Ifirst learned about Cursillo from an article in The Living Church sometime in the mid-1970s. It sounded like a good thing: a short, intensive catechesis in the basics of Christian faith and discipleship, originating among Roman Catholics in Spain, then adapted for use in other geographic and ecclesial contexts, including the Episcopal Church. It takes place for a long weekend — Thursday evening until Sunday afternoon.
When I began to meet people who knew about Cursillo firsthand, however, I encountered sharp division of opinion. The advocates of Cursillo were excited about its capacity to transform lives in a single weekend, to form devoted and maturing disciples of Jesus who would energize the church.
But I met plenty of detractors as well, and their suspicions rubbed off on me. Among Cursillistas (as alumni of the weekend are known), I detected a piety that reflected the worst of the charismatic movement. Many of them had developed an almost reverse-snobbish aversion to traditional church music, preferring songs accompanied on guitar that I found … well, hokey is the best word that comes to mind. There seemed to be a certain cultishness about the whole thing: special vocabulary (rollo, palanca, ultreya) and an evasiveness about precisely what happens on a Cursillo weekend. There was a lot of bitter fruit. People would come back from Cursillo and suddenly be critically unhappy about a parish in which they had previously been perfectly content. They stirred the pot of divisiveness. I kept Cursillo at arm’s length.
In 1993, when had been ordained four years and served as vicar of a mission congregation in the Diocese of Louisiana, I succumbed, and registered to make my Cursillo weekend, opting for one in a neighboring diocese, where I could attend incognito as a priest. I did this as an act of pastoral kindness toward a handful of parishioners whose faithfulness I wished to honor and who very much wanted me to do so.
Well, there was no revolutionary turnaround, no mountaintop experience. I did not see the light, and a great deal about the weekend did, as I anticipated, grate on me. There was nothing about the teaching that concerned me. In fact, it was all wonderfully sound. A parish priest should not casually dismiss good teaching, delivered in an effective manner. So a seed was planted, a seed that quickly germinated and grew and flowered. I began to see how Cursillo indeed had the potential to be a watershed event in a person’s spiritual development, how it could jump-start an ordinary Sunday-by-Sunday pew-sitter and pledger into an energetic disciple of Christ.
Soon thereafter, I found myself on the team of a Cursillo weekend in my diocese, and involved in leadership of the Cursillo movement there. About that time, however, I was called across the country to the Diocese of San Joaquin, where there was no opportunity for me to be involved in Cursillo because of political dysfunction in the diocese. After 13 years there, I moved to the Diocese of Northern Indiana, almost precisely at the moment when a previously very active Cursillo movement was being gently retired because of diminishing numbers, being thought to have run out its natural life cycle.
By contrast, when I came to the Diocese of Springfield as bishop in 2011, I found a relatively vital Cursillo movement, with a hard-working and dedicated community of Cursillistas who retained a high level of enthusiasm about it. It teaches solid spiritual practices of daily prayer, corporate worship, and mutual accountability in small groups. What’s not to like about that?
Yet, I had to tell these fine people (nearly all of whom are in the Baby Boomer generation) that they were stuck in the ’70s. The incidental decor (stuff that the Cursillo team brings into the facility and takes out when it’s over) in the main meeting room was not only shopworn, but redolent of that earlier era in which these folks who can now draw Social Security were youthful and cutting edge. And the songs — many of them were fresh and new when Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter lived in the White House, but now they’re older than the nearly middle-aged adults who attend our weekends.
Still, I recognized Cursillo as having great potential for helping renew the Diocese of Springfield. The strategy is a proven concept: isolate people in an intense shared experience, which fuels the quick formation of community among the participants. Defenses are lowered, and there is openness to growth. I didn’t want to let Cursillo slip away and eventually laid to rest, as it has been in other places.
I began to work patiently with the leadership to be less respectful of sacred cows and embrace the “renewal of the renewal.” It was a challenge for everyone. There was some pushback. Old and familiar ways were much-beloved comfort food for a good many people. Everyone operated from a place of charitable goodwill, though, and enough were able to summon the wherewithal to make some changes.
In June of this year, our Cursillo weekend featured a main meeting room devoid of 40-year old hangings and artwork that had been taken for granted. A lovely and very traditional-looking icon graced the space. Music in the meeting room included less guitar and more piano. Since the worship space featured an excellent pipe organ, and one of the members of the music team was an accomplished organist, we actually used the organ at the Saturday Eucharist and the closing liturgy (which is attended by people from all over the diocese) on Sunday afternoon. Organ at Cursillo, with hymns from the hymnal? This was once thought heresy! I was there to give the talk on the sacraments, and to celebrate/preach the two Masses. There may have been some quiet grumbling among the Fourth Day community at the closing service, but if there was discontent, I didn’t hear about it. This was the first fruits of some quiet but persistent collaboration between the bishop and key leaders in the Cursillo community. We still need to consolidate these gains and make even further progress, but I am optimistic that Cursillo will be a significant arrow in our quiver in the pursuit of spiritual growth toward apostolic ministry in the Diocese of Springfield.