Recently the director of the Alpha group in our parish suggested to me that we combine RCIA with Alpha during the time period before Christmas this coming year. Alpha is a movement dedicated to proclaiming the message of Jesus to people who have little or no connection to Jesus or to a faith community in their lives. Alpha has its origins in an evangelical offshoot of the Anglican Church and many Catholic communities (including our parish) have enthusiastically embraced the program. The Alpha program consists of a series of evenings where the group gathers for a meal followed by a video on the topic for the evening followed again by group discussion. The speaker on the videos is Nicky Gumbel who is a particularly effective presenter. The topics generally offer a "generic" and personalized version of what it means to be a Christian. I participated in Alpha a few years ago and found the message to be powerfully presented and the format of the evening to be enjoyable.
So, why not combine the RCIA group with Alpha? On the surface there are some good reasons why this would be a good idea. First of all we know that the first phase of RCIA is at least partly dedicated to evangelization (a first proclamation of the Gospel). So, this seems like a good fit with Alpha. Secondly, from a practical point of view, combining the groups (in our parish both groups have even been meeting on the same evening) would be an efficient use of staff and volunteer time.
But, of course, there are reasons why this is not a good idea. Most seriously, the Alpha talks do not give anything like a complete "picture" of what it means to be a Catholic Christian. Alpha pays little attention to sacraments specifically mentioning only Baptism and Eucharist. Alpha also pays little attention to what it means to be part of the Church. Finally, Alpha omits mention of anything that is distinctively Catholic (which is natural since its approach tries to be non - denominational). So, considering these shortcomings, Alpha does not seem to be an effective use of the limited amount of time available to the period of inquiry in the RCIA.
Next, the needs of the participants in RCIA in our parish during the period of inquiry generally have been more complicated than what is provided by Alpha. If all of our RCIA participants were coming from a basically "unchurched" and uncatechized background Alpha might be an effective way of providing this initial catechesis. The fact is however, that in my experience participants in our RCIA groups have tended to be mainly made up first of all of people who are married to a Catholic and who have been attending our Church. A second group has been people who have been active members of other Christian churches and who are seeking to join the Catholic church. Another group has been Catholics who have been baptized but who have not completed their sacraments of initiation. One of the things that this kind of group needs (particularly those people who have been catechized in another Christian church) in the period of inquiry in RCIA is an exposure to some of the distinctive feature of Catholicism. This gives them an opportunity to deal with any "issues" that they may have with the Church before proceeding to the next period of RCIA following the Rite of Acceptance and Welcome.
I am aware that our RCIA should ideally take up more time than it currently does. Right now, our plan is to begin in mid September and wrap up around the time of Pentecost. If we moved to a time period of one year or longer for RCIA we might then have time, for example, to use Alpha as part of the period of inquiry for those who might benefit and then begin the formal period of RCIA after Christmas with the Rite of Acceptance coming just before Easter. This would provide much more time for a greater variety of experiences. During the coming year I hope that we can explore how to make this change to our RCIA program.