Yesterday I was able to attend a meeting of priests at Holy Trinity, Brompton. Really. This week the HTB Leadership Conference was held at the Royal Albert Hall, and a number of Catholics who have had some experience of using the Alpha Course were in attendance. Chief amongst these was (as widely publicised) Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who gave a lengthy interview to Nicky Gumbel. I watched some of this via the excellent video link from the RAH on Tuesday, and I was pleased to hear it being so widely acclaimed by many who were present in the hall and tweeting.
Last year, at the prompting of a few friends, I attended (somewhat reluctantly) a full day of the conference, and I must admit that many of my prejudices and concerns were compounded. Whilst I was encouraged to hear Rick Warren speak about the need all Christians have of the Church – which he warmly described as ‘the bride of Christ’ – I got an overwhelming sense that these were people with a very young faith. One friend said it is was like hearing new Christians talk – very enthusiastic, but without much depth. Warren’s exciting ecclesial rhetoric was not met with an ecclesiology that Catholics would really recognise.
Yesterday was a little different. Talking to other priests I was impressed to hear that Alpha had been used with some success in a number of parishes. Most spoke about the course in terms of pre-evangelisation (which would tie in with the comment above), and as a means of simply welcoming people through the doors of a church building, in order to introduce them to Christ for the first time. Nobody can doubt the numerical success of Alpha, and if something of that can be given a place in a Catholic context, then I am open to it. Those we heard from spoke from within a strong (do I even need to say, orthodox?) Catholic context, and with a keen sense of how methods such as Alpha can be complementary to – and even become a way of expressing – a valid part of kerygmatic catechesis, leading later to in-depth and didactic sacramental preparation.
That, though, is the point I want to make. If Catholics are going to look to Protestant Evangelicals for help in methods of, and ideas for, evangelisation, then we have to look at how these methods can be moulded for a Catholic context, and not alter the Catholic pedagogical and catechetical method to fit the material, however tempting or successful the material might seem.
We believe that at the essence of the Christian life is communion with the Church; that Catholic faith and practice, that communion with the successor of St Peter, is not the cherry on the cake, but a fundamental part of life in Christ. As such, we believe that the fullness of life in Jesus Christ is fully and entirely present in the Catholic Church, and thus all that we need to fulfil the apostolic mission of evangelisation is given us already. We need to view how methods such as this can prompt us, not to create something new, but to recover the gifts of our tradition which have fallen into disuse.
How we do this, and to what extent the material we begin with needs to be altered or reformed, is a matter for further and wider discussion. There is nothing wrong with adopting things wholesale that are good, even if they have developed outside the fullness of communion with the Church. The experience of the Ordinariates tells us that ‘a spiritual richness exists in the different Christian denominations which is an expression of the one faith and a gift to share and to seek together in the Tradition of the Church’ (BXVI to CDF Plenary, January 2012).
The new evangelisation calls us to seek a new ardour and new methods in the proclamation of the unchanging truths of the gospel. This will obviously lead us to examine the ardour and methods of others, but it should also mean a radical rediscovery of the riches and beauty of the undiluted Catholic faith, and the traditions we have of proclaiming it.
The convert in me means I wants to state over and over again that most Catholics are seemingly unaware of these great gifts that our faith has to offer, not least to this wider Christian conversation about evangelisation. If we can recover these things, then it will be possible to help others to see how they can deepen their life with Christ through communion with the Church; it will draw others to see how their good and logical conclusions are, in fact, things that the Catholic Church has been doing consistently since the earth was still warm with the blood of Christ.
We should seek out new methods, then, and draw on others’ energy for a new ardour, but we should also rediscover the treasures already in our store, not simply as a means of our evangelisation of the world, but of our evangelisation of the Church, of ourselves, and of all those who call themselves Christian but (as yet) have not found the joy of the Church.
For more information about Alpha in a Catholic context, click here.