By Elizabeth Prata
The plaudits and accolades and gushes of past participants of the many different Cursillo programs are readily available online. Many people have gone through a Cursillo Weekend (in their terminology, “made Cursillo”) and have loved it. The aim of the program is to make known to people the love of God and to revive them for service to others as a lifetime priority. This is a good thing.
However, Cursillo’s theological grounding is from the Catholic religious system, its methods use emotional and psychological manipulation (to purposely “break you down”), it is theology-lite, and as a parachurch ministry it tends to separate people from their own church, or undermine it, requiring constant reunion meetings and written “service sheets” to track your Cursillo efforts.
I have collected first person reviews of the Cursillo program either from the internet or directly from friends and acquaintances who have a different story to tell than the glowing reports one usually reads.
It must be said that though you may never have heard of this movement, it is huge and growing. The Cursillo movement takes place through one-on-one personal invitations, and much of the program is held in a private retreat, with its activities kept secret.
As a result, a lot of people have never heard of Cursillo programs (Walk to Emmaus, Great Banquet, Tres Dias, and so on). I only heard about Great Banquet because a reader asked me to research it, since she had been invited and knew very little about the weekend. Great Banquets are thriving in the American midwest where the founder is from, especially Indiana and Illinois.
Therefore, I researched the program at her urging. It has taken me three months to gather enough information to write a comprehensive review. Since publishing part 1 & part 2, many readers have contacted me to tell me they either went through the program and were upset by it, or they know someone who is involved and are saddened by their involvement. Cursillo is bigger than I knew. See photos:
From Wikipedia: Today, Cursillo is a worldwide movement with centers in nearly all South and Central American countries, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Austria, Australia, New Zealand Aotearoa, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and in several African countries. The movement is recognized by the Holy See as member of the International Catholic Organizations of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome.
Two authors that I know of have written an objective review of the movement. One is Marcene Marcoux, who wrote her thesis on it, “Cursillo, Anatomy of a Movement: The Experience of Spiritual Renewal” (1982). Another is Brian V. Janssen whose 2009 book is called “Cursillo: Little Courses in Catharsis”. Both of these are available at Amazon and elsewhere.
Clearly, Thursday is structured to effect a disorientation of the candidates, that is, to plunge them into a shocking state of self-awakening. The individuals must handle this shock in isolation since they are prohibited from speaking with other candidates and must maintain silence. They are segregated from others and left without any supportive group to share their frustrations and anxieties. Candidates listen to words that may upset them and that are designed to do exactly this. The images and examples are purposefully selected to instil aloneness and helplessness…
All of the techniques and methods are hurled, if you will, toward the candidates to disturb their sense of themselves and to instigate a process of transformation. The years of planning and perfecting by the early team in Mallorca, and all that has been learned in the years of expansion, have shaped a powerful methodology that assails the candidates from many directions. Nudged, disturbed, worried, upset, the candidates wrestle with questions planned to affect them: to shock, to startle them…
The cursillo is not a superficial gathering haphazardly established, but a well-structured method with a significant history and regional, national, and international structures continually shaping its process. It is this phenomenon the candidates confront, with all its momentum and the force of its potential impact. …those who approach their religion from a more rational perspective may be taken aback by the emotional level of the cursillo, considering its methods too demonstrative and reminiscent of Protestant revival meetings.
The First Person reviews below support Marcoux’s observation. These reviewers note the lack of Bible use, the canned aspect of the lectures, and the physical disorientation via lack of sleep/solitude/meals/heat/rest room, etc.
FIRST PERSON REVIEW
This commenter was a 73 year old female at the time of her participation. She attended Discipleship Walk, non-denominational Cursillo. She also found a leader’s manual at a library and read it. She related,
She could tell something was wrong the first night, the next morning for sure something was wrong.
You sit at the same table each time. Monitors at each table checking you out even in your room.
She was not allowed to turn the heat on in her room.
She was not allowed a nap. Only 5 minutes of free time.
The leaders manual stressed keeping you off balance. It also stressed choosing people under 55 (this candidate was 73).
The manual calls Cursillo a method. If you break the method at any point, there will not be a conversion at the end of the movement (the weekend). Cursillo is a movement.
The lectures are canned.
She was able to get a thesis from Northwestern University’s library, “An Anatomy of a Movement”, by Professor Marcene Marcoux.
Leaders manual dated 1962. A librarian found the manual for her. A footnote she recalls “long boring lectures”.
She doesn’t recall ever hearing the Bible quoted. They tell you to bring your Bible, but you just leave it opened on the table.
The monitors are over-bearing.
No time for personal things.
FIRST PERSON REVIEW.
This is a pastor from a Southern Baptist church who went one weekend and his wife went the next. He attended the Methodist Walk to Emmaus.
Little to no scripture used. A lot of sweet stories a lot of singing. Everything is done in secret no explanation to really any reason why everything is done in secret. They take your watch, cell phone and any kind of communication device. You go to gather in groups to different meetings.
It felt like every lesson was kind of like that old book that came out years ago “Chicken Soup for the Soul”.
You know my struggle with my Assurance salvation. I walked away in