Pan-Malaysian Alpha in the Catholic Context

This is a new column for our local theologians to share their thoughts.

Apr 17, 2021

By Fr Dr John Gnanapiragasam
‘It’s a long walk, we'll get there I know, It’s a long walk, I hope my feet can make it, It’s a long walk, we are all going home.’

Those are the words of a refrain from a song by composers Bobby Fisher and Ed Gutfreund. They remind us of the Great Commission, where Jesus calls on his followers to make disciples of and baptise all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:16-20)

Pope Paul VI in his encyclical, Evangelii Nundiandi (14) has reiterated that evangelisation is the very identity of the Church, which exists to evangelise.  Therefore it is not just the mission of the priests, religious, bishops or popes. It is the mission of the entire Church. This is what Pope Francis means when he coined the phrase ‘missionary disciples’, qualifying disciples as missionaries. All are called in this Great Commission of Jesus. Therefore it is apt what has been said, ‘The Church does not have a mission, but the mission has a church.’ And we are all called to mission alongside the Lord.

Inspiration and Preparation
This is the inspiration that sustains, guides, and directs the Alpha Formed New Evangelisation Team in the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur, (Alpha-Formed Net, KL). It is this inspiration that motivated AFNET to collaborate with the Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS) to organise the Alpha in the Catholic Context online. We termed this online pilot course Pan-Malaysian Alpha in the Catholic Context Online, necessitated by the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are unable to conduct Alpha in parishes, as we have been doing for the past 18 years. This has turned out to be a blessing in disguise as an online course permits us to go beyond traditional borders and defined parochial boundaries. Prior to our organising this Pan Malaysian Alpha online, our team assisted certain parishes to organise Alpha online successfully. This serves as an impetus and an inspiration to cast the net wider and deeper. We are reminded and challenged by Jesus’ invitation to Simon Peter to ‘put out into the deep’ for a catch duc in altum (Luke 5) is phrase often repeated by St John Paul II. Like Peter and his companions, we put our trust in the Lord and cast the nets. 

Catering to the Four Language Groups
Alpha has been translated into more than 100 languages. So from the onset, we want to have Alpha online concurrently in the four main languages used in Malaysia: English, Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin and Tamil. Soon after the National PMS director, Fr Victor Louis, communicated with His Grace, Archbishop Simon Poh, the Archbishop of Kuching, as well as the Episcopal Chair of the PMS, our team got in touch with the Alpha leaders in the East Malaysian dioceses. We also got the blessing of Bishop Richard Ng to promote to the laity in the Diocese of Miri. Fr David Ho, the parish priest of St Herbert Song, is a strong advocate of Alpha. His parish youths formed the largest single group to sign up. Many lay leaders stepped up from many parishes in both East and West Malaysia. They are now serving as facilitators and helpers on the course.

Four technical teams have been mobilised to host four different Zoom platforms to accommodate any number of registrations right up till the last day, without refusing anyone. In this way, our registrations reached an amazing number of about 680 participants, reaching all the dioceses of East and West Malaysia, including about a hundred churches and covering practically all the states of the country with a few exceptions. The Mandarin group topped the list with close to 480, about 50 of whom were unbaptised seekers. The remaining 200 are for the English, Bahasa Malaysia and Tamil groups.

We are also seeing a sprinkling of guests for this Alpha run coming in from India, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong and the US.

We have since launched Alpha online in the Catholic Context. The launch took place on Sunday April 11, Divine Mercy Sunday. Archbishop Simon Poh, the Archbishop of Kuching welcomed and addressed everyone in all four language groups gathered on the different platforms. He even learned some Tamil words, in order to communicate with the Tamil group.

Timely Innovation
I firmly believe that this is the Godgiven time and way to evangelise the unbaptised from anywhere and to re-evangelise the baptised in our churches through Alpha. As our church doors slowly open again, we need to revive, recharge and revitalise the faith to get our people to be reconnected with God through a personal encounter with the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation and to be connected physically with the Catholic community of faith when the situation permits. This event is offered therefore as an Easter Pentecost experience for baptized Christians. Moreover, this event is being offered as a pre-course for unbaptised RCIA seekers. Hence the timing of this course. In this context, Jerome Lau, who is a facilitator has this to say. ‘I was baptised as an adult convert after I attended the RCIA course. I then attended the Alpha course, during which I learnt so much of the Christian faith in a very simple and interesting way. In my opinion, the Alpha course should precede the RCIA course offered in parishes.’

Random Testimonies
After just one session, we have been affirmed by testimonies. A Christian who is non-churchgoing in Group 5 gave this sharing. ‘The video gives a very down-to-earth presentation of the real world from the street interviews. I can resonate and identify myself with many of the respondents, who replied in a nonchalant manner in regards to faith beliefs. Then in the small group sharing, the facilitator engages with everyone in a non-threatening manner and allows everyone to freely share his or her thoughts. I observed and listened and was spontaneously led to share after I realised I was in a safe and friendly environment.’

Another person recently baptised in the Catholic Church shared: ‘I felt comfortable in my group. I found people serious about their own lives and yet very concerned and friendly towards me, a stranger to the group. For the first time, I was able to share stories about my life that I have never shared before with a group. I felt so happy after the first night. I am looking forward to following the entire course.’ 

Proclamation of the Kerygma
Alpha is essentially the proclamation of the Kerygma, the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus, as distinct from catechesis, the unfolding of Christian doctrine. Alpha does not deal with doctrine as such. The Easter event is the heart of the Good News with a two-fold message. The Good News is first of all a promise and an assurance of eternal life, a never-ending life in intimacy with God after death. Secondly, the Good News is a conviction and experience of a new life of light and love beginning here and now. It is a call to commit ourselves to the long walk of faith each day. It is also a reminder that we do not walk alone on that journey, and it is a call to listen carefully and attentively anew to God’s word alive and active in the church and the world. This is the only way to obviate the recurring constant temptation of being and becoming a ‘self-referential Church.’

Looking Ahead
The Apostles and disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit to boldly proclaim the Good News. Some of us may doubt if we too are empowered in the same way. Some of us may be tempted to think that only certain qualified people are entrusted with this task. Alpha debunks some of these kinds of myths and has succeeded in creating missionary disciples from very ordinary and simple people. It is a testimony that God can work in a new way and bring new life where we thought it was not possible. This is the hope of this massive pilot event, that being evangelised anew they will become evangelisers in turn, as they are challenged to replicate Alpha wherever they are. As the song goes. “It is a long walk but we are going to take it. It is a long walk and we are all going home” – not only Christians, but the whole world, and indeed the whole of creation.

(Fr Dr John Gnanapiragasam Alpha in the Catholic Context Spiritual Adviser)

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