By Cathi Douglas     5/5/2016

“Alpha is a tool for the New Evangelization that is being used by thousands of Catholic parishes in over 70 countries around the world. Alpha creates an environment and opportunity for an encounter with Jesus. As Pope Francis likes to say, it’s a chance for ‘Jesus to find them.’”

Father Jerome Karcher, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish, believes his Huntington Beach parish is blessed to have incorporated the Alpha Course into its faith formation plans as a means of promoting evangelization. The first 10-week session last fall drew more than 500 parishioners. The spring session has enrolled more than 210 parishioners.

“Alpha of course means ‘beginning,’ and this is about beginning or an introduction to Christian life,” Father Karcher said. “It’s an evangelizing course that draws people to faith in Christ.”

He is pleased with the results, and so are growing numbers of his parishioners. Other parishes, such as Holy Trinity in Ladera Ranch, also are interested in offering Alpha courses. He explained that some Catholics who worship for one hour every Sunday want to deepen their faith and have a desire for great service to the Church.

In her book, “Forming Intentional Disciples,” Sherry Weddell wrote that ‘cultural Catholicism’ is dead, meaning that people who grew up Catholic and drifted away from the Church aren’t drifting back to it eventually as older generation have done.

“Once someone leaves the Church they don’t come back,” Father Karcher said. “Weddell says that the Church has done a wonderful job of catechesis but not with kerygma, meaning proclamation of the good news. We have not focused on evangelization – we’ve not done a lot to promote personal encounters with Jesus Christ as our Lord and the savior of our lives.”

The Alpha Course, says St. Vincent de Paul’s Patty Ledezma, director of Parish Life, promotes individuals’ private relationship with Jesus. The Anglican Church produces the course, but a number of Catholic parishes nationwide are offering it with the blessings of bishops, cardinals and even Pope Francis.

“It’s been fascinating to hear the response,” Ledezma said. “Participants felt more connected with the parish community and more urgency to pray more and go to Mass. In the survey taken at the end of last fall’s session, many of them said their relationship with Christ has been deepened. It made all the countless hours we put forth worth it.”

The long-term hope, Father Karcher said, “is that in our parish we have not just churchgoers but disciples with the desire to share the faith and the good news with other people. When we share it we are proclaiming something powerful and life-changing that brings hope to people’s lives.”

He added that young parishioners are so enthusiastic about the program that they have spread the word about Jesus, prayer and the Catholic Church to Golden West College and Orange Coast College.

St. Vincent de Paul’s Alpha course has three parts, Father Karcher said: food, conversation and discussion. The parish caters a meal and participants sit down at tables of eight to 10 people with hosts are each table, then enjoy icebreakers and watch a DVD-driven series. Each segment ends with a question; the first week’s question asked: What you would do if you only had 24 hours to live?

“That starts the conversation,” Karcher noted. “As the weeks progress, questions discuss various issues, such as the belief in life after death, and lead to stimulating conversations.” After the fall session ended, some of those who sat together at the same tables formed small communities who continue to pray and study together.

The course centers on individuals learning different ways to pray in engaging and intentional ways that are intimate and personal.

Still, hosting an Alpha course requires a lot of organization, the support of the pastor, dedicated staff members and volunteers, Ledezma said, as well as a hospitable environment where people can come and not feel judged regardless of their answers to provocative questions.

“We’re taking people where they are and leading them to a deeper place of faith,” Father Karcher said.

For more information, visit alphausa.org.