A critique of Alpha

In an earlier post on what parishes in the Ordinariate might do to bring seekers into the fold, I recommended the Alpha Course.

Many Catholic parishes in Canada are now using the Alpha Course to re-evangelize cradle Catholics and to reach out to the unchurched.  Some are meeting tremendous success with this approach, such as St. Benedict’s in Halifax.   Fr. James Mallon, former pastor of St. Benedict’s wrote a book about St. Benedict’s parish renewal using Alpha called Divine Renovation.

I came across this critique of the Alpha Course that includes a recommendation Catholic parishes not use it.  Here’s the link and an excerpt:

The General Directory for Catechesis says, “It is the task of catechesis to show who Jesus Christ is, his life and ministry, and to present the Christian faith as the following of his personÖ. The fact that Jesus Christ is the fullness of Revelation is the foundation for the ëChristocentricityí of catechesis: the mystery of Christ, in the revealed message, is not another element alongside others, it is rather the center from which all other elements are structured and illumined.” GDC 41. If Alpha does anything well, it is this; and this is perhaps one of the reasons for its popularity. It is meant to introduce an inquirer to the person of Jesus Christ.

We can affirm as well Alphaís desire to include a number of elements that the Vatican 2 decree Ad Gentes saw as vital to evangelization: “Christian witness, dialogue and presence in charity (GDC 11-12),” and “the proclamation of the Gospel and the call to conversion (GDC 13).” Catholic Alpha acknowledges that from this must follow more detailed catechesis through the catechumenate and initiation into the Catholic community. The GDC speaks of “essential moments” in the process of evangelization, and we can affirm that an initial proclamation to non-believers and the unchurched is going to be distinct from the catechesis of those already introduced to Christ, and for which it lays the foundation. GDC 47

Primary proclamation (the responsibility of all Christians) implies “a going-out, a haste, a message,” while catechesis “starts with the condition indicated by Jesus himself: ëwhosoever believes,í whosoever converts, whosoever decides. Both activities are essential and mutually complementary: go and welcome, proclaim and educate, call and incorporate.” Alpha could be seen as an attempt to accomplish the first. But though primary proclamation and catechesis are distinct, we cannot rigidly separate them, and that is what Alpha seems to suggest by saying that “distinctives” must be left to a “supplementary” program. There must be some content, which provides the basis for the decision to follow Christ; thus the GDC speaks of a “kerygmatic catechesis” or a “pre-catechesis,” which paves the way for “a solid option of faith.” GDC 61-62. We are to have “a single program of evangelization which is both missionary and catechumenal.” GDC 277

The object of catechesis is communion with Jesus Christ. Again, we can affirm the central emphasis of Alpha. “ëThe definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ.í All evangelizing activity is understood as promoting communion with Jesus Christ. Starting with the ëinitialí conversion of a person to the Lord, catechesis seeks to solidify and mature this first adherence.” GDC 80

However, the GDC insists that his initiatory catechesis must be “a comprehensive and systematic formation in the faith.” We are to aim for “a ëcomplete Christian initiation,í which promotes an authentic following of Christ, focused on his Person.” It is “essential” and “common,” but not in the sense of being minimalist; for the GDC this means that we catechize “without entering into disputed questions nor transforming itself into a form of theological investigation.” GDC 67-68. “ÖCatechesis starts out with a simple proposition of the integral structure of the Christian message, and proceeds to explain it in a manner adapted to the capacity of those being catechized.” GDC 112. The guide to this structure is the Apostlesí Creed. GDC 115.

And the GDC rejects an individualistic piety, for “Communion with Jesus Christ, by its own dynamic, leads the disciple to unite himself with everything with which Jesus Christ himself was profoundly united: with God his Father, who sent him into the world, and with the Holy Spirit, who impelled his mission; with the Church, his body, for which he gave himself up, with mankind and with his brothers whose lot he wished to share.” GDC 81

The Church is thus not something that can be discussed as an afterthought to the Gospel message, but is the essential agent in the proclamation of the Gospel. “Catechesis is an essentially ecclesial act.” GDC 78. Christ founded the Church on the apostles, to whom he gave the Holy Spirit, sending them to preach the good news to the entire world. The Church through all ages bears the fullness of the divine Word, in Scripture and Tradition, guided by the Spirit speaking through the Magisterium. As the “universal sacrament of salvation,” the Church not only preaches the Gospel, but communicates Godís gifts in the sacraments. GDC 42-46.

