CURSILLO:
SOME PRO’S AND CON’S
[June, 2001]

I recently sought some perceptions about Cursillo nationally among “all sorts and conditions” of women and men.

If their comments are at all on target, parish clergy and local leaders of Cursillo really need to attend to the integration of any and all benefits of this resource within their parishes. Perhaps national and diocesan oversight is needed, too.

Summary of Positive Perceptions

The Cursillo experience is said to be an impressive evangelical approach which is intense and moving, such that it brings many people together for four days of much prayer and celebration. If one wants to examine one's own spirituality, be challenged at many levels, and be open to what may happen (or may not), then it can be recommended -- if one has a spiritual director or mentor or just someone he or she could talk with in depth after the weekend. A Cursillo weekend can be a positive life-changing event for anyone, whether straight or gay. Some people who go to the weekend come back to their parishes and become very active (or at least more active) in lay ministry. Cursillo is said to be a style of living out the Christian life within a community of like-minded people, and involves a fair amount of corporate praying and sharing. It can succeed in affecting the places one lives, works and worships. Cursillo has been helpful in Roman Catholic parishes, which often lack programs that enable laity to become really involved or personally/spiritually connected. It has its pluses in the Episcopal Church as well. The Episcopal Church certainly has room within itself for this style to be experienced and applied.

Qualifying Remarks

       “Experience tells me that the Cursillo movement depends entirely on its location and who’s in charge.”

       “Diocesan leadership in Cursillo is needed to help everyone keep things in perspective.”

       “This type of spirituality/renewal may appeal primarily to those who are more in the ‘prayer & praise’ camp.”

       “Guidance in maturation is needed, so that the experience becomes less about ‘us & them’ and more about strengthening the Christian community.”

       “With healthy, balanced leadership it can work as advertised.”

       “Standing back from the warm fuzzies, we had lots of reservations.”

Cautionary and Negative Comments

“One small parish was literally split in two by those who believed that the only road to salvation lay through the Cursillo experience. Obviously the leadership was seriously flawed, but the participants also went in expecting to become superior Christians. As with any group like this it can be healthy or unhealthy. Of course, if you look at the original model - Spanish, patriarchal, authoritarian, you can understand it. And, again, it can, as can any religious movement, be homophobic or inclusive.”


“We had significant numbers involved in Cursillo. Yes, there was some of the (we are the) ‘true church’ attitude. My feeling is that it continues to attract more who probably didn't grow up in the Episcopal Church and whose spirituality tends toward the ‘prayer & praise.’ Odd, since Cursillo began in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Spanish Roman Catholic Church which is anything but Praise and Prayer. The core of the talks was always more orthodox and what we would call Anglo-Catholic, while the music was definite praise music. A real mixed bag.”


”The dangers I see are that as folks of a more fundamentalist bent get involved, I hear stories of more judgmental behavior & attitudes being evident in the talks and expectations of some of the leadership. It really depends on the diocese and the leadership. It could also be pretty disastrous. Check it out with diocesan leadership first; leadership that is involved in Cursillo and leadership that is not.”


“Too often I've seen Cursillo become an Episcopal para-parish – an ‘in’ group of people who, however inadvertently, have a divisively special network and jargon. In Roman Catholic parishes, Cursillo tends to be less ‘para’ and more integrated into the parish as a whole.”


“The dark side of Cursillo is that is usually winds up getting latched onto by the fundamentalist religious right-wingers within the Church, who seize it, make it their platform and their standard. They leave no room for compromise. I once gave the Baptism talk at a Cursillo in which I stated that (a) baptism works (b) it works even if you don't ‘experience’ it working, (c) it works even if you are an infant, and (d) this is when you receive the Spirit. While I thought that what I was saying was very orthodox, and reflected the teachings of the Church, I was nevertheless turned into the Bishop for teaching heresy(!).”


”The check-and-balance that is important is that Cursillo is done under the authority of the Bishop of the Diocese. Bishops here have historically ridden serious herd on Cursillo, thereby seeing to it that it remains a style WITHIN the Episcopal Church and doesn't get out of hand. Most Bishops, however, tend to leave it alone and let them do their thing, which is when separatist problems begin to develop.”


”While there is nothing at all in the Cursillo creed per se that would preclude Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered (GLBT) people from participating, in practice the types of people who run Cursillo tend to be pretty homophobic. And while I think it could be terrific if there could be a GLBT Cursillo in some broad-minded Diocese, I would be pleasantly stunned if the Cursillo secretariat in the said Diocese would allow it.”


“From what I know of this movement, it is fairly fundamentalist, patriarchal, and sexist in orientation. Thus, I can't think how GLBT people would benefit from it at all. Granted, the Church seems increasingly not to meet people's needs any more, but is Cursillo the answer to this deficiency? I rather agree with Jack Spong who says ‘Christianity must change, or die.’ And the change we need to foment seems to be to break up the Constantinian establishment once and for all, as painful as that may be to some people. Yes, in the spirit of Cursillo, we need smaller ecclesial units, such as the communidades de base Latin America, but ones that 1) no longer in any way bless or legitimate the interests of the rich and powerful and 2) that include all God's people, and especially us GLBT people.”


