Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Start an Alpha and Omega Group!

Meet for Vespers and Compline; plus a meal and conversation...and if you have a Dominican from the Western Province to hand all the better! 

I remember that the Anglican Church in England designated the 1990s as the decade of Evangelism’, with the goal of evangelizing the whole of the nation prior to the millennium. This seemed an absurdly optimistic goal to me, but I suppose if we remember that to evangelize means to show people Christ, rather than to convert them ,then they might have come close, depending on what you believe showing people Christ means.

One thing that did come out of this energetic push to carry the gospel was the proliferation of  ‘alpha groups. This was based upon a series of recorded talks about Christianity. Parishes set up groups in which people brought along food for a potluck meal, watched the video, and then had a discussion based upon it, perhaps guided by a series of questions that came with the video. I dont know how successful it was in converting people, but it was certainly successful at reinforcing the faith of existing Christians, which is a very good thing too. It was good enough for many other churches, including the Catholic Church, to follow the format and add additional videos that filled the gaps in the presentation of Christianity of the protestant Evangelicals.

My father ran one at his local Methodist church, and I attended on the evenings he lead. It was popular enough that they repeated for several years; what was interesting was that quite a number of people came to the alpha groups each year that they took place, even though the materials were repeated. What they enjoyed I think went far beyond what they were learning intellectually; it was the fellowship with like-minded people.

As far as I recollect, the hub of this evangelical (and Evangelical) push was Holy Trinity church in Brompton (HTB). In the minds of many, this is the epicenter of Evangelical Christianity in the UK. Readers in London will be aware that, ironically, it is situated immediately adjacent to a church which is at the other end of the spectrum, the traditional Catholic and very liturgically-minded Brompton Oratory. In fact, when I was living in London and attended the Oratory regularly, a group of us used to go and sit in the grounds of HTB on pleasant summer afternoons and have a picnic, after attending Solemn Mass at HMO (Holy Mother Oratory).

I do remember one of the Fathers at the Oratory joking that the name of the group - alpha - indicated that they had made a start but it was incomplete; he was referring to a verse from the Book of Revelations: I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. The Oratory even started a series of talks of their own, and they called it the Alpha and Omega Group. If there is one church in England that understands evangelization it is the Brompton Oratory, and they do not need to do it via organized talks or alpha-type sessions. Many, many converts have come to the Faith as a result of its mission of beautiful liturgy and spiritual direction from the Fathers. I am one of them.

I wanted to play my part in the evangelization of the Faith, and so all I had to do was invite people to attend Mass their with me - perhaps with the promise of beautifully sung polyphony, even if they didnt like the rest of it. A number of those converted, including one who was his death bed a few months later at the age of 40, dying of cancer (may he rest in peace.) All I had to do, I reckoned, was get them in there and the Fathers of the Oratory and the Holy Spirit would do the rest.

A beautiful Mass is always going to be what draws most powerfully to the Faith, but I think that there are things on the line of the alpha group that we could do to support that. My brother and his wife have just started a regular group in Berkeley, California, that meets for Vespers, a potluck meal and then Compline. It involves minimal organization and runs at a relaxed pace from about 6:30 pm to 9 pm. They just invite friends, and because they and they are lucky enough to have a room in their home sufficiently large to accommodate perhaps 20 people, they encourage friends to bring others along. This is not an official parish event, its all done through their own networks. There is no need to have a priest involved, or to use church space if it is not available.

When Rob and Anna described the evenings to me, they said they were a great success. The great thing is that the liturgy gives the evening a purpose, inspires conversation if they need it, and engenders deep fellowship through the Holy Spirit. Also, there is enough repetition that people who are totally unused to what is going on will pick it up over the course of an evening and subsequent evenings (they meet fortnightly); and enough variation so that it distinguishes one evening from another and maintains interest. We have been encouraged in recent times by the popes since Pius XII (to my knowledge) to sing the Office in the domestic church, and here is a simple way that it is being done.

They sang in the vernacular, and were lucky enough on the first couple of occasions to have a local Dominican priest come along. The Western province of the Dominicans in the US has done a lot of good work in creating good and singable chant for the English language (apologies to other Provinces if Im being unfair and you have contributed too!). Before he moved to where he is now, Rob used to live walking distance from St Alberts Priory in nearby Oakland, and whenever I stayed with him we used to go down there and pray with them. I made use of much of what I heard either directly or indirectly in the singing of the Office at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. It was one of the recently ordained priests, Fr Dominic David, whom we used to see there when he was a student, who came to this evening.

He helped people by explaining what the Liturgy of the Hours is, and taught people the tones. Some had never done anything like this before in their lives, but they happily joined in once things got going. They have some simple Anglican style, four-part harmonies, and there were one or two others present who were experienced choristers who could easily pick up the simple harmonies. Rob told me that it was a wonderful thing to be part of this, especially since all those praying were also chanting.

Benedict XVI told us that the domestic church, i.e., prayer in the home centered on families, is crucial to the new evangelization, both because of the effect that it has on those who pray, and because their participation in families and in society in general helps to establish a ‘culture of love. (cf. Address to Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Thursday, 1 December 2011).

Provided that the ultimate purpose is the worship of God, so that the liturgy isnt instrumentalized, then fruits will ensue. Then, as Sacred Liturgy, our prayer is showing us the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end and, to quote Sacrosanctum Consilium, the source and the summit of all.

So perhaps you could think about this at home...start your own Alpha and Omega group.

Don't forget the Way of Beauty online courses www.Pontifex.University (go to the Catalog) for college credit, for continuing ed. units, or for audit. A formation through an encounter with a cultural heritage - for artists, architects, priests and seminarians, and all interested in contributing to the 'new epiphany of beauty'. 

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