All most interesting.  Your thoughts?

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9 Responses to A critique of Alpha

  1. godfrey1099 says:

    Alpha is a splendid approach, but it really misses some major points. Sacraments, including Penance and Eucharist, are not some ‘extras’, which can be supplemented later. They are the core of evangelisation, especially addressed to lapsed Catholics. Another problem with Alpha, which the document accurately identifies, is the the Catholic concept of THE Church, which is also absolutely central in any Catholic evangelisation effort.
    However, having said that, if Alpha is carried out in the Catholic context and with assistance of a Catholic priest (which is typically the case), then these evident shortcomings are – somewhat naturally – overcome (i.e. lapsed Catholics have a priest ready to hear their confession at any point of the course; participants know that there is Sunday mass to which they are invited; etc.).
    To sum up, if we, as Catholics, are aware of these major shortcomings (resulting from the impoverished version of Christianity represented by Nicky Gumbel), then we can effectively use this tool to much success.

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  2. Rev22:17 says:

    You need to lay a sure foundation before you can erect a building that will withstand a major storm. The deficiency that I find in the catechetical programs that I have encountered a tendency to erect a building without that foundation — with the consequence that people have no context for what they are learning, so fails to take root and they wander off in a myriad of other directions.

    The criticism of the Alpha course seems to be that it lays a foundation, but then does not erect a building upon it — but, if so, it is precisely what our parishes need! The parishes need only to put the two together — simply do the Alpha course first, and follow it with whatever other program of catechetical formation they might be using! If the follow-on program duplicates some information that’s covered in the Alpha course, the instructors can use the duplicated material as a review to reinforce the most central elements. There is nothing that says a parish must choose only one set of catechetical texts and use it to the exclusion of all others.

    Note that the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is NOT intended to be a program that gathers a group of inquirers in September and baptizes all of them at the following Easter Vigil. Rather, it is intended to be a program of ongoing catechetical formation throughout the year that inquirers may join at any time, and in which those who are ready for baptism in the current year are enrolled as the Elect on the First Sunday of Lent, and thus begin final preparation for baptism at that year’s Easter Vigil, while the rest continue as catechumens for at least another year.

    Additionally, the process of formation in the RCIA should stress spiritual formation — the development of a Christian prayer life and learning the means of study of sacred scripture. It has been said that the foot between the human’s head and the same human’s heart is the longest foot in the world. Catechesis is never just about education of the mind. Rather, the mysteries of faith must traverse that foot to transform the human heart, giving rise to living a life of faith rooted in prayer that gives life to the Word of God in the secular realm.

    Norm.

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    • godfrey1099 says:

      “The criticism of the Alpha course seems to be that it lays a foundation, but then does not erect a building upon it”
      No, the criticism of Alpha is that it actually misses an important portion of the foundation, not because the author has intentionally decided that these may and should be ‘constructed’ later, but because he has never known them himself.
      Having said that, let me reiterate that the formula of the course is really innovative and, if properly applied in the Catholic context, can be of great value as an evangelisation tool.

