We interview Fr Andrew Bujnowski, a dominican friar running Alpha in Wroclaw, Poland.
What was your first experience with Alpha?
A musician friend from a Pentecostal church in Warsaw recommended Questions of Life, a book by Nicky Gumbel, which had just been translated into Polish. He said that it was a real revelation and was sweeping through London. I bought it out of politeness rather than interest; the cover looked good on my bookshelves; this was towards the end of 1998.
In the Spring of 1999 I invited a young group from the Community of The House of Victory in Torun, led by Damian Dekowski and Stasia Izyk-Dekowska to my parish in Szczecin. They came to lead a multi-day Lent retreat for the youth. Szczecin is a city with population of 500k in NW Poland.
Our Dominican church was packed with students. The group from Torun gave us such an unusual lively programme of evangelisation that we all sat or rather stood there full of emotion! The interesting way they proclaimed the Gospel, the singing, the acting, the authentic testimonies of conversions, the enthusiasm in their faith!
Chatting with them, I heard about Alpha which they had started recently in their parish. Then I remembered Nicky Gumbel’s book and decided, after they had returned to Torun, to check whether this “revelation from London” was an exaggeration or not. I read it in one go and concluded – Dear Lord, this is exactly what I have been seeking for so long! A clear but deep exposition of the fundamental truths of faith, written in attractive language with many excellent examples. What was also so important for a Catholic priest – I did not notice any significant theological differences in the basic interpretation of the truths in the Bible.
That autumn I organised Alpha for young people preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation. The Torun group gave me many useful tips on how to run Alpha and two of them, Martin and Ela, helped me run the Alpha weekend according to the Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) recipe. The effect was marvellous! The young people had a real spiritual awakening and returned home transformed, with Jesus in their hearts. I could see the palpable working of the Holy Spirit…the fruit of these conversions which happened continues in these people today; I still am in touch with some of them.
I quickly realised that Alpha is an instrument which must be used and must be repeated again and again. Soon after, I was transferred to Wroclaw, a city with 800k population in SW Poland; here, with God`s help I have been running successive Alphas since 2000. I think I have run about 17 personally.
Why is this course so special, so unique?
As a priest and a Dominican, I am always fascinated by the language used, so fresh, full of important points yet with lots of jokes, with many very suitable examples, but above all bringing out so strongly the truth in the context of our lives.
In the Church there is always a problem – how to speak about God so that people can understand, how to stop people believing that realities from the Bible are detached from everyday life or are so lofty that they are hidden in a secret cloud. A preacher who knows the language of philosophy and theology may sometimes lead listeners further from God rather than nearer. I am thinking particularly about people today who have been largely educated through electronic media.
On the other hand, some clergy are tempted to seek the language of this world to please those who are the least demanding; this way God’s truths are over-simplified and even babyish. I think that there is too little thought in the Church about the language of sermons and homilies. Perhaps this is due to the frantic tempo of change today.
Nicky Gumbel’s talks are constructed and thought through so brilliantly – they bring the Gospel to both intellectuals and simple people. For me this is the best example today for telling people about Jesus Christ. (The other such person was always for me, till I found that he was also such an influence on Nicky, Raniero Cantalamessa).
The language of Alpha enables the course guests to begin to be serious about God. They want to listen! They understand and live through what they are told. Because of this and of course with the help of the Holy Spirit, Alpha generates concrete fruit and leads people to a true meeting with the person of Jesus Christ – the main objective of evangelisation.
It is also worth stating that Alpha presents the kerygma, which is currently mentioned so much in the Church. I already knew before about the importance of announcing the Good News, thanks to the programmes of Jose Prado Flores which were popular in Poland, but Alpha deepened my understanding of this and I began to concentrate much more on proclaiming the Good News in my daily services; this kerygma became for me the foundation of evangelisation.
