The Introduction to: CURSILLO: Little Courses in Catharsis
A Critique of the Cursillo and Related Movements
The Concern About Cursillo
Cursillo. De colores. Palanca. Ultreya. Clausura.
These are key terms in a new vocabulary that accompanies an entirely new way of life for many Christians. But consulting a Spanish-English dictionary will help little in understanding this growing phenomenon among Roman Catholics and, more recently, Protestants of several denominational affiliations, including Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Dutch Reformed.
The terms do, however, signal the Spanish roots of the Cursillo (pronounced “cur-SEE-yoh”) de Cristiandad, literally “little courses in Christianity.” The methods and techniques of the Cursillo were developed in the 1940s by a team of Spanish laymen, chief of whom was Eduardo Bonnin, a psychologist. The Cursillo was recognized as a powerful tool for church renewal by the local bishop, Juan Hervas, who energetically promoted and propelled the Cursillo into a worldwide movement.
The Amazing Scope of Cursillo
It is hard to overestimate the impact of the Cursillo. The statistics are one measure of its success. In the early 1980s it was estimated that over two million Roman Catholics were members of Cursillo. According to the National Cursillo Center in Dallas, Texas, “as of 1981, almost all of the 160 dioceses in the United States had introduced the Cursillo Movement.” This was well over two decades ago when the Cursillo had been in existence a bare thirty years. In the twenty-eight years since, it has grown among Roman Catholics. What’s more, it is truly global:
Today it is a worldwide movement with centers in nearly all South and Central American countries, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia, Australia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and in several African countries.
The National Cursillo Center claims that the Cursillo movement has at least the unofficial endorsement of the Catholic Church in both the United States and Rome:
The Cursillo Movement in the United States was organized on a national basis in 1965. At this meeting a National Secretariat was organized, and a National Cursillo Office (currently in Dallas, Texas) was established. Furthermore, it is linked to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops....The movement is a member of the International Catholic Organizations of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome. 
Another measure of the success of the Cursillo is that it has made remarkable inroads into Protestant groups as well. The Methodists, for example, have adapted their own version of the Cursillo called “Walk to Emmaus,” which is used internationally and boasts one million U.S. participants to date, and has a youth version called “Chrysalis,” patterned after the Roman Catholic “Teens Encounter Christ” in which 150,000 youth have participated to date. An organization called the National Presbyterian Cursillo has secured a license from the Roman Catholic Church to use the name “Cursillo” in the weekends hosted among Presbyterians; the group has local chapters in twelve states. The Episcopalian Church has its own Cursillo which has chapters in over twenty dioceses nationwide and internationally. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America calls its version of Cursillo “Via de Cristo” (Way of Christ). It originated in Florida and Iowa in 1972. Via de Cristo has held events in twenty-five states and some foreign countries, with 84,000 U.S. participants to date in 44 centers. Cursillo is becoming increasingly popular among the Dutch Reformed (RCA & CRC) of Northwest and Central Iowa, Southwest Minnesota, Southeast South Dakota, and Western Michigan, with youth and young adult versions of each. According to the Reformed Church in America’s website, the Cursillo appears to have denominational endorsement.
There is a prison ministries version of the Cursillo sponsored by Kairos Ministries. It currently operates in 270 prisons in 33 states, as well as England, Australia, South Africa, Costa Rica, and Canada. According to its website, “More than 170,000 incarcerated men and women have been introduced to Kairos, since its inception. The current number of volunteers exceeds 20,000 per year.” Tres Dias is an interdenominational, Protestant version of the Cursillo which began in Newburgh, New York in 1972 and became international in 1985, spreading to Germany and Korea. According to its website Tres Dias operates internationally through 63 centers and has served “tens of thousands of people.” A Canadian Cursillo website (cursillos.ca) declares that “The Cursillo Movement has spread in more than 60 countries and across the religious spectrum.” It offers links to 1,550 Cursillo-related websites and to 81 Catholic and Protestant movements based on the Cursillo. The same source indicates that the pace of Cursillo weekends continues. During the week of February 19-22, 2009, for example, 40 Catholic and Protestant Cursillo weekends worldwide were held, including 29 in the U.S. alone. This was no anomaly, since the next week, February 26-March 1, 2009 reported 36 Catholic and Protestant Cursillo weekends, including 26 in the U.S.
But the impact of the Cursillo can be seen more clearly in the impression the Cursillo initiation weekend makes on “candidates” (those attending the initiation, seeking to “make Cursillo” and become “cursillistas”). One Roman Catholic cursillista reports a typical response:
I was born again. The night of the cursillo, it was somber. At night I took out the cross and held it in my hand and I looked at it; I was changed. Something happened to me that can’t be explained. I was filled with love, and I knew that God loved me, but I didn’t know it by reason or intellect, but it was in me. I started to cry and knew that something very unusual had happened. I knew why I was put here and that I had a purpose. I was born again. I realized that I am tied to others and have a sense of awareness.