      Liked by 1 person

      • pam says:

        In mid-2011, while a part of an Australian parish that would enter the Ordinariate in about a year from that point, I came across an article about Alpha in a Catholic context, in a blog ‘Una Iglesia Provocativa’ (a Provocative Church) by Tote Barrera, from Spanish site ‘Religion en Libertad’ (Religion in Liberty). The blog still thrives, but I have not yet located the original article entitled ‘Bringing Alpha into the New Evangelization’, which I translated for what I hoped might be the benefit of others around me at the time. I had not done Alpha but a family member had to his benefit, nor have I exactly done RCIA in a Catholic parish having entered the OCSP with a group of Episcopalians nearly five years ago, though presumably our preparation paralleled it in some way. So I am perhaps not qualified by experience to comment on ‘Alpha in a Catholic context’, but the article came to mind as soon as I read this post heading and so I found my translation and re-read it.
        It seems to confirm both what Norm says above and what godfrey1099 suggests starting in his third paragraph, first comment. I recall that I learned something more about methods of Catholic catechesis just by making the translation, and was excited by the breadth and depth which that brings to a relatively historically young or uni-dimensional understanding of salvation.
        In summary I will enthusiastically second the first and second comments above, and agree that adapted to the Catholic Church, Alpha may be a wonderful way for OCSP parishes or groups to evangelize and grow, as the method has already borne fruit in Spain and probably other Spanish-speaking countries and perhaps beyond.

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      • Rev22:17 says:

        That depends what you understand (or perhaps misunderstand) the “foundation” to be — and in this case, the quotations from the General Directory for Catechesis seem to nail it, here noting that the quotation in the OP took liberties with the actual text (citations removed).

        Jesus Christ: Mediator and Fullness of Revelation

        40. God revealed himself progressively to man, through the prophets and through salvific events, until he brought to completion his self-revelation by sending his own Son:

        “[Jesus Christ] completed and perfected Revelation, he did this by way of his presence and self manifestation—by words and works, signs and miracles, but above all by his death and glorious resurrection from the dead, and finally by sending the Spirit of truth”.

        Jesus Christ is not merely the greatest of the prophets but is the eternal Son of God, made man. He is, therefore, the final event towards which all the events of salvation history converge. He is indeed “the Father’s one, perfect and unsurpassable Word”.

        41. The ministry of the word must always give prominence to this wonderful characteristic, proper to the economy of Revelation: the Son of God enters human history, assumes human life and death, and brings about the new and definitive covenant between God and man. It is the task of catechesis to show who Jesus Christ is, his life and ministry, and to present the Christian faith as the following of his person. Consequently, it must base itself constantly on the Gospels, which “are the heart of all the Scriptures ‘because they are our principal source for the life and teaching of the Incarnate Word, our Saviour'”.

        The fact that Jesus Christ is the fullness of Revelation is the foundation for the “Christocentricity” of catechesis: the mystery of Christ, in the revealed message, is not another element alongside others, it is rather the centre from which all other elements are structured and illuminated.

        This, with what’s necessary to support it and to provide proper context, is the foundation of Christian faith. Without this, nothing else makes sense. With this, everything else makes sense. The need for the “New Evangelism” within the Catholic Church is because so many people in the pews — and even so many of our clergy — have missed this. And catechesis fails precisely when it attempts to go beyond this without first making sure that everybody in the class or other group has mastered this. Indeed, the very same General Directory for Catechesis affirms this.

        49. The process of evangelization, consequently, is structured in stages or “essential moments”: missionary activity directed toward non-believers and those who live in religious indifference; initial catechetical activity for those who choose the Gospel and for those who need to complete or modify their initiation; pastoral activity directed toward the Christian faithful of mature faith in the bosom of the Christian community. These moments, however, are not unique: they may be repeated, if necessary, as they give evangelical nourishment in proportion to the spiritual growth of each person or of the entire community.

        The subsequent statement in the same General Directory for Catechesis from which the author of the critique subsequently quotes lies within this context. Here is the full paragraph.

        66. Catechesis, is thus, a fundamental element of Christian initiation and is closely connected with the sacraments of initiation, especially with Baptism, “the sacrament of faith”. The link uniting catechesis and Baptism is true profession of faith, which is at once an element inherent in this sacrament and the goal of catechesis. The aim of catechetical activity consists in precisely this: to encourage a living, explicit and fruitful profession of faith. The Church, in order to achieve this, transmits to catechumens and those to be catechized, her living experience of the Gospel, her faith, so that they may appropriate and profess it. Hence, “authentic catechesis is always an orderly and systematic initiation into the revelation that God has given of himself to humanity in Christ Jesus, a revelation stored in the depths of the Church’s memory and in Sacred Scripture, and constantly communicated from one generation to the next by a living active tradition“.

