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Archives Implementing Alpha

February 27, 2019

By Darcy Fargo

Program has St. Peter’s Parish reaching out

MASSENA – An Alpha session consists of a meal, a talk and a discussion, and it’s meant to engage those whoAlpha may not be regularly attending Mass or familiar with Christian principles. Only a few sessions into their Alpha experience, the program seems to be bearing fruit in Massena.

“A few years ago, I read ‘Divine Renovation,’ and the content resonated with my experience and aspirations for parish renewal,” said Father Mark R. Reilly, pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Massena. “That book spoke in glowing terms about Alpha as a tool for evangelization, renewal and change in a parish. Already in our parish, we had a lot of churn and culture change because of the consolidation (from several parishes to one parish). The question was, ‘do we manage the culture change and drive it in a healthy way, or do we just let it change?’”

In the spring of 2017, Father Reilly again encountered Alpha at the New Evangelization Summit in Ottawa. There, he learned more about the program and became more intrigued. He then talked to representatives of Alpha both in the United States and Canada, as well as the Catholic Context director (Alpha is offered for Catholic and other Christian churches), who suggested the parish run a pilot program or two.

The parish piloted the program in the fall of 2017 and spring of 2018, running the sessions for parish members and a few outside participants, and opened it up for wider audiences in fall of 2018. A spring session will begin at 6 p.m. on April 8 at St. Mary’s Social Hall.

“The program consists of a meal, then a talk – a video – about a fundamental aspect of Christianity or faith and life,” said Father Reilly. “The talks look at answers to deeper questions in life through the lens of Christian faith. They’re very basic; we’re not talking about a deep dive into theology. The talks are presented in a way that doesn’t presume people know anything about the faith.”

The series of talks opens with, “Is there more to life than this?” on the first week, and moves on to such questions as “How does God guide us?” and “Who is the Holy Spirit?”

“People at every level get something from those talks – I get something out of them each time,” Father Reilly said. “It’s the Kerygma – initial proclamation; the seed corn kernel of faith, a basic proclamation of the Good News. That comes first, before catechesis.”

After the video talks, there is discussion.

“We break into small groups,” said Father Reilly. “You sat with your group for both the meal and discussion. There’s a host who makes sure the basic needs are being met in the group setting, and the group talks about the matter presented in the talk.”

While participants may be reluctant to talk early in the discussions, comfort levels improve quickly, Father Reilly said.

“Questions are asked, thoughts are shared, observations are made, and no one is told ‘that’s the wrong answer or that’s the right answer,” he said. “Relationships start to grow.”

The program also includes a retreat day, and participants get away for a day together.

“Once those relationships are established, and we get away, people are astounded by what God does in and for them,” Father Reilly said. “I’ve noticed a change both in long-time church goers and others.”

Father Reilly said St. Peter’s Parish is happy with the impact Alpha is having thus far.

“In term of the fruit it’s bearing, immediately we’re seeing a difference in relationships,” he said. “People who weren’t in the same social circles now light up when they see each other. There’s a sense of belonging, and I’m seeing people interacting in ways they wouldn’t have before; there’s more warmth and joy. And there are some people I’m seeing in church that I didn’t see there before. It’s not about getting people in church, but that’s a fruit of an encounter with Christ and sense of belonging. It’s beautiful to know people you think are pretty far along – insiders, shall we say – rubbing elbows with people who are definitely not insiders, people with whom you wouldn’t typically expect them to associate. It’s like the biblical image of the early church – distinctions fade away in Christ.”

St. Peter’s Parish hopes to offer Alpha twice a year for the foreseeable future.

“I’d like to see it become a regular part of the parish and what we do,” said Father Reilly. “I don’t want to see it die out. I think we’ll see an increase in participation in the short-term. Then, when a good number of our parishioners have done it, the numbers will go down. I’d like to see the proportion of ‘unchurched’ participants go up, even if the total numbers go down. If we’re doing this the right way, that’s how it will likely play out. I guess this is one humble attempt to do more than talk about new evangelization and changing parish culture.”
To learn more about Alpha, visit alphausa.org.


