By Elizabeth Prata
Please forgive the length. I researched scrupulously and collected a good amount of original source material. I put it together in a way I have not seen widely on the internet, barring one or two books for purchase one might buy. Though a plethora of positive reviews abound, any concerns regarding the Cursillo movement are not as readily available. My goal is to present enough information so that people who are aware of or who have been invited to one of these events can assess the invitation by the information gathered here or going to one of the links provided. It is intended to be a resource for discerning persons making decisions about Cursillo weekends in all its forms.
From this statement, one might surmise that my assessment of the movement is largely negative. This saddens me, because of course one would like to see movements tied to the Bible, founded on teaching grace, and working to revive the saint. This, the Cursillo movement claims to do, but unfortunately its methods are dubious and its ties to the Word shaky. I also have a bias against any para-church movement that draws congregants away from their home church in time, attention, or energy.
The emotional high it produces in participants does not last, and the let-down for some is not only unhelpful, but harmful. For those whose positivity toward the movement say it is personally fulfilling and life-altering, it creates a seed pocket of believers whose loyalties are divided between the movement and their own church. Some even say it creates more of a loyalty to the movement than it does to Christ.
In Part 1 I looked at what The Great Banquet/Walk to Emmaus/Tres Dias AKA Cursillo actually is. I examined its theology from Cursillo press releases and from online published scripts of talks given at the three day immersive event.
The weekend is touted as a time for ‘pilgrims’ (who have been observed, selected by a ‘sponsor’, vetted, and accepted into the program) to renew their spiritual fervor, re-orient their priorities, and to focus on a life of Christian service. It is a para-church ecumenical program that continues beyond the weekend by pressuring the participants to gather even more attendees, and to work future weekends away from their own church.
I noted that the theology of the weekend is structured by successive talks given by trained Cursillo lay-people and clergy. Some of these clergy may be female. Each talk builds upon another, and the overarching theme is grace.
I’d noted theological concerns with the Cursillo notion of prevenient grace, heavy Arminianism, strong emphasis on God’s love to the exclusion of wrath, watered down/one size fits all theology, ecumenism, the direction for leaders to refrain from mentioning God, Christ, Salvation or other theological words in the first talk because that ‘sets the tone’ (and organizers want the tone to be ‘light and humorous’), separation of husbands from wives, and Cursillo’s Catholic roots which haven’t been adjusted for Protestant believers to any observable degree. Here is one example of the script to leaders to downplay scripture and focus on personal experience:
Rather than talking about God’s mercy, share how you have experienced God’s mercy and love.
I’d said that while catalyzing attendees for service is a good thing, the program could and does have latent negative impacts on the ‘pilgrim’, something I’ll explore more deeply in part 3.
The Purpose of the Movement
How it works is, a sponsor is urged to select a candidate for participation in the program. It aims to be a multiplying program. Once a Cursillo participant has observed their candidate and leaders OK their invite, candidates are formally invited to the Walk/Banquet/Three Days etc. The candidate must then apply and be accepted.
This is because the program is recruiting for specific kind of people. Cursillo is not transparently offering a helpful revival weekend to just anyone. So, who are they looking for?
Not anyone can join
(Only those deemed leadership material)
Unlike normal Christianity, the movement is selective as to who gets in. 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 Cursillo group reunions and ultreya meetings. These three phases are called respectively the Precursillo, the Cursillo and the Postcursillo. Source here and here.
The seed-leavening of environments with the Gospel, which is the public purpose of the Cursillo Movement, is sought not by means of a direct and global action on all Christians as the Spirit does, nor by various churches supporting one another’s efforts in local environs as pastoral leaders do, but by choosing from among them those who have the required characteristics according to Cursillo, and giving promise of being the living vertebrae (as backbone of the faith) that animate communities. [underline mine]. (Source here).
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.” 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”? (Source)
Far be it for people to wait for the Holy Spirit to direct them as which part of the Body they will become. Cursillo wants and seeks people specifically to be the spine, seeing that as a superior position for them to grow future leaders for various churches, regardless of denomination.