        A catechesis course that seeks to advance beyond the central truth identified above before the participants have mastered that central truth falls short of what this paragraph prescribes — it may be systematic and comprehensive, but it is NOT orderly, per the previous quotation.

        Returning to the initial analogy, a basic catechetical program is better understood as a “starter home” that can be expanded as necessary than as the foundation of Christian faith, so long as it’s built on a sure foundation.

        Norm.

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      • godfrey1099 says:

        @Rev22:17, your quotations, extensive as they are, only prove that evangelisation can and should be a process divided into stages.
        What these quotations fail to demonstrate, however, is that focus on the personal knowledge and relationship with Jesus Christ does not include – even at the very initial phases of evangelisation – the primary importance of the Church and sacraments in building and nourishing this relation. In my opinion, evangelisation in the Catholic context is always understood as bringing someone to the community of desciples, i.e. the Church, through which they can receive the gifts prepared and left for them by God. These things simply cannot be separated, as in the Catholic understanding you find Jesus Christ primarily in the Church.
        This gains even more importance whenever the “target group” of Alpha are mainly lapsed Catholics. I have read about very successful application of the course in which the Alpha weekend featured… adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (and, naturally, Sunday mass).

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      • Rev22:17 says:

        What, then, would be the distinction between evangelism and catechesis?

        I understand “evangelism” to be introducing people to the gospel message (evangel) and thus to the beginnings of a personal relationship with the Lord, and catechesis to be the whole program of theological and spiritual formation that prepares a catechumen for baptism or a candidate to complete the sacraments of initiation. Thus, evangelism is the first step of effective catechesis rather than the whole process, but it is also the foundation for what follows.

        Note, in this context, the church’s practice of granting Christian burial to catechumens who die before their own baptism. This practice presumes Christian faith (that is, that evangelism has been effective) and thus some degree of membership in the church even though catechesis is not yet complete and membership in the church has not yet reached its fullness.

        Norm.

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    • godfrey1099 says:

      Catechumens are from the beginning among the desciples. And even though not able to receive sacraments, they are nevertheless a part of this community. Hence, even your example demonstrates that evangelisation, in the Catholic context, can never be separated from the notion of the Church (which, in the Catholic understanding, is in a sense the Christ incarnated Himself – cf. Acts 9.4). In the Catholic context you cannot separate knowledge of Christ from knowledge of the Church, which Alpha in fact tries to do.
      However, when properly adapted and applied, Alpha can still be a very effectfive tool for Catholic evangelisation effort – though a condition sine qua non is to be fully aware of the major shortcomings of the course.

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      • Rev22:17 says:

        Yes, of course one can never separate the Bridegroom from his Bride — which is precisely why my original suggestion was to use Alpha as a prelude to a traditional Catholic catechetical program rather than as a stand-alone, such that each would complement and make up for what’s lacking in the other. I never suggested that Alpha is a complete program of Christian formation that could stand by itself.

        The more interesting question is whether Alpha might be used as a tool to stimulate real faith those who have completed a traditional Catholic program of catechetical formation, but whose passion for the gospel is seriously lacking. Over the years, I have encountered more than a few young adults who, having completed a Catholic program of formation that included their confirmation in the Catholic parishes where they grew up, wandered off in a state of confusion and landed in evangelical Protestant communities where they heard the gospel message articulated clearly for the first time, thus developing the Christocentric foundation that was previously lacking in their journeys of faith, and subsequently returned to the Catholic Church several years later and found that everything that they had learned during the earlier catechesis suddenly came alive and made sense. It would be much better if they could develop this foundation in a Catholic setting, whether through Alpha or through some other program.

        There’s actually a larger issue here that applies to any program of formation. Those who implement it in a parish or in some other situation need to be fully aware of what it does and what it does not do, and to supplement it as necessary to ensure that the formation is real and comprehensive.

        Norm.

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