VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Should Catholics worry about the catechetical program called Alpha?

Perhaps. But they should also recognize its successes, said Vernon Robertson, an evangelization leader. Successes such as the coffee girl.

From a minute's chatting, Robertson, who never saw a conversion opportunity he didn't seize, learned the girl serving coffee behind the counter was Filipino, Catholic and not attending church.

By the time he left the restaurant, she was looking forward to attending an Alpha dinner at the Catholic parish in her neighborhood. Today she's “absolutely ignited,” Robertson said, and eager to help with the parish evangelization course.

But depending on whom you talk to, Alpha is a problem — or an effective tool.

Conversion stories like this are making Alpha one of the hottest evangelization tools in the arsenal of the Church, and supporters say many of those evangelization opportunities would simply not be happening without Alpha.

Around the world, Alpha — which bills itself as a program to introduce people to the Christian faith — is offered in more than 24,000 Catholic and Protestant churches. Canada has embraced Alpha in a big way, with nearly 10% of all the courses in the world and a third of all the Catholic courses in North America.

A $1 million promotional campaign titled “A Dinner Invitation to the Nation” kicking off the fall sessions has resulted in 35,000 lawn signs springing up in front of churches and individual homes across Canada. Now the country's largest archdiocese is ready to run with Alpha.

On Aug. 1, Alpha founder and Anglican minister Nicky Gumbel and his team from London were featured speakers at a conference in Toronto, as was Toronto Auxiliary Bishop John Boissonneau.

A handful of Toronto parishes have been using Alpha, but the August conference took things to another level, with Bishop Boissonneau co-chairing the sellout event that drew 2,000 Catholics and Protestants.

Alpha is an “easy” way of understanding Jesus and stirring our faith, Bishop Boissonneau told the Register. It makes a good pre-catechumenal course, he said, “introducing some of the fundamentals of our faith as a relational faith in the person of Jesus.”

“For the most part,” he said, Alpha's message is “universal.” He believes strongly, however, that a Catholic parish should have a Catholic group rather than an ecumenical one, so discussions and conversations afterward can be informed with a Catholic sensitivity and remain open to dialogue about the sacraments and structure of the Church.

The program, born about a decade ago in England, introduces the Christian faith in a relaxed environment, over a parish meal and a series of videos. Inquirers are invited to ask any questions or share comments about the faith.

Alpha's supporters are unreserved in proclaiming its accomplishments. It has served as a gateway to the Church for many and led countless fallen-away Christians back to the faith.

Robertson said Alpha has started to give the parishes an opportunity to “do evangelization as a parish. Anybody can be involved in Alpha.”

Critics

It's also a program that's not without its critics. Wherever there is Alpha, there are those who view it with suspicion, or worse. Last year, The Wanderer presented a critical examination of Alpha, reporting that there is “no shortage of credible critiques” about the program from evangelical, Anglican and Catholic detractors attesting that the program is “designed to create a new breed of ‘third wave’ or ‘New Age’ Christian who is cultish, charismatic, anti-dogmatic and hostile to traditional Catholic worship, doctrines and morality.”

Ironically, there is opposition to Alpha in Protestant, mainly fundamentalist, circles, horrified that Alpha has even been known to promote ecumenical dialogue on such forbidden topics as Mary and the saints.

Concern about Alpha and its Anglican origins was expressed at a recent diocesan synod in Vancouver, regarded as one of Canada's more orthodox dioceses.

When a motion arose to develop “a truly Catholic evangelization program based on the social and teaching methods used in the Alpha program,” Archbishop Adam Exner, a staunch Alpha supporter, described Alpha as “just an appetizer” to catechesis, with a need for follow-up afterward. The 300 synod members barely defeated the motion.

Msgr. Stephen Jensen, Vancouver's episcopal vicar for education, acknowledges the criticism many Catholics have about Alpha. He stresses that Alpha is a form of “pre-catechumenate” that gives “a very basic introduction to Jesus and his role as redeemer.”

Parishes use it as a first step in evangelization, he said, “but always with the explicitly stated proviso that it doesn't say everything by any means.”

The archdiocese recognizes that one of the video sessions in the Alpha series, giving a basic explanation of the Church, is “unhelpful for what it says rather than for what it leaves out.” As a result, parishes do not use that video and instead present a brief introduction to the Catholic understanding of the Church on that evening.

Catholics seem to agree that Alpha in itself is insufficient. There's a need for follow-up, either in additional formation programs or RCIA.

Baltimore

For years, just such a follow-up program has been operating out of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, where Cardinal William Keeler supports Alpha yet is solidly behind the next level of catechesis.

Christlife is an apostolate of the archdiocese, established to offer Alpha while supplementing it with follow-up courses that take people to the next level in formation. Christlife's Web site is www.alphaforcatholics.org.

“Alpha was never intended to be a comprehensive theology. It's “deficient in some places,” Christlife founder Dave Nador said, and “doesn't go where we'd like it to go in terms of their understanding of the sacraments.”

Which is why Christlife is beefing up its post-Alpha resources, with programs such as the two courses produced by papal preacher Father Raniero Cantalamessa. Other series are also becoming available.

Yet Alpha is “filling a niche where we do not have a lot of materials that are effective in the Catholic Church yet,” said Nador, pointing out that the General Directory of Catechesis insists that “primary proclamation has to take place first before there develops a hunger and a grace to receive formation.” Where Alpha excels, he said, “Is in the area of primary proclamation.”

Nador and Robertson both say Alpha stands out by emphasizing the community aspect of evangelization. Through Alpha, Nador said, people “start to experience community, which is critical to the Catholic parish evangelizing people; people need to be joined with others in relationship with Christ.”

Paul Schratz writes from Vancouver, British Columbia.