“I made my Cursillo back in 1985. It was interesting. Those who sponsored me thought it was the epiphany of their adult faith lives, and I can see where they would think so. To be in a place where faith in God is not poo-pooed, but embraced, and in the company of other adults! It really gave many of the people from my little church a chance to see life with Christ in the center and not the periphery. However; they became a click in the church; their enthusiasm was unintentional off-putting and intimidating. They notion that a weekend could change your life seemed cultish to some in the church, and the divisiveness of the whole thing hurt some people. I fault the pastor who was so into it—an ex Roman Catholic--for not being on top of the problem; but I guess he never saw it as a problem.”


”Personally, it was like life at my alma mater, a conservative college--and I was not all that impressed by it. Four years of everyday as “Cursillo” was enough!”


”My question is: How do you bring the enthusiasm and intimacy of Cursillo to the parish? How do you impress upon those who attend that the joy of Christ is in emulating his example--who not considering equality with God a thing to be grasp took on the very nature and presence of a servant? If Cursillo is a ME ME ME experience, then it's really not that good of thing. I saw the people who attended want others to attend, but I did not see them wash very many feet back at the parish--at least not the dirty ones. We had Cursillo (still have a board of sorts) for years – the Bishop was very supportive of renewal (see Dennis Bennett's Nine O'Clock In the Morning). And there was a large budget item for Cursillo in the Diocesan Budget. It was important and instrumental in many people's spiritual lives. It brought a lot of energy and more fun music into our diocese. Unfortunately from the freedom in Christ experienced at the weekend --somehow most became quite fundamentalist and ‘clique-y.’ It has continued to attract and support this. It became so connected with the worst of the charismatic movement, e.g. ‘if you don't speak in tongues you aren't really saved’ that it did not get enough candidates to continue. I think there has been one Cursillo in the last several years. There has been some talk of trying to revive it - but I think it is past its prime. The best thing it did was to bridge racial lines -- the worst, tear up churches.”


“We have had several discussions about Cursillo, usually with mixed reviews. In my experience, LGBT people are not welcome. We are not excluded, since my partner and I were known to be a couple but we were immersed in heterosexual, male imagery. Even the Holy Spirit became male, referred to as ‘he.’"


“The Cursillo experience applied poorly is like a child going away to summer camp with its picnics, games, songs, sharing moments and hugs and then returning home and to school demanding that the same process be continued. Too many adults (clergy, too) returning from a profitable Cursillo weekend want our Sunday worship and parish life to be a carbon copy. While a particular parish group might continue that style of prayer and fellowship, it is not appropriate to shove it down everyone else’s throat as THE superior Christian way. Frequently, spiritual arrogance sets in and divides, and even wrecks, a congregation.”


“Chris and Linda & family were active members. Chris was a licensed lay reader and Linda was a Sunday school teacher. Cursillo meant a lot to them. They went to ultrea. [Ultrea = An evening meeting for everyone who has attended a cursillo weekend. Singing, witnessing and comment by a spiritual director, a time to meet with 3 or 4 other people and each talk about their closest moment with Christ this week, followed by a big snack.] They left the church because we didn’t sing cursillo music on Sunday. Randy and Gail felt the same way … but they just stopped attending.

“Jim and Janet and family never missed on Sundays. Janet taught Sunday School and was a past president of the women of the church. After cursillo, life for them became more intense. Garrison Keilor talks about a church in Lake Wobegon called, ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.’ Cursillo brought out in Janet a constant feeling of guilt. And she felt that every one else should be over committed as well. Life as a Christian should be like a full court press in basketball … or perhaps like watching a video in fast-forward. The Episcopal Church was not demanding enough. They left the church.”


“ Like most movements in the church, cursillo reaches out to embrace the amateur. Trembling before a group of men, a speaker bares his soul, perhaps for the first time as he articulates a point of his faith. It is a powerful witness to all concerned. Soon cursillo staff become regulars … the talks more dramatic. Outlines are available for those giving talks so that the right kind of information or witness is transmitted. It sounds a lot like a ‘catholicized’ version of the Episcopal Church. There becomes a two-class system: those who are rectors, and various other roles and those who pass through the doors. Each closing reveals transformed lives. The forum for action becomes the next cursillo, ‘who can we get to go?’ Who is going to organize the snack food or get people to write palanca [palanca = ‘friends and acquaintances write letters to the candidates telling of how wonderful it is that they have gone to the cursillo and to tell them that they are praying for them this whole week end.’ After about a day of the weekend, bags full of letters are given to each candidate. They are dismissed to go to their rooms to read mail. It can be quite emotional. I believe that the distribution of letters happens twice during the weekend.] or get people to come to the closing? Christianity as practiced Sunday by Sunday seems less important. Evangelism becomes getting people to cursillo.”