Catholic 101: what about Catholic Alpha?

As hundreds of Alpha leaders gathered in London for their leadership conference, an age old controversy landed on my lap via a blog post written by a convert through the Ordinariate who had attended Alpha in the past, and really found it a meaningful experience of God. She quoted this blog post by someone who left a parish which decided to run Alpha instead of using one of the many great Catholic resources available, missing out on the only truly Catholic resource that does what Alpha does (Sycamore) in favour of materials that presuppose one is already engaged with God enough to know what kind of Christian you want to be. From a certain type of Catholic point of view this is not a question that needs asking, because the only acceptable answer is obvious, but for anyone who has lived out of that bubble it’s a question that presupposes a conscious decision of being a Christian first and foremost, as the church is not just a global charity as the left-wing media seem to believe, but a Gospel-centric institution whose sacramental nature is there to help us on the journey of sanctification.

I don’t mind if you run Alpha or Sycamore, even though I’m a big fan of Fr Stephen Wang (who also returned the honour to me on many occasions). I understand Alpha is a big brand and people recognise it more easily so that could be a reason why Catholic Alpha over a brand new thing. What I care about is that you understand why people are running it, a thing he clearly doesn’t understand. Alpha, as does Sycamore, deals with the basics. On Easter Monday, I was picking litter in Broad Green. In conversation, for a reason I now don’t remember, I mentioned in passing the fact I just came back from a Benedictine monastery. The lady I was with curiously asked why, and I said I went on a retreat. She then asked: “Like a spiritual retreat?” And in that moment it dawned on me that we really take Christian literacy for granted. The kind of Catholic that this blogger embodies is the kind of person who expects people to just walk into a Catholic church and be like “I want to be baptised” because who wouldn’t want to be in the one true church? (Clue: all those who think it isn’t the one true church…) He has a problem with indifferentism, and how Alpha supposedly doesn’t tell you about the church so you don’t want to join the church, as if allegiance to the Pope was somewhat more important than allegiance to Christ. Never mind the fact that Alpha is a framework, and the real work is done in the conversations that follow the talks. Even people who are critical of Alpha for being deficient recognise that (see this article at the paragraph of Alpha in the light of the General Directory for Catechesis).

There is a lot around the net which I, someone who hasn’t actually been on the Alpha course, would consider legitimate criticism, but if Alpha has been so successful maybe the model works after all. My defence of Alpha comes from the understanding that it reaches out to people who miss the basics. Criticise it, by all means, but simply saying “We have so many Catholic resources, why use this one which is too Protestant?” isn’t enough.  Yes, the Why? Course he so much praises is great, but if I put myself in the shoes of a non-believer with no background knowledge facing Bear Gryllis saying he had a life changing experience of God, and people talking about tangible, intimate knowledge of this distant figure who I see as basically an old man sitting on a mountain saying “You, yes; you, no”, and on the other hand a course written by some of the cleverest people I have ever met, purporting to tell me about God and the Church and give me an answer to the question of why there’s evil in the world (because that’s what’s in their promo video, which is on a website targeted at people buying the course, not going to it…), I would pick Bear Gryllis. And I say that fully conscious that real-life me is completely weirded out by the kind of charismatic display that comes at the Holy Spirit weekend, at least from what I’ve heard.

In my opinion, running Alpha in a Catholic context not only undoes a lot of the prejudices that people have against the Catholic church (am I the only one who bumps into the defenders of Christian Orthodoxy teaching me that the doctrine of the church is anathema but then they have no clue what the doctrine of the church actually is?), it also puts them in contact with a place where they can explore the Catholic faith now they know Jesus is real. They got to know people who are Catholic over 10 weeks, it’s not that difficult for them to go away on the last day and ask “So why are you actually a Catholic and not in another church?”. If these people went to Alpha, chances are they’d go to Alpha in another church if the Catholic one wasn’t running it. By being such a purist of Catholicism against Christianity as the Apostles would have understood it, you risk missing out on all the people you could have brought into the church by just being there. Millennials in particular are wary of religiosity, they have been hurt by legalism reminiscing of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. Meet us where we are, and take our hand and lead us from there.

Plenty of high clergy in the Catholic Church see value in Alpha, but I assume this blogger would think they too are just Protestants infiltrating the church (I’ll start using it as a badge of honour). Traditionalists bang on about communion on the tongue kneeling at the altar rail a lot. I, too, prefer this way in which communion is given to the faithful in more conservative parishes, the reason for that is it marks more clearly the reverence to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (unlike many I know, I don’t assume people who take communion in other ways are not reverent, as I don’t assume those who do always are either…it’s externalities, and only God knows the heart). Yet, traditionalists also seem to be the first to rally against something like Alpha, which gives people an opportunity to really understand what the Real Presence means before they join the church, not roughly 18 years after their first Holy Communion (like me). I truly just don’t get what makes them so blind to this small fact.

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