, spiritual and liturgical riches to be found in Christ’s Church, i.e. the Catholic Church.

  • scary goat

     Yes, I can appreciate that some might feel like that.  I’d be inclined to think it depends on what you mean by “welcome”.  It can probably be a bit off-putting for some to be “pounced on” with too much enthusiasm, there is such a thing as going over the top. I think, on balance, more people would be likely to be put off by coldness/being ignored, and I would always err on the side of being friendly, but again, you can easily tell if someone prefers to be left alone, in which case you just back off.  I’m not keen on the idea of over-zealous welcomers with badges etc. nor would I like to be made to introduce myself publicly, and , of course, the solemnity of the Mass should not be interfered with, but I also think it is possible to be welcoming in subtle ways, so that people don’t feel like they might as well not be there, or excluded, or not find someone to speak to or someone to help them if they need it. 

  • theroadmaster

    Alpha is a good entry point for people into the Church who happen to be loosely aligned with Christianity, moderate in their Faith or those from agnostic/atheist backgrounds who are spiritually inquisitive about the appeal of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Although this program of Christian initiation found it’s initial grounding in protestant, evangelical circles,it’s appeal is now firmly cross-denominational and many Catholic churches across the globe have adapted it to meet their own outreach to others.  While this program has proved very effective in bringing many thousands if not millions into the broader Christian Faith, it is no substitute for the discovery of the much deeper and wider, doctrinal, spiritual and liturgical riches to be found in Christ’s Church, i.e. the Catholic Church.

  • scary goat

     So where do you think the protestants got their Holy Scripture from about 1500 years later? Sounds to me a bit like biting the hand that feeds you.  And who told you the Church isn’t under the authority of Holy Scripture? And who do you think wrote Genesis? Adam and Eve? Those ancient books were passed on by oral tradition for a very long time. 

    As for the idiotic celibacy rule, I couldn’t help noticing the dedication of most RC priests I have met compared with their protestant counterparts who seem to treat it like their “day-job”. 

  • scary goat

     Oh my goodness! If you “used to be one” you can’t have been taught the Faith very well.  What a pity.  There are a lot of lectures going on during the year of faith.  Why not give it another try? Sometimes we understand things better second time around. 

  • Catholicthoughtsblogger

    It’s certainly true that in many larger Catholic churches it would be possible to come to Mass for years without getting to know anyone. In some ways it’s better that Mass is not like a social club, that the focus is on the sacrifice rather than on the human aspect. But it is also, as you say, an impediment to evangelisation, and can seem unwelcoming. Maybe more of an emphasis on post-Mass get-togethers is the way forward? 

  • Isaac

    Well the Church did write it (inspired by the Holy Spirit) so get over it. Do you also find the view that 2+2=4 to be arrogant?

    The Traditions (note the capital “T”) are not equal to the Scriptures, they are prior to it. Without Tradition there would be no Scripture. Do you think the Bible fell down from the sky?

  • Katie

    Reverendo padre,  I don’t know why you think that the Alpha people are being invited because they can inform the Church about evangelizing. Perhaps the organizers of the Synod thought that the Alpha reps needed to come to Rome to learn. Hopefully something might rub off on them. They are a pesky nuisance over here in Italy. The stress of Alpha in my diocese (german and italian speaking) is all on making the parish into a friendly ‘community’ (Church as social club as in UK) and on personal faith (Protestantism). The Catholic Church is not based on the personal faith of its adherents but on Christ and the sacraments. Communion is not greet and meet. Priests are not community leaders. About the sacraments and the priesthood Alpha is less than nugatory. Since I’m an old woman (63), perhaps I may also say that Alpha seems to lead to a further womanization of the Faith and a belief in one’s right to splash one’s emotional state, dressed up as spirituality, on others. Couldn’t you let your long suffering readers know something interesting like what’s happening with Charlie Scicluna?