Participants say Alpha changed them

By Darcy Fargo

MASSENA – Though they come from vastly different backgrounds and are at vastly different points in their faith journeys, three Massena residents say participating in Alpha changed them.

Dale & John’s story
“I didn’t know if I wanted to do Alpha at first, but there was a meal involved, and I like to eat, so I agreed to give it a try,” said Dale Mangel. “I’ll be honest: I have a background. I tried to become a career criminal, but I stunk at it, and I kept getting caught.”

Mangel was invited to Alpha by St. Peter’s parishioner John Kozsan.

“Dale’s wife was my wife’s caregiver for several years,” Kozsan explained. “When she married Dale, we got to know him. We’ve been good friends ever since.”

Though he was raised Catholic, Mangel said he “dropped out” of his Catholic faith, but still maintained a relationship with God.

“Whenever we went out to eat, Dale always said grace before meals,” Kozsan said. “That gave me a clue that there was something. The Holy Spirit was working. I knew he loved to eat. I knew there was some faith there.”
Mangel said his first Alpha session included both an excellent meal and good discussion.

“After that first time, I figured the food is good, and the people were nice, though definitely not people I’d normally spend time with,” he said. “A few sessions in, I started to feel like this little group isn’t bad. I’m able to get stuff off my chest and turn around and help others with their problems. I was able to show people they’re not the only person who has issues in their past.”

Mangel said he’s experienced community as a result of his Alpha participation.

“What did I take from it? Love and compassion,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work to do on me; I’m still in the making, but I can tell people have seen a change in me. I hear that all the time from people in the (Alpha) group. These are people who aren’t the people I’d regularly hang out with, but when I see them now in the store or in the library or out in town, I get hugs. And I feel like I can talk freely now – talk about my life and experiences in ways I didn’t feel like I could before.”

Kozsan said that while he’s been a person of faith his entire life, Alpha gave him an opportunity to practice it in ways he hadn’t before.

“I’m a product of Catholic education, seminary, Catholic university – I’ve learned a lot about the faith,” he said. “This was a practical application. We talk about people being made in the image and likeness of God.

Sometimes, I think it was more a nebulous thought. This was practicing it. This was taking people with different experiences, opinions and ideas, and accepting them as they are and where they are. People were freely expressing their ways of thinking and their experiences in life and of God, and it gave me an interesting perspective.”

Lisa’s experience
Lisa Tyo said she grew up Catholic, but she had fallen away from regularly practicing her faith.

“Life got in the way, and I got busy,” she said.

Then, one day a friend called and suggested she attend an Alpha session.

“My friend called and said ‘this group is getting together. Come for one session. There’s no commitment, no pressure; just come for one session,’” Tyo said. “I told her I’d think about it. The next day, my Zumba instructor mentioned it and said I should check it out. I figured with two people bringing it up, I should probably go and see.”

Tyo said she didn’t quite know what to expect of her first Alpha session.

“I was thinking of it kind of as a book club,” she said. “I was told we’d have a meal, watch a video and discuss it. I was kind of nervous at first. I had these thoughts like ‘do they know I haven’t been going to church?’ and ‘Do they know I don’t know much about all this? Is there a test?’ Everyone was really friendly. I found myself going back.”

Tyo said it took her a couple weeks to get comfortable with the group, at which point she really started participating in discussions.

“It was really informal,” she said. “There were no right or wrong answers, just how you feel. I never felt any judgment. It was so interesting to be talking about faith. These were people of all different backgrounds and life experiences, all at different points in their spiritual journey, and it was ok. People in the videos or in the discussion groups had some of the same ideas and questions and doubts as me. It was ok to talk about those things. It was a place to discuss faith with people who wanted the same thing.”

As a result of her participation in Alpha, Tyo said she’s grown in faith.

“I was Catholic, but there was so much I didn’t understand,” she said. “Now, I understand more, and I want to participate in it. I’m more focused on what it’s all about. I love praying in community and the Eucharist. I feel blessed to be more aware of it and to be a part of it. And it’s always been there. I just didn’t make time for it. Now I want to. This is just the beginning. I’m looking forward to having more Christian experiences, to being part of the parish, and learning more and getting closer to God.

“Alpha gave me a platform to re-engage. Actually, it was more just to engage for the first time.”

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