It’s the gentlest invitation to what could ultimately land someone at the eternal banquet.
If it doesn’t, at least the guest will return home nourished in both body and spirit and with roots of true friendship. That’s because the invitation is simply to come enjoy an earthly meal once a week with other people. It’s free as long as the guest has the courage to step onto church grounds.
Meals gather a core group of people in community — often young adults but any adult is welcome. Discussion is very generic as some guests are Catholic and seeking a peer community. Others are fallen-away or never had a solid foundation and others might not be Catholic or even close to it. They all have a desire to hear each other’s point of view.
“You want to cater to the person furthest away from Jesus in the room,” said Danielle Burr, coordinator of evangelization and marriage initiative for the Diocese of Phoenix.
Alpha in a Catholic Context is an opportunity to explore life and the faith in a friendly, open and informal environment.
A series of questions offers an array of healthy starting points for honest dialogue. A short video series focused on each question feeds small group discussion. Each gathering gradually goes deeper until it ends with “What about the Church?”
It’s a markedly different format for catechesis and one that certainly has its critics, but one that is quickly taking root in the Diocese of Phoenix. Alpha is an 11-week series plus a midpoint retreat originally designed for people wanting to become Christian. It fosters healthy discussion based on Christianity’s common questions.
Alpha has reached some 40 million guests worldwide since its founding 25-30 years ago at a church in England. Phoenix’s leaders were trained there last summer. They met Nicky Gumbel, its founder and former atheist, and observed Alpha in action.
“Nicky is great because he says what everybody’s thinking — ‘Oh, all these rules [in the Church]’ — and the British accent helps,” said Burr, whose position oversees Alpha and equips local leaders to run their own sessions.
Alpha in the Diocese of Phoenix
Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale (starts Oct. 20)
St. Charles Borromeo in Peoria (starts Sept. 20)
St. John the Baptist in Laveen (starts Sept. 18)
St. John Vianney in Sedona (starts Sept. 19)
Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral (session 5 of 11 is Sept. 15)
Alpha is already underway at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral. Others begin this month at Most Holy Trinity Parish, St. John the Baptist Parish in Laveen and Grand Canyon University.
“We just want to have a shallow entry point to bring people to Jesus in relationship with Him,” Burr said. “If we can just get people back into a relationship with Jesus, we have so much more to offer them.”
Some local priests have seen the effects of Alpha. Fr. Eduardo Montemayor, SOLT, a priest in residence at Most Holy Trinity, has known about Alpha for 13 years. He compared the vigor of its guests to what happened to the Church at Pentecost. Evangelization happens from the pews out, he said, sometimes forcing the need for a larger parish staff.
“This is a beautiful problem to have and that’s what I see over and over again with this methodology,” Fr. Montemayor told 30 parish leaders across the diocese Aug. 26.
He offered a list of best practices for running a successful Alpha series. Hospitality, food and a behind-the-scenes prayer team were among them.
“There is no effective evangelization without previous intercession,” Fr. Montemayor said. He found Alpha to be a valuable way to implement the New Evangelization, which targets fervent believers, those baptized but lost a sense of living the faith and nonbelievers.
Franciscan Father Antony Tinker expected guests from all three groups when Alpha launched at St. John the Baptist Parish in Laveen Sept. 11. He had 20-30 Catholics and non-Catholics come to Alpha when he revived it at St. Francis University in Pennsylvania last year. Both groups had a lot of good questions.
“We were really trying to get them alive with their faith,” Fr. Tinker said. With Alpha, “it’s intellectual. It’s also very approachable. It’s very passive. They can go at their own pace and it can be very impactful. If nothing else, it gets them to ask questions.”
Cole Chaisson, a St. Francis Xavier parishioner, was a guest at Alpha’s trial run in the diocese over the summer. He described it as an answer to his longtime prayer. He praised the open environment, the ability to explore more concretely what he already had faith in, and, as an aspiring history teacher, enjoyed the video on the historical roots of Jesus. Chaisson said the role of small groups was vital.
“You’re really welcome to bring up your point of view if it’s really different than what the video says or what the group says. It’s what needs to be. People need to be able to talk academically about what they believe in,” Chaisson said.
Other Alpha guests are also liking the fellowship that stemmed from it. Kayla Iuliano, who went through the trial run of Alpha to better help with it in Laveen, said it’s great to have a faith-based young adult community. She was without that in graduate school.
“My friends who know Jesus seem to know me in a way that’s deeper and more genuine and I know I can count on them for advice and support when I’m struggling — because a lot of them have gone through similar things,” Iuliano said. “I’ve found walking with God is a lot easier when your friends are walking with you.”
Angelina Bravo, a St. Francis Xavier parishioner, agreed. She grew up Catholic, but described a “raw” and “real” community fostered when young adults choose to be together and dig deeper.