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BOSTON — The faith formation program Alpha has recently been approved by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley for parishes in the archdiocese to use as part of their existing religious education programs.
The Alpha program, which originated in an Anglican church in London, is a 10-week course on the basics of Christianity. Participants spend one evening a week having dinner together, watching a video presentation and discussing the material in small groups. Sessions cover faith, the life and death of Jesus as well as prayer and Scripture. Alpha also involves an overnight retreat toward the end of the course.
The first Catholic Alpha Conference in New England will be held at St. Michael Parish in North Andover April 21-22 and will offer training to prepare those interested in starting the program in their parish. Cardinal O’Malley is scheduled to deliver a welcoming address to the conference on April 21 at 9 a.m.
In a letter, Cardinal O’Malley praised Tom Shields, the chairman of Alpha New England, for his work in furthering ecumenism and evangelization in the Archdiocese of Boston.
“Lifelong faith formation is a priority for our religious education programs,” the cardinal said. “Our archdiocese and the wider Church have a great need for renewal of the faith through prayer and outreach to our Christian brethren.”
He added that many Catholics in the archdiocese have already benefited from participating in the Alpha program.
“Many of our Catholic parishioners have benefited from the Alpha program by way of its building on their initial interest in the Church, as a pre-catechumenate experience, or for others, a renewal of their desire to more deeply understand and live their Catholic faith,” he said.
Dioceses in 40 countries around the world have used the Catholic version of the ecumenical Alpha program.
Fifty Catholic parishes in New England already run the program.
Organizers say that the program answers the call to new evangelization and fosters a personal encounter with Jesus that leads participants to take a more active role in their parishes.
“The call to the new evangelization can be heard loud and clear throughout the Catholic Church,” Dave Nodar, director of ChristLife Evangelization Ministry in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said in a statement. “What has not been so clear is how we as Catholics can answer the call in a practical, yet comfortable, way. Alpha for Catholics offers an excellent first step for parishes that are looking for a way to respond.”
Nodar will be the main presenter at the Catholic Alpha Conference in North Andover April 21-22.
Shields, Alpha’s New England director, said that the program can change individuals’ lives as well as revitalize churches.
“Many of us Catholics have gone to Mass out of culture, habit or obligation, but not necessarily because we have a relationship with Christ, and the purpose of Alpha is to establish and/or enhance one’s relationship with Christ,” he said. “We have simply seen people, individually and collectively, have their lives turned around when they have come to faith, come to understand it, come to know Jesus.”
Coming to faith has helped people to heal their marriages, bring their families together and fight addictions, he said.
The first Alpha conference was held in New England in 2001, and an office in the region was soon established, he said.
“After the conference there was such interest in Alpha,” he said. “Since that time, we’ve had some 500 churches in New England do Alpha, and about 50 of those have been Catholic.”
Alpha is now in homes, community centers, prisons, the military, workplaces, on campus and there is a special program for teens, he said.
The ever-increasing involvement has led many who take the course to start Bible study, prayer groups and become more involved at their parishes, he said.
Dick Kiernan, Alpha’s Field Ministries director, said the program reaches those Catholics outside the Church as well as those who attend Mass weekly.
“So many times I have found that many Catholics need to be evangelized, and Alpha is really a great way for people who are already going to church but don’t necessarily know why they are there,” he said.
It also gives parishioners the opportunity to invite their friends and family members to grow in faith, he said.
“Catholics have heard about the new evangelization for a long time, but many times we don’t know how to do it, and the Alpha course is really geared to help people be effective in carrying out the new evangelization,” he added. “That’s what’s really exciting because we’re learning how to do what we should be doing all along.”
For more information or to purchase tickets to the Catholic Alpha Conference April 21-22, visit www.northshorecm.org.