My old self died, and my new self is to see the lovable in each person and to see the unlovable as lovable. To see people as He sees them and not as I see the surface.
Another cursillista offers high praise. “It was an overpowering, beautiful experience. Peaceful, deeply moving, it touched my whole being. There was an overwhelming peacefulness.” As another phrased it: “It became an integrative experience. It deepened my faith and made it more personal. It became a way of life. My faith became my priority.”
The Protestant version can be just as powerful and transforming, according to the positive reports of many who attend. A retired Reformed Church in America pastor, deeply involved in the local Cursillo movement, asserts that Cursillo has succeeded where the church has failed:
Dear Brother, you speak of how the call to unity and oneness has failed in communism and socialism and democracy, in the world. You could also add the church, the kingdom of God to that list! I feel that is more where you and I, as we exercise the gift of prophecy, need to be doing the talking!
I just came home from a four day retreat (Cursillo) in which, judging by the testimony time Sunday night, about 30 guys who were turned off to God or who were stuck with a head knowledge of the Lord got there [sic] spiritual hearts started, and five or six guys who were ignorant of the Lord got reborn and plugged in to the fellowship of believers.
I talked with several of the other staff members about how this king of revival and miracles and movement of the Holy Spirit ought to be happening in the hometowns and churches from which we all come! I found a common agreement that one reason it happens an [sic] Cursillo and is so scarce in our home congregations is that at Cursillo, there are no walls, do [sic] denominational and congregational divisions-we are, at Cursillo united, of one mind and purpose and spirit-and that is of Christ!
Similarly, the following testimonials appeared on a brochure advertising the TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) Weekend, the youth version of the Reformed Cursillo:
(Male) T.E.C. was one of the funniest and best events I have ever been to. To me T.E.C. was more than just a spiritual high. It was spiritual growth. I just wish everyone would go through T.E.C. so they can experience the love of God like I did. (emphasis original)
(Male) This T.E.C. weekend I went to was one of the best weekends of my whole life! I learned many new and awesome things. The #1 thing I learned is that Jesus is my best friend in the whole world and that he cares for me a lot. I used to think God hated me and he didn’t care what I did and who I hurt. But now I realize my past mistakes and pray to Him every day and night to forgive me and to give me the strength to carry on. I also met a lot of special people that I now call my best friends. That means a lot, because I’ve never had people this close to me and I think it kicks butt. All in all, I hope I can work a T.E.C or 2 so I can have Jesus work though [sic] me to help kids with problems similar to the ones I had. This was a really great weekend!
(Female) T.E.C. was awesome! Everyone there was so accepting and supporting and just glowed with Jesus’ love. It was the first time I actually realized there are people who really do love me. I made all kinds of new friends and had the time of my life!
(Female) T.E.C. has been an experience I will never forget. So much strength is found not only in going through but working. Team unity is so awesome & great friendships are made. God is love. Let go and let God.
These reports are certainly compelling. To put them into perspective, though, you should know that these TEC testimonials were secured at the close of the weekend, while the graduates were still basking in its glow, before the effects had begun to wear off. One of the above participants attended several more weekend events as a leader, giving talks describing his troubled past and the wonderful transformation resulting from his initial TEC weekend. In a short time, however, he began using drugs and eventually dropped out of church.
The Concern about Cursillo
Still the experience of Cursillo is undeniably potent for many. Words like “overwhelming,” “great,” “powerful,” and “best experience of my life” are not uncommon. Such high praise should not be taken lightly because it is so typical and universal in the Cursillo experience. When members of our congregation attended such weekends and began actively to promote such weekends, as a pastor, as a shepherd responsible for the spiritual care of God’s people, I became convinced that this phenomenon required further scrutiny.
But here I came to a near dead end. A quick search of available literature yielded almost no information which examined Cursillo from a critical or objective perspective. My questions posed to colleagues in ministry and to local religion and psychology professors at Reformed colleges in the area confirmed what I found (or did not find) in the literature. To the question, “What do you know about Cursillo?” the most frequent response among ministers or professors was “not much.” Most had heard of it and knew people who had attended. Many had been urged to attend themselves. Some were able to refer me to people who were in leadership of these events.
And even my contacts with local Cursillo leaders proved disappointing. It turned out that through my limited reading, I knew more about the history of Cursillo than they did. None had ever heard of Eduardo Bonnin or Bishop Juan Hervas. What they did know with great precision was the format and methods of the Cursillo weekend, the powerful techniques that produce the glowing effects reported by so many of the Cursillo graduates.