There are also other ways which make Alpha unusual:
- The food at the beginning of the evening session, against a background of good music; we have nu-jazz which helps with chill out and easy listening. This gives people the opportunity to meet new people in a club-like atmosphere
- The worship before the talk – this helps to create a spiritual atmosphere and to build a distance from everyday life. It opens a person to listening. The guests go for this like a knife through butter, because everyone needs a time of reflection and prayer during the day
- The small group discussions after the talk where it is possible to compare one’s views with those of others
- The logical and interesting sequence of themes as well as the excellent idea of a weekend on the Holy Spirit
All this succeeds in encouraging the guests to come each time. I also like the idea of using quite a few people in the running of each course; setting out the chairs and tables an hour before the session, preparation of the food, looking after the guests – all this develops people in our community a great deal, often those who are unfortunately quite passive; it breaks through their limitations and remoteness; at last they have a role, they feel needed and see that they take part in a huge activity.
As a course organiser, what have been the biggest problems and the biggest successes?
It is always a problem to know how many want to stay in the church and how many want to meet after Alpha; as organisers we always have great plans and great hopes; after each course we usually have just a few who stay on (about 20% of the guests).
Here in Wroclaw I organise Alpha with the Community Galileo which consists of about 60 people aged 18-50 and we always ask ourselves why inviting people to join the community is so unsuccessful. Perhaps this is to do with the mentality of the young today and the typical unsustained enthusiasm of people in this age group. There are also other reasons, e.g. the young often change jobs and where they live. This is a subject worth pondering about more. We also have a number of thoughts about after Alpha sessions and we have been looking for the best model for some years. I have the feeling that there is no optimal answer here
And our successes... Here we should mention the real conversions that I have witnessed. I could mention several examples, but I know this is all the work of the Holy Spirit, not my work. Also this would exceed the format of this interview very significantly.
In Wroclaw we have been able to extend Alpha gradually to other locations. Currently it is run in 7-8 parishes and mainly those belonging to convents or monasteries or religious orders (Dominicans, Franciscans, Capuchins, Redemptorists, etc.) I am delighted that, for example, we have been able to start a group of leaders who have been meeting in my monastery every 2 months for the last two years.
We now have an integrated group of people fascinated by Alpha; we can rely on each other and also help each other. Our regional group has already conducted a number of promotional activities for Alpha in our part of Poland. We had a program on Catholic radio in Wroclaw; we put out posters and flyers with information on locations and dates of the various Alpha courses in our city; we organised an Alpha information point at the last diocesan conference which was devoted to New Evangelism.
Currently we are trying to engage clergy running the local seminary in Alpha. We also helped to start a number of courses outside Wroclaw – in four different places.
What advice would you give to people wishing to run Alpha?
It would be good if the initiative comes from a group in the parish who are enthusiastic about evangelisation and are really keen on bringing people to Jesus; it is no good to run it just on the order of the parish priest or of the head of the order. The people concerned must obviously understand the Alpha methodology and must go through thorough training. They must also have a plan for the future – what they can offer to the guests after Alpha. It is also vitally important to pray for Alpha, for its fruits and for the creation of an atmosphere of friendship and freedom among both organisers and guests.
And what advice do you have for those thinking of trying Alpha?
I advise them to have no fear. Perhaps they should also try to find others to come with them; it will be easier to break through any initial problems in their company.
How do you invite people to come to Alpha?
Personally I “advertise” Alpha mainly in the confessional. I have also persuaded some other clergy to do the same. Our church in Wroclaw is open all day and many people, including the young, look for confession.
Every day I spend 1 ½ hours in the confessional and I meet there many lost people and many – both young men and young women - wish to rebuild their link with Jesus.
There is no better opportunity than this for giving invitations to Alpha together with a plan of our monastery, which includes the location of where Alpha takes place and the date of the next course. Many people have accepted the invitation in this way in the last few years. We also bring guests in through the evangelistic prayer group which I run in my community; guests who finish Alpha bring some new guests in, while others come having heard of it from the radio broadcasts or from our community website.
What are the results in Wroclaw?
We have run about 125 courses in our city so far and 3,850 people have finished a course. This only refers to Alpha courses run in Catholic churches and up to February 2014. In the near future there will be 4 new places where the Alpha methodology will be announced. We are also praying that diocesan priests should become interested in Alpha. We also want to invite to our regional group representatives of other churches.
Find out more about Alpha in Poland at alfapolska.org