  • kentgeordie

     The womanization of the Faith! Wow, Katie, you sure tell it how it is. Maybe you are the one to write the long-awaited demolition of feminism, to do some serious anthropology, to reassert what we all have always known, that the male is the primary sex, and that we will all be much happier if we stop pretending otherwise.
    But we are not angels. While Katie may not wish to go 10 pin bowling with the over sixty friendship group, isn’t it important that the Church be a strong human community as well as, not instead of, all the other things for which she argues so eloquently?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I am sadly ignorant of what is happening with Mgr Scicluna…. so I will write about what I know. Hope all is well in South Tyrol.

  • JabbaPapa


    The truth is that each sex is dominant in its own domains of specialty.

    (with some individual exceptions)

    The falsehood is to suggest the sexes as being perfectly interchangeable and equal.

  • kentgeordie

     JabbaPapa wants to keep one foot in the camp of reality, and the other in that of the current liberal consensus. While s/he is right to talk of specialties, we need to go much further. The Catholic Church, the OT and the NT, everyday experience, the real desires and instincts of most women, zoology, and an ever growing heap of sociological data – all point to the plain fact of male primacy. If feminism has scored some successes in preventing abuses, the blurring of sex distinctions has caused a great deal of grief to women and to society at large.

  • JabbaPapa

    JabbaPapa wants to keep one foot in the camp of reality, and the other in that of the current liberal consensus.

    What a load of b-word !!!

  • kentgeordie

    I don’t know what b-word means. It sounds unfriendly, especially with the triple exclamation mark.
    Oh dear, another attempt to base the male-female debate on evidence rather than ideology bites the dust.

  • scary goat

     Wooww…..that was a bit “bull in a china shop” wasn’t it?  I think Adam was pretty pleased to have a help-mate of his own kind.  I am female and I fully agree that feminism is damaging to women, men and society…..male and female should be complimentary roles. Yes, I prefer a more traditional female role and I’m happy to respect a man in a traditionally male role……but “primacy”? It’s that sort of attitude that led women to feminism in the first place. I think it is necessary to be a little bit careful blaming women for feminism…..I’m not sure it was all their fault. 

  • scary goat

     Thanks Jabba :-)

  • Benedict Carter

    Thanks Katie, now we know the truth – that this Alpha course is just another pestiferous nu-Church fad leading the Church even further into Protestantism. 

  • Parasum

    The Church did not write a stroke of the OT.

  • JabbaPapa

    I view Alpha as being “less bad” than the previous 1960s/1970s “principles” of “catechesis”.

    That’s not much to say in favour of it, but at least it’s one step NOT in the wrong direction…

    As far as I know, the Church accepts Alpha only VERY grudgingly, and I think allows it only for those who are in such a state of rejection of Catholic teaching that ANY form of evangelisation towards them could be viewed as a positive. I’m very uncertain as to whether one could agree with this position, but it does make a modicum of sense.

  • JabbaPapa

    Your definition of “the Church” is in that case wrongful.

    The Church has existed since Revelation was first given to mankind.

    Prior to the Nativity of the Christ, the Church therefore existed in Israel.

  • scary goat

     Co-incidentally I just noticed on the main page at the bottom there is a piece on this weeks Gospel that covers exactly this subject.

  • Rory

    Yep men are looking pretty fantastic at the moment judging by the revelations of Jimmy Savile and the countless priests and monks here in Ireland at last owning up to a history of abuse.

  • Sweetjae

    NOT everything in Protestantism is evil, they have a great love for the Holy Scripture, taking care of the marginalized and sharing their Christian faith to others, wake up Mr. Judgmental!

  • beblessed

    Dear Katie
    I would like to point out my experience of the Alpha course. i have helped on 15 courses and 850 people have attended , in a Catholic Parish. In the last 4 years, we have had 5 join the priest hood and 2 young women train to be nuns. It has been an unprecedented blessing having Alpha in the Catholic Church and i thank God for it.