Apparently the format, methods, and techniques are the defining ingredients of the Cursillo movement. Philosophical and theological matters are given little attention. For example, when I asked the National Outreach Coordinator of the National Presbyterian Cursillo via email what modifications had to be made in the Roman Catholic Cursillo to make it more Presbyterian and Reformed, the response was revealing:
I am honestly not familiar with the actual Catholic Cursillo, so I don’t know exactly what things may be in the Presbyterian weekend that may be different from the Catholic weekend....
I am very familiar with the Presbyterian Cursillo weekend though, and if you have specific questions about our weekend, please ask me and I would be glad to answer to the best of my ability.
The coordinator’s lack of information dismayed me.
Please understand the gravity of this concern. This is a quiet, one could rightly say “secretive,” global movement among Christians, originally among Roman Catholics, but increasingly promoted among Protestants. It is for many, by their own report: “the best experience of my life,” one that “touched my whole being,” “in which I was born again.” And yet of this phenomenon, there has been little inquiry or critique in print from a Reformed pastoral or theological perspective. As members of my congregation went deeper into the movement and openly recruited others, I became concerned. What is Cursillo? Why is it so secretive and controversial? If it really does produce all the purported benefits, why has the whole church not embraced it?
This monograph is my attempt to answer those questions, to begin to fill the gaping hole of silence and lack of inquiry on this subject. Because the experience of Cursillo is admittedly so powerful, a simple answer would not suffice. Hopefully, this will not be the last word on Cursillo from a Reformed perspective.
The Conclusion About Cursillo
At the end of many hours of study, I can now confidently offer up front my conclusion about Cursillo and related phenomena: Cursillo is really “Little Courses in Catharsis.” Or stated more fully,
These weekend “high” experiences are largely dependent on universally applicable, manipulative, somewhat deceptive and not uniquely Christian psychological and physiological techniques designed to wear down resistance and produce an emotional high/ cathartic experience, which is then interpreted as religious experience. While the short-term effects may be pleasant and desirable, the long-term consequences are mostly negative. And since these weekends have no biblical warrant, they should be avoided.
The various aspects of this conclusion will be thoroughly explained in the following pages.
As members of my church began to describe the details of the Cursillo-type weekend they attended (something they had been forbidden to do by the event’s leadership), parts of the weekend began to sound quite familiar. It seemed very similar to numerous weekend renewal events I had attended and even led in previous years. At this point it would be helpful for me to back up and explain a part of my own past, a personal quest for emotional experience.
(Copyright 2009 Brian V. Janssen. All rights reserved. Used by permission.)
 Marcene Marcoux, Cursillo: Anatomy of a Movement: The Experience of Spiritual Renewal (New York: Lambeth Press, 1982), 26.
 The National Secretariat of the Cursillo Movement, The Cursillo Movement: What is It? (Dallas: National Cursillo Center), 13.
 Robert Wood, An Early History of the Walk to Emmaus (Nashville: Upper Room Books,
 www.rca.org/NETCOMMUNITY/Page.aspx?&pid=1614&srcid=2058 and www.rca.org/NETCOMMUNITY/Page.aspx?&pid=1291&srcid=1701
 http://cursillos.ca/en/liens.htm Names for Protestant versions of Cursillo are also listed: EPISCOPALIAN/ANGLICAN: Episcopal Cursillo, Happening, New Beginnings, Dias con Cristo, Anglican Cursillo, Challenge, Vocare, TEC; LUTHERAN: Via de Cristo, Lutheran Cursillo, Happening, TEC, Tirosh, Chayah, My Father’s House; METHODIST: Walk to Emmaus, Methodist Cursillo, Unidos en Cristo, Chrysalis, Alarga, The Journey, Search for Christian Maturity; PRESBYTERIAN, BAPTIST AND OTHER DENOMIATIONAL: Presbyterian Cursillo, Presbyterian Pilgrimmage, Koinonia, Celebration, Faith Walk, The Way of Christ, Vida Nueva, United Church Cursillo; NON-DENOMINATIONAL: Aventura, Awakening, Camino, Credo Recovery, DeColores EnChristo, DeColores Ministries, Deco-Tec, Diaspora, Discipleship Walk, Ecco-I, Epiphany Ministry, Footsteps, Great Banquet, Happening Ecumenical, Journey though Faith, Jubilee Journey, Kairos, Kairos Outside, Kairos Torch, Keryx, Koinonia, Paseo con Cristo, Residents Encounter Christ, Tres Dias, UTEC.
 Marcoux, Cursillo, Anatomy of a Movement: The Experience of Spiritual Renewal, 91.
 Ibid., 92.
 E-mail to author, 24 February 2003.
 E-mail to author, 1 April 2001.
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