An excerpt from:  CURSILLO:  Little Courses in Catharsis

A Critique of the Cursillo and Related Movements

Chapter 4.  The Origins of the Cursillo Method


History of the Movement


            The Cursillo method was devised in the 1940s and 50s in Majorca (or Mallorca), Spain.  The historical and cultural factors are integral to its perceived need and its shape and function. 

            The movement’s unofficial historian, Ivan J. Rohloff, summarizes several historical and cultural aspects of mid-twentieth-century Spain.  The Catholic Church in Spain had had a history of isolation and popular control, but at this time found itself under attack.  “During the traumatic thirties [1930s] both superstition and violent anticlericalism surfaced.”[1] To complicate matters further, “secular humanism and atheism were quite widespread among the intelligentsia and in academic circles.”[2]  What’s more, Spanish men had long been absent from the church:  “It was often considered childish or effeminate for men to be devout in their faith.”[3]  Rohloff considers the Cursillo method to be a direct reaction to these secularizing forces in an attempt to reclaim young Spanish men who had been caught up in non-Christian lifestyles. 

            Sociologist Ralph G. O’Sullivan would therefore place the Cursillo in the category of a social movement “centered around efforts to invalidate the sources and teachings of those beliefs which created normative disarray in order to re-form intellectual, social, moral, and ideological normalcy in a population.”[4]  It is a method for reviving, renewing or revitalizing a beleaguered church.

            The Cursillo was originally discovered or devised as a method for training leaders for a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James the Greater, a religious practice common to Spanish Catholicism.  The pilgrimage was first proposed in 1932, but was frequently interrupted and postponed until 1948. 


Within this time and through the effort to organize the pilgrimage, the cursillo was formed.  But the movement was an inadvertent result of the planning for the pilgrimage.  So unexpected was the cursillo that the reality of its existence was not discerned by many people even when it was an ongoing phenomenon.  Clearly, the cursillo originated as a process to organize, train, and enliven adolescents for a pilgrimage.  It has now advanced to a method for renewing Catholic men and women throughout the world.[5]


Leaders found that the desired renewal occurred through the training courses before the pilgrimage ever took place.  They began to see the usefulness of the training itself, even without the pilgrimage.  “Some in the early team of men experienced a shift in attitude, realizing as they did, that the significant pilgrimage was not the one to St. James the Greater, but life itself.”[6]  “The Mallorcans were unaware that the cursillos in preparation for the Pilgrimage were far more important than the Pilgrimage itself.”[7]

            One other development was yet required in order to make the Cursillo method complete, because


… the courses were not without their failings.  Although this method increased religious fervor and dedication, it could not sustain it.  Enthusiasm and joy diminished in the months following an individual’s participation in the courses.  Something more was needed.[8] 


            The problem was that after the weekend the group was disbanded.  The various participants lived apart from each other and so had no continued interaction.  To make matters worse, a strict rule forbade individuals from being initiated more than once, so there was no way to sustain or renew the Cursillo experience.  “Therefore, there was no basis for increasing the brotherhood and sisterhood, as well as the religious fervor fostered during the initiation.”[9]  In time the leadership proposed an answer.

     In 1951, a solution was formulated.  A follow-up program of weekly and bi-monthly meetings, called group reunions and ultreyas, regrouped initiates and thereby provided links of continuity.[10] 


The experience could be renewed and sustained.  Thus the form of the Cursillo was complete:  a weekend of religious revitalization and renewal followed by regular group meetings to sustain the fervor of the original weekend.  


