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Archdiocese offering parishes a new tool for evangelization

January 26, 2017
Christina Gray

Pope Francis has said repeatedly over the course of almost four years that a key element of Christian spirituality and evangelization is a “welcoming attitude” toward those outside the church.

This month, the Archdiocese of San Francisco will share a successful blueprint for how to do that with parishes during one-day training in the Alpha course series on Jan. 28 at St. Anne of the Sunset Church in San Francisco.

Alpha is an 11-session primer in Christianity developed over 30 years ago by an Anglican priest and now used by other Christian denominations and thousands of Catholic parishes in 70 countries to introduce people to Jesus and his life-changing message. It is not a Bible-study or discipleship program, it is, as its name suggests, a beginning.

new_01 Celeste THUMBSocial Service Sister Celeste Arbuckle, director of the office of religious education, said the training is open to any Catholic parishioner who might like to form an Alpha team at their parish. She is also encouraging pastors, pastoral staff, youth and outreach ministry leaders and religious education staff to attend.

“A lot of our religious education processes go into the catechumenate or the rite of election at Lent,” she said. But what if that’s not where a person is yet? “If a parish has an inquiry ministry or wants to add one this may help them.”

Each Alpha session involves a communal meal followed by a talk or video addressing basic questions such as “Who is Jesus?” “Why did he die?” and “What is the Holy Spirit?” Afterward, small group discussions invite participants to openly inquire or share their faith stories with others.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Julie Jessmon, a participant in an Alpha group for young adults in Plymouth, Michigan, in a comment posted on the Catholic section of the Alpha website. “That was the first time I’d heard people talk from their heart about their faith.”

Different Alpha formats are offered to help a parish connect with different age groups, such as youth, and the course involves one Alpha weekend.

“Learning to share one’s faith with others is different from faith formation,” said Sister Celeste. “We Catholics are not particularly good at witnessing our faith,” she said. “We tend to be more private or reserved and as a result, some people might not hear our invitation to faith. Alpha provides a natural context for that.”

Sister Celeste said that while Alpha is not intended to bring participants to a full understanding of the Catholic faith, it could be a gateway into the church and a parish’s adult and youth faith formation and religious education programs.

While Alpha is a course in the fundamentals of the Christian faith for those who have not yet committed to it, it has also been endorsed by Catholic bishops around the world and recommended by U.S. bishops on the ussccb.org website as a resource for engaging inactive or returning Catholics and a tool for the “new evangelization.”

The alphausa.org website offers a section on running Alpha in a Catholic context and includes testimonials from Catholic bishops and priests around the world.

“We often find people in our pews who have been sacramentalized without ever having been evangelized,” reads a statement. “Such individuals may very well also be part of your initial audience.”

St. Anne of the Sunset pastor Father Daniel Nascimiento heard about Alpha from someone who had witnessed its success in his diocese. He decided to offer his parish as a venue for the Jan. 28 training and intends to form an Alpha team afterward.

He said his school with a large number of non-Catholic students makes Alpha an opportunity to engage those families.

“My view of faith is that it is supposed to enrich your life,” he said. “Alpha is a blessing that can help create the space where adults can have some sort of conversations around that.”

A $30 registration fee includes breakfast, lunch, snacks and training materials. Discount available for groups of four or more. Visit alphausa.org/sanfranciscojan28 or contact gaylatotaro@alphausa.org or call (714) 840-1553.

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