The power of Cursillo


“Young people do not ask the Church for anything because they do not see her as significant in their lives” [CV40]. 

This was the conclusion that came from the Synod on Youth and Young Adults that took place last fall. Pope Francis did not try to whitewash this sentiment in Christus Vivit, the post-synodal exhortation. Instead, he put the blame where it belongs: “financial and sexual scandals; a clergy ill-prepared to engage effectively with the sensitivities of the young; lack of care in homily preparation,” and on it goes. 

This is not a very optimistic view of the Church during this hopeful Easter season, but what better time than now? One wonders how we are going to turn this around and restore the Church to the vibrant symbol of Christ in the world. And yes, it is our Church to renew, not theirs. We are taking action not for the youth, but with them.

Christus Vivit, Christ is Alive! This is the hope of our renewed Church. The good news is that the Church has been through this before and by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the hands and hearts of ordinary and extraordinary people, she has been renewed. We do not have to look too far back in history to find our answer. 

Not too long ago, when the western world was emerging from a half-century of war and economic disaster, the Church was teetering on the crumbling pedestal of monarchies that had supported her with wealth and temporal power. Throughout Europe the Church was depleted by the rise of secularism and the political shift toward communism. Rising from the ashes of a dying Church came a surge of power from the laity. Emboldened by the Holy Spirit, Catholic Action organizations, filled with exuberant youth, fought against the rising tide of anti-clericalism that had emptied the pews. The Spanish version of Catholic Action took an innovative path and built upon an existing structure that the Jesuits had brought into the Church. Shortening their eight-day Spiritual Exercises retreat into a more accessible long weekend, the Cursillo emerged as a powerful movement in the Church.

Cursillo, Spanish for “short course,” became much more than a lesson in discipleship. It attracted people on the fringe of society in Spain, those who were poor and disaffected with the Church, not the rich and powerful that the Church once courted. These people were in search of a more personal relationship with God and they found it in this four-day experience that presented to them stories of conversion from people just like themselves. Ironically, this movement that brought so much life into the Church started to disturb the hierarchy because the cursillista — those who had lived the Cursillo weekend — were empowered by the Holy Spirit to take control of their own Spirituality. One bishop objected to the theology of grace that was emerging from the Cursillo reunion meetings because the laity expressed that they had a personal experience of the Holy Spirit. 

In order to curtail the movement, a pastoral letter was issued which dictated that cursillistas should not make a personal Confession of their past life and conversion, and should not speak in public without a priest present. These restrictions drained some of the power out of the movement, but it could not stifle the Holy Spirit. The Cursillo movement found its way to the United States in the early 1960s and spread like wildfire. It became the fuel for an empowered laity in the Diocese of Fall River for decades.

There is much to learn from the history of the Cursillo movement, and much to be gained by renewing its influence in the diocese. The Church will be renewed from the people up, not the top down. The Cursillo movement was once the catalyst for the laity to bring into their parishes the joy and exuberance that comes from an encounter with Christ and His Holy Spirit. Parishes benefitted from their commitment to service, but soon complained that the post-retreat reunions were drawing the people away. Without the support of the parishes the movement lost its steam, and the diocese lost a powerful vehicle for evangelization.

The Synod on Youth made it clear that the Church has to stop standing in the way of effective ways of bringing people to Christ. “It does not matter where they are coming from or what labels they have received, whether ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal,’ ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive.’ What is important is that we make use of everything that has borne fruit and effectively communicates the joy of the Gospel” [CV 205]. We are on the cusp of renewal in the Diocese of Fall River. We are going to emerge as a strong and vibrant Church if we take responsibility for the renewal of our own relationship with Jesus, and then pay it forward to the people around us. Don’t wait for the parish to figure this out, but get out there and do it yourself! Make a friend, be a friend, and bring a friend to Christ.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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