JACINTA Elks and younger brother Kevin Donahoe had no idea when one of their priests tapped them on the shoulder to be part of something new in their parish that he was offering them just what they’d been looking for.
They were “cradle Catholics” searching for something more when associate pastor Fr Josh Whitehead invited them to become involved in a new program for the Caloundra parish.
Fr Josh was new to the parish and he took on the task of introducing Alpha, a 12-week program offering the chance to explore questions of life, faith and God in groups gathering for a meal, a video and conversation.
The timing was just right for Jacinta and Kevin.
“We’ve grown up on the Sunshine Coast, been here for about 50 years … (we’re) cradle Catholics, with good, faithful parents,” Kevin said.
He and Jacinta were both on the readers’ roster at the parish’s Our Lady of the Rosary Church but were looking to be more involved.
“Kev and I lost our mum three years ago – and she died of a brain tumour – but she was a truly holy person, and losing her has kind of been the catalyst for our faith to really take off, I think,” Jacinta said.
“She really role-modelled a Catholic way to die, which was incredibly powerful for all of us.
“So when Fr Josh talked about Alpha, we weren’t 100 per cent sure but thought, ‘Well, there’s only one way to find out …’
“We just really wanted to get a bit more involved.
“We’ve been on this sort of personal journey of trying to form our own faith a little bit more and we really recognised that we needed help with that.
“We were crying out for some adult faith formation, which is kind of what prompted us to (get involved in Alpha).
“Then it was Alpha really that prompted us to go and enrol in our post-graduate studies in theology.”
Part of their motivation is the push to be of service, a strong trait among the Donahoes – Daryl and Carmel and their eight children.
Both Jacinta and Kevin earn a living in service of the community – Jacinta as a cancer nurse who’s been working in the COVID-19 response this year, and Kevin as a regional manager in a retirement living organisation.
“Our dad was instrumental in St Vincent de Paul in Nambour for many years, and Mum (was a teacher in the missions in Papua New Guinea before she was married), so we wanted to be of service (like them),” Jacinta said.
“Fr Josh asked us and we wanted to support him; we think he’s amazing – so, yeah, I think maybe (it was) a little bit of service and a little bit of desire for greater knowledge and awareness (that prompted them to say yes to Fr Josh).”
Their whole Alpha experience has been “remarkable”.
“For the first five weeks, Kev and I would hop in our cars and drive home (after Alpha) and we’d ring each other and we’d debrief after it – we did the pilot program first,” Jacinta said.
“And to be honest we were a bit ambivalent for the first few weeks; we weren’t 100 per cent sure what it all meant but by the time we got through to the Holy Spirit Day (a retreat day), I personally had an incredible experience there and it just galvanised it.
“It got us so excited and motivated for the possibilities.”
The Holy Spirit Day caught her by surprise.
“There’s a period where prayer is offered, and, again, I was a little bit uncomfortable that this is a little bit out of my range of experience …,” Jacinta said.
As another person stood with her and prayed for her, she had a powerful and tangible experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
“(From then) I became super energised and wanted to do whatever I could, basically,” she said.
Kevin said witnessing the fruits of Alpha was a major part of the whole experience, including “the realisation that community was forming as well”.
“A lot of the time our Catholic faith might be ducking in to Mass for an hour on a Sunday, and ducking out off to sport or whatever it might be, and there’s not a lot of things outside (of that),” he said.
“Even though the Eucharist is the source and summit of the faith, there’s not much outside of that that creates community, so you can sit beside people and not really know them.
“We know that the (Alpha) group in there were becoming very familiar, very friendly, very trusting and starting to build this community.”
The pilot program “was personally really powerful and we were super keen to then have other people experience the same”, Jacinta said.
They had no hesitation then to agree to be leaders when others were invited to try Alpha after the pilot run.
“After we did the pilot, we did the first one with participants in our roles as leaders, and then, again, on that whole Holy Spirit Weekend there was evidence and proof of people having strong experiences, which was not like anything I’d witnessed previously,” Kevin said.
“Since then, the fruits from those people that went through that experience and the roles they’re going on to play in the church has been amazing.
“It’s developed a real intentional discipleship in a lot of people.”
The whole experience has made a difference for Jacinta outside the parish as well.
“I’ve certainly grown in confidence to speak of my faith in my wider social group – my non-Catholic social group,” she said.
“Whereas I used to be quite private about that, just because there never really seemed to be opportunities; now I actually take the opportunity.
“(That’s), actually, been easier than I ever thought it would be, which again I think goes to the fruit.
“I’ve just grown in confidence to occasionally challenge but, most often, just mention, and that’s been interesting.
“I’ve had some conversations that I never dreamed I would have …
“While I certainly haven’t created a stream of RCIA candidates or anything, (but) at least I feel like I’m not hiding my faith anymore, which perhaps I was.”
To back that up, Jacinta’s now volunteering as the parish’s Alpha co-ordinator.
Reflecting on the success of the program, Fr Josh said “we’re called to bear fruit in our lives, aren’t we, as Christians?”
“Well, the fruit has been phenomenal – with not just people on the team, not just the people who participated in Alpha, but also the 30 parishioners who put their hands up to pray for our Alpha course and for specific people on the course,” he said.
“This is the good thing about Alpha … it’s simply a tool for evangelisation; it’s not an end in and of itself, it’s our tool for evangelisation.
“And now we have 50 people (flowing from Alpha) who want to be part of the journey of our parish putting evangelisation first in all that we do.”
What was special about Alpha was “people having a deep encounter with Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit”, Fr Josh said.
“For most people, that comes about through receiving prayer – people actually putting their hand on your shoulder and praying out loud for your needs,” he said.
“Lives were changed.
“Two of the participants weren’t Catholic and now they’re on the RCIA process.
“That’s fruit in and of itself.”
Then there was the young woman in her mid-20s “who wasn’t connected to the parish in any way (before Alpha) but now she’s one of these people who just want to serve”.
“She’s actually co-ordinating our young adult ministry,” Fr Josh said.
People who were in the group praying for the Alpha participants were also blessed.
“We had a husband and wife – Vivienne was participating in Alpha, and her husband John was an intercessor – and John was praying for us during that two hours every Tuesday night when the course was on, and he had two really significant Holy Spirit experiences while he was praying,” Fr Josh said.
“So his life’s been changed; he’s now the co-ordinator of our hospitality ministry.
“It’s amazing … lives changed.
And the aim now was to extend the reach.
“Alpha is primarily for un-Churched people … we want to use it as a tool to reach out to those who are outside of our walls who are not part of our worshipping community,” Fr Josh said.
“Really, to invite them into relationship with Jesus, that’s the end (goal) – relationship’s the end.”