“LET’S start at the very beginning, a very good place to start,” sang Julie Andrews as Maria in the ever-popular Sound of Music.
Australia has our very own “Maria” although Lorraine McCarthy’s “beginning” is well beyond the melodic, “Do, re, mi”.
The Melbournian has sung “Alpha’s” tune for almost 20 years, leading groups and individuals to know Jesus Christ across a series of sessions based on the foundations of Christianity.
“Alpha”, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, meaning “beginning” and an assurance that God is the creator of all life, was first offered as a program in Brisbane archdiocese 20 years ago.
An estimated 32 million people across 160 countries are said to have participated since the program’s inception by Anglican Pastor Nicky Gumbel of London.
Today, the same key messages are offered but within a new format, Lorraine enthusiastically spouting the benefits on a four-day visit to Brisbane archdiocese in recent weeks.
The Alpha Australia representative engaged with people of all ages in Noosa District, Corinda-Graceville and Rosalie parishes including a gathering of youth leaders at the La Valla Centre, Rosalie.
She also spent time visiting Alpha enthusiasts in Coorparoo, Darra-Jindalee, Indooroopilly, The Gap, Carina and Ipswich parishes, and heard of upcoming Alpha courses planned for Springfield and Upper Coomera.
“The people who came along were very positive about having a go at starting Alpha,” she said of the workshops offered.
“The new Alpha film series is in new format and is more enjoyable to watch.”
Lorraine said “the images (of the video series) are a bit fresher and more current for people today”.
“It’s more global, with more faces from all around the world … (and) there are some interviews from some leading Catholics,” she said.
First hearing of Alpha in 1998, through her sister “who was very changed” as a result of attending, Lorraine felt compelled to plant its seeds in her home parish.
“When I first did Alpha I couldn’t believe how my intellectual faith changed to a heart faith,” the mother-of-six said.
“I felt the love of Jesus so powerfully and faith dropped from my head to my heart.
“Alpha isn’t about catechesis only … it connects with people’s hearts, drawing them closer to Jesus.”
At the core of Alpha’s success and longevity are three elements, the sharing of a meal or food in general, a time of input, normally via a video presentation, and a discussion in small groups or as numbers allow.
Essentially, it’s an opportunity for people to hear biblical truths in a non-threatening way and for faith to be discovered or renewed.
Alpha presentations continued to have strong ecumenical links with a focus on the commonality between Christians, not the differences, Lorraine said.
At the halfway point of Alpha is a retreat experience centred on greater understanding of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
Preacher of the Papal Household Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa said Alpha “is not the Alpha and Omega (meaning ‘end’) course”.
“Alpha focuses on the kerygma, which is the starting point of faith,” he said, a statement Lorraine reinforced.
“After people come to a living faith in Jesus then they need to be formed in the faith which is up to other parish programs to do,” he said.
Ministering as pastoral associate in a number of Melbourne parishes since 1999 and having co-ordinated about 24 Alpha opportunities, Lorraine said she always “learns something new”.
“I might have watched the videos countless times before but there’s always something new about Jesus that I hear for the first time,” she said.
“(And) I’ve seen the growth in people’s lives that happens through Alpha.”
As an Alpha Australia representative since 2015, Lorraine “really enjoys helping communities encourage people to grow closer to Jesus”.
“I’m passionate about Catholics growing into missionary disciples,” she said. “(And) Alpha is an amazing tool to do that.
“I have a sense that Jesus is really calling me to this work.
“I’m passionate about helping other people to find out about Jesus.”
Lorraine is hopeful more parishes respond to Pope Francis’ call “to be missionary disciples”.
“As people grow in their faith and become missionary disciples, they are more hungry for the sacraments and for catechesis,” she said.
“In this way, they are keener to serve and keener to give.”
Alpha’s new format can be taken into various places, “wherever people gather … (and) contextualising where you are”, Lorraine said.
“One parish ran ‘Forest Alpha’,” she said of a community in Hobart.
“They invited fathers and teenagers into the forest and cut wood and did mountain bike riding … (and) also had the presentations. It was very well received.”
She also spoke of a “Friday Night Alpha” for families, where a meal was shared and input time was assisted by child-minding.
There’s also a new “Alpha Plus” for seniors.
“We’re all meant to be life-long learners,” Lorraine said.
“No matter how long we have been in the Church, there’s always a deeper level.”
Fresh-faced Lorraine said Pope Francis’ “art of accompaniment” was one of the keys of Alpha’s success, and like “Do, re, mi” it too was “at the very beginning”.
“The process of having a meal together (at Alpha) is about getting to know people and making connections,” Lorraine said.
For more information about Alpha go to www.australia.alpha.org.
By Selina Venier