Principal Authors and Proponents of the Movement


            Rohloff describes those most responsible for the development of the Cursillo method:  “One could say that Eduardo Bonnin is the principal founder of the movement; Bishop Hervas is its episcopal champion; Gabriel Segui is its historian and Juan Capo is the movement’s theologian.”[11]  Most important of these is Bonnin, who interjected a strong psychological element into the method.  Rohloff calls Bonnin “the single most influential person in the origins of the movement.”[12]


     Eduardo Bonnin was sought out as a potential leader and was persuaded by his friend, Jose Ferregut to make the Cursillo in 1943….His avid reading in psychology gave him a keen understanding of modern man.  His creativity was to influence the Cursillo movement more than any other single person.[13]


In a private interview Segui mentioned that the Cursillo movement is really the child of Eduardo Bonnin.  It is a marvelous union of psychology and theology….It was Eduardo himself, with his Jewish background (his ability to use fantasy), his intelligence, his very assidous [sic] study and his knack for psychological intuition that produced Cursillo.  “The Cursillo movement, this, is merely an extension of the person of Eduardo Bonnin.”  Segui said that if one wants to know the Cursillo movement well, it is enough to know Eduardo Bonnin well.[14]


It is apparent that Bonnin’s contemporaries considered him a capable interpreter of and apologist for the movement.  His books reveal him to be a seminal thinker and persuasive communicator.[15] 


The Purpose of the Movement


            It is important to understand that the original movement aimed far higher than simply sponsoring weekend experiences or even creating a new movement.  Indeed, according to Rohloff, “the [weekend] Cursillo exercise is the least important component of the method.”[16]  The ultimate goal is 1) locating the people who are the “backbone” of various “environments,” 2) “converting” them into leaders during the Cursillo weekend, and 3) turning them back to evangelize their environments, all the while connecting them and supporting them through continued group reunions and ultreya meetings.  These three phases are called respectively the Precursillo, the Cursillo and the Postcursillo.


     The leavening of environments with the Gospel, which is the purpose of the Cursillo Movement, is sought, not by means of a direct and global action on all Christians, but by choosing from among them those who have the required characteristics and give promise of being the living vertebrae that animate communities so that they can change their environments.  During the Precursillo, candidates will be prepared for the three day Cursillo and Postcursillo.  Such candidates should come from an existing or potential community and should be capable of becoming its vertebrae.  They should be prepared in such a way that they will be ready to understand, live and accept the message of the three days.[17]


                1.  The Precursillo.  Not everyone should be invited to attend a Cursillo weekend.  Those sought out are “the vertebrae of their environment,” those with “deep personality,” who exhibit the potential for “effectiveness:  The effectiveness [they] will have as… vertebrae in Christianity.”[18]  Of course “standard” individuals may also go, that is “those who flow with the tide.”[19]  But under no circumstances are “those who have no personality at all”[20] to go, that is, those with no aptitude for affecting their environment.  Apparently, the Cursillo is wasted on them.[21] 


                2.  The Cursillo.  The purpose of the Cursillo weekend is to prepare the vertebrae to evangelize their environment.  “It should help those attending discover their personal calling (or vocation) in order to accomplish it in and for the community….”[22]  Roman Catholic Cursillo promoter Al Blatnik offers a more candid and colorful way of saying it:  “They are, facetiously, the ‘whomp’ on the head to get your attention.”  He continues:   


There is little doubt about the potentiality of the candidates to exert more of a Christian influence on their environment.  The problem with most of us is that this potentiality is not exerted to its fullest.  We need to become restless and fervent in our desire to effect a change in our environment. We need to center our lives around Jesus Christ and not treat Him as just another object in our existence.  We need to get ourselves off center and begin to move.  In a simple and uncomplicated explanation, this is what the weekend is for—to light a fire in us, to cause us to become restless, to inspire us to live the Christian ideal.[23]