However, the Bible says we are to submit to our own pastors, whose task it is to raise up leaders for their own ‘environments’ AKA local congregations. (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; Hebrews 13:7; 2 Timothy 2:2). Paul did not round up leadership candidates from Galicia to train secretly as super-Christians and sent them back seeded into their own congregations with continued associations and accountability to the para-church super-group. Sometimes he left behind a leader to continue his work in the nascent church, as he did with Titus on Crete. But he didn’t cherry-pick ripe candidates from other churches for his own ecumenical purposes with ongoing extra-congregational training and growing loyalty.
What Occurs on a Cursillo Weekend?
As candidates AKA pilgrims arrive for their weekend, the Leaders have been preparing. The entire program is highly scripted. Leaders are told how to walk, where and how to sit, when to make eye contact, and what to say. One example is as the candidates are walking in to the main room for the first time, leaders are told in the “Minute By Minute” schedule,
Position yourself BEHIND the pilgrims closest to the doors. LD will direct pilgrims.
Lean forward in your chair and make eye contact during the discussion … You will sit with your back to the speaker at all times.
WAIT ABOUT 5-10 minutes – Then speak: 1st and I will now model the introductions.
The candidate partners begin. The rest of the Saints table introduces each other as their “NEW BEST FRIEND”.
If the weekend is highly scripted for leaders, it is even more so for participants. They are even told what to do on their break, as in this example of when to brush their teeth or go to the bathroom.
Now you may have a short break (measure time with finger and thumb –15 min.) You will have time to return to your cabin to brush your teeth and use the restroom if you wish.
Ladies, we will now go for a group photo outside the Conference room. After the photo session, we will have a break this long (15 minutes) before we meet again in the Conference room. During your break you may go to the restroom and enjoy food from the snack table. Please stay in this area, do not go to your cabins.
As Tables finish poster, they may take a short potty break; if time permits. [underline mine] Source: Minute By Minute
During the 72 hours participants are highly controlled. For example, pilgrims are not allowed to drive to the venue, they are driven there by their sponsor, who leave on Thursday night after ceremonies. If you are a wife, your husband is not present. He participated the previous weekend. Candidates must not bring watches or time pieces or hand them over if they do, they must give over cell phones and other electronic devices, and even hand in their medications! One set of instructions given to the pilgrims says,
If you are taking any medication at a particular time, please give the containers in a Ziploc bag (marked with your name and when you need to take your meds) to a team member. The team will make sure you receive your medication at the appropriate time.
I know of no other mainstream religious program or retreat where such an amount of personal autonomy is required to be suspended. As we read on, we see there is even further control over the participants. This is a concern.
Because the entire weekend is scripted to the minute, participants are told at the outset to discontinue rational and critical thinking, which ends up easier to do when one is hustled to and fro for 18 hours at a stretch. To that end, during the main part of the weekend, participants are not allowed alone time to think or process or even discuss it until the very end, outside of the close monitoring of leaders. Here is part of the script for the Walk to Emmaus (and remember, the scripts are largely the same for Great Banquet, Tres Dias, etc):
*Never leave a pilgrim at the Table alone. During breaks, if a pilgrim stays, then the TL [Table Leader] or ATL [Assistant Table Leader] needs to stay with her.
In the morning, check for stragglers, count to make certain all present. (check rest rooms too)
Stand at Chapel door – count as they come in. Alert LD when all are present and accounted for.
Participants are hustled from one scene to the next and are directly told not to think as seen here, except the words prejudge, worry, and anticipate are used instead of ‘think,’
Please don’t PREJUDGE or ANTICIPATE during the next three days. Let’s simply do what is asked of us at the time it is asked. Let’s not worry about the next day, or the next hour, or even the next minute. Instead, let’s live in the moment… I believe you’ll find The Walk to Emmaus a moving experience. Don’t anticipate what the next part will be. Don’t judge Emmaus based only on part of the experience.
I would have an issue with submitting uncritically to anyone, let alone unknown leaders I’ve just met. Paul urges all of us to be Bereans, (Acts 17:11), not to join blindly in ecumenical immersion weekends with unknown curriculum, nor to follow unthinkingly along.
