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This article is presented as part of an occasional series exploring some of the new movements and ecclesial communities that have arisen in the Church.
By Meghan Dorney
Spain, a nation born in part due to religious conflict, had struggled for years to uphold the Catholic religion within its borders. The destruction, upheaval and turmoil of both the Spanish Civil War and World War II acutely affected the Catholic Church’s existence there, leaving the national religion in need of renewal.
In the late 1940s, Bishop Juan Hervas, bishop of the diocese of Majorca, Spain, felt that the Church needed to reconnect with the Spanish people, especially the men, whom he saw as attending Mass less frequently than women.
He implored and received the help of a group of men belonging to the group Catholic Action.
"The men met regularly and took a look at what was happening in the Church and how they could renew it," explained Mary Ann McLaughlin, lay director of the Cursillo Movement in the Archdiocese of Boston.
They decided to use an upcoming national pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James at Compostela, the patron saint of Spain, as “a way of helping people focus. So they had little courses that they offered to prepare people for a pilgrimage,” McLaughlin continued.
These “little courses” in Christianity, which the men of Catholic Action presented to small groups, became so well renowned and appreciated that they continued after the 1948 pilgrimage. These courses, aimed at fostering Christian community and encouraging Catholics to bear witness to Gospel values in their homes, parishes and work places, developed into the Cursillo Movement. Cursillo means, “little course” in Spanish.
"The Cursillo allows people to live their faith in a very intentional way in the ordinary circumstances of their lives," stated McLaughlin. "Cursillo's charism is evangelization, because at the heart of Cursillo is sending forth people into their environment, better able to live their Christian faith in community but also in their own lives."
The Cursillo Movement began to spread throughout Spain, Europe and eventually the U.S. The first Cursillo in the U.S. was in Waco, Texas in 1957.
According to Father John Sassani, spiritual director of the Cursillo Movement in the archdiocese, the first Cursillo was held in the Archdiocese of Boston a few years later, in 1962, at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Canton. Cursillos were then held at St. Gabriel Monastery in Brighton before relocating to St. William Hall on the grounds of St. John Seminary, where Cursillo weekends are still held today.
He went on to explain that the Cursillo Movement is always connected to a diocese, but noted that a “funny phenomenon” exists here because “in the same territory we have two different dioceses — the Archdiocese of Boston and the Melkite [Eparchy] of Newton — which overlap.”
The Cursillo Movement at St. William Hall is “connected” to the Archdiocese of Boston, while the Cursillo Movement at St. Basil Retreat House in Newton is attached to the Melkite Eparchy of Newton. “So we really have, in some ways, two centers within the same geographic area,” said Father Sassani.
The Holy Cross Retreat House at Stonehill College in Easton serves people of the Fall River Diocese, but also attracts people from the Archdiocese of Boston who live on the South Shore, he continued. There are Spanish, Portugese and Vietnamese Cursillo Movements in the Archdiocese of Boston.
Today’s Cursillos are based on the original Cursillo. For example, there are separate Cursillo weekends for men and women. Typically, around 25 to 40 people attend each weekend. Four Cursillo weekends are held in the archdiocese each year: two for men and two for women.
The courses are given over the period of one weekend, Thursday night through Sunday night.
Each day of the Cursillo weekend begins with morning prayers and ends with night prayers. Mass is celebrated each day except Thursday.
The weekend opens with an introduction and silent “retreat phase” on Thursday night. The courses, which help participants to have a better understanding of themselves and their relationships with Christ, continue through Sunday. Lay people and priests present topics such as holiness, evangelization, the sacraments and obstacles to grace. Discussion amongst the participants, called “faith sharing,” follows the presentations.
"The presentations incorporate the teachings of the Church and personal experience," stated Father Sassani. The personal experiences of those who give the presentations help "the people who are coming for the first time to realize that faith can be a really dynamic, integrated part of their life and not just a Sunday routine," he continued.
When the weekend ends on Sunday evening, the participants meet members of the larger Cursillo community who have been supporting them with prayers throughout the weekend.
"The Cursillo method aims at helping to transform, in a Christian way, the environments where people live and work through the involvement of 'new men and women' who have become such from their encounter with Christ," said Pope John Paul II in 2000. "This is the goal of the three day 'little course' on Christianity; in which a team of priests and lay people, supported by the prayer and sacrifices of the movement's other members, communicated the fundamental truths of the Christian faith in an especially 'living way.'"
Candidates for a Cursillo weekend must be sponsored by someone who has already completed a Cursillo retreat, should be at least 25 years old and be a baptized Catholic of good standing to receive the sacraments.
After completing the Cursillo weekend, participants are encouraged to become active in their parishes and to experience in their daily lives the encounter with God that they received on the Cursillo weekend. Their witness to God’s love is what attracts others to participate in Cursillo weekends, noted Father Sassani and McLaughlin. Those who have completed a weekend and wish to continue the experience can attend ongoing weekly meetings with other Cursillo participants.
"The meetings help them to exercise what they learned on the Cursillo weekend -- to use the tools to do the faith sharing," said McLaughlin.
It is difficult to estimate how many people in the archdiocese identify with the Cursillo community here. However, 1,500 people subscribe to the movement’s newsletter in English.
According to McLaughlin, the Cursillo Movement in the archdiocese “is very active, so active that many times people who have made Cursillo become active in their parish and may not be obviously connected with Cursillo Movement. But as you have a conversation with them you find out that they have made a Cursillo and part of the reason that they are so active is because of what happened on the Cursillo.”
More information on the Cursillo Movement is available at www.natl-cursillo.org or the archdiocesan website: www.rcab.org/spiritual/Cursillo.html.