                3.  The Postcursillo.  As noted before, “Although this method increased religious fervor and dedication, it could not sustain it.  Enthusiasm and joy diminished in the months following an individual’s participation in the courses.”[24]  For this reason the Postcursillo was devised.  It has two parts:  the group reunion, and ultreya meeting.  The group reunion is a small support group for accountability purposes.  Groups meet informally and frequently and are constituted on the basis of shared interests.  The ultreya (“ultreya” is a  Spanish word meaning “onward”) “is a gathering of all cursillistas in a given area on a regular basis”[25] meeting ideally on a weekly basis and is a larger, more structured group meeting.  After an emotional Cursillo weekend experience, the graduates are encouraged to become involved in an ultreya group but are cautioned that the ultreya will not match the emotional intensity they felt on the Cursillo, because “no experience immediately after the three days is going to duplicate the joy and emotional exultation that you felt then.”  In fact, after being swayed by emotion during the weekend, graduates are instructed “not to base your Christian growth on emotions alone.”[26]  Leaders often contact graduates, invite them to reunions, and emphasize the importance of attending ultreya meetings.  They also encourage graduates to “work” at subsequent Cursillos and to sponsor friends or family.

(Copyright 2009, Brian V. Janssen.  All rights reserved.  Used by permission.)

[1] Ivan J. Rohloff, The Origins and Development of Cursillo (1939-1973) (Dallas: National

Ultreya Publications of the United States National Secretariat, 1976), 19.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ralph G. O'Sullivan, "Cursillo in Social Movement Literature," Free Inquiry in Sociology

25, no. 2 (1997): 131.

[5] Marcoux, Cursillo, Anatomy of a Movement: The Experience of Spiritual Renewal, 8.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Rohloff, The Origins and Development of Cursillo (1939-1973), 59.

[8] Marcoux, Cursillo, Anatomy of a Movement: The Experience of Spiritual Renewal, 20.

[9] Ibid., 21.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Rohloff, The Origins and Development of Cursillo (1939-1973), iv. 

[12] Ibid., 55.  A letter quoted by Rohloff is addressed to Dr. D. Eduardo Bonnin.  According to John Hensley DeTar and Thomas M. Manion, To Deceive…The Elect (Reno, NV: Athanasius Press, 1966), 45, early reports described Bonnin as a psychiatrist.

[13] Ibid., 52-53.

[14] Ibid., 154, n. 107. 

[15] See especially his Cursillos in Christianity: The How and the Why (Dallas:  National Ultreya Publications, 1981) and Structure of Ideas: [Vertebration], trans. Collice H. Portnoff and Maria J. Escudero (Dallas:  National Ultreya Publications, n.d.).  

[16] Rohloff, The Origins and Development of Cursillo (1939-1973), 55.

[17] The NationalCursilloCenter, The Fundamental Ideas of the Cursillo Movement (Dallas:

National Ultreya Publications, 1974), 98, emphasis and underlining in the original.

[18] Eduardo Bonnín, Bernardo Vadell, and Francisco Forteza, Structure of Ideas:[Vertebration], 14-15. 

Of course this selection process raises serious questions. What place do these “backbone” people

have in their local churches once they are “converted” through Cursillo?  Is their primary loyalty

to their Cursillo community or the church?  And how can they be expected to submit to their

church leadership who may be perceived as “non-backbone” pastors or elders if these have not

“made Cursillo”?

[19] Ibid., 15.

[20] Ibid.  Also listed under “Those who should not attend” are “1. Those who have psychological or emotional problems” and “2. Those whose moral life is disordered in a way which could not be remedied by a Cursillo. 102.

[21] Lower Your Nets by Juan Capõ Bosch (Dallas:  National Ultreya Publications, 1965) is a

126- page book devoted to selecting candidates, motivating them to attend the Cursillo

and explaining how to overcome the resistance of those who do not want to attend.

[22] The National Cursillo Center, The Fundamental Ideas of the Cursillo Movement, 56.

[23] Al Blatnik, Your Fourth Day (Dallas: National Ultreya Publications, 1973), 27.

[24] Marcoux, Cursillo, Anatomy of a Movement: The Experience of Spiritual Renewal, 20.

[25] Blatnik, Your Fourth Day, 10. 

[26] Ibid., 12.

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