The weekend is purposely disorienting. This is because organizers want pilgrims to experience an intense time of emotional breaking down and building up. That is the point. Leaders are urged to follow the schedule scrupulously to the minute and not to allow anyone to get off track. The talks are broken up by times of entertainment, skits, songs, and there is even a scripted “joke time” in the program. Leaders continually ply the participants with small love gifts all weekend. This is to soften the pilgrim. “Agape Letters” are given out. These are pre-written letters collected from friends and family, unknown to the participant, and given to them as a surprise at pointedly emotional moments in order to heighten the emotional breakdown and catharsis.
The apex of the catharsis occurs at the “Dying Moments” part of the weekend, which is near the end. Dying Moments has sometimes been renamed Candlelight or Conclusion. Participants are told to think of a particular sin that needs forgiveness, and to confess it aloud.
How are the Dying Moments and Holy Communion Service carried out? The Weekend Spiritual Director explains and personally illustrates dying moments in a Communion meditation and invites the pilgrims to get in touch with a part of their lives that needs to die or be released in order to make space for new life … the Weekend Spiritual Director invites the pilgrims to break off a piece of bread as a sign of their own brokenness as they name aloud their dying moment…Just as Jesus used the broken bread to represent his broken body, the pilgrims are invited to break a piece from a loaf of bread and to name some aspect of their own brokenness giving our brokenness to God in the presence of others. Sharing aloud in the sanctity of the cloistered environment is another step in the process of building community. Source
The intent of the weekend is to create an emotional bond with pilgrims among so-called ‘Cursillistas’. The leaders desire to show the pilgrim a deep love that God has for us (but not the love we should have for Him). They show this love via experience, not by the Bible.
Is it a Cult?
The Cursillo movement in all its forms (Tres Dias, Walk to Emmaus, Great Banquet, etc) have been charged with cult-like behavior from various quarters. From my observation of the source documents and the experiences of participants, this is true.
Brian V. Janssen has written a book examining the movement. He said of its manipulative techniques,
[T]he Cursillo method employs such powerful psychological elements so skillfully that God is practically unnecessary. Cursillo: Little Courses in Catharsis
Janssen’s book proposes the theory that the weekend was designed specifically according to psychological techniques to produce a strong cathartic effect at the end. I’ve read several leaders’ manuals, and those techniques include lack of solitude, lack of sleep, constant stimuli, emotional pressure, secretive techniques such as ‘spies’ at the table (unrevealed staff members who report to leaders), disruption of normal physical habits (rest room, eating, talking, etc). For example, one participant said that after arriving and while unpacking in her cabin, she was instructed not to speak to her roommate, a woman unknown to her. They unpacked in uncomfortable silence until the other woman said she hoped the participant didn’t mind being awakened at 6:30 due to her having to take medication. Both women breathed a sigh of relief but both also felt that they had ‘broken the rules.’
As one past attendee online stated, the main techniques cults use are absent, for example, asking for money, long-term control, or serious abuses. At present, the movement is not a cult. It does use cult techniques though.
What Do Past Attendees Say?
In part 3 there will be first person excerpts of stories from people who have attended Cursillo weekends. They speak to the cult-like techniques.
Though many people report glowing experiences, life-altering or shattering in its depth, the purposeful off-balance nature of the program, its heavy manipulation, the secrecy and indoctrination, contribute to the negative air many other pilgrims feel as the weekend concludes. I’m speaking for them.
As I have read in many Cursillo websites and newsletters, leaders report a fading of the experience, which they expect, but with that comes a dearth of attendance at reunion meetings. The reunions are supposed to revive that initial spark and keep the experience going, and also is designed ‘keep them accountable.’ But remember, we submit to our own pastors for accountability, not para-church retreat leaders or people outside our own church membership. Otherwise, any random person could claim accountability over us, to whom by definition we’d have to submit. Accountability is what church membership is for- to clearly delineate member responsibilities, and to whom, according to the Bible.
Christianity does not need these manipulative techniques to produce sanctification. The Holy Spirit guides each person into long-term growth. Christianity does not need secrecy to force a catharsis. Doctrine according to the Holy Word does that.
Part 3 will look at first person experiences, conclude with warnings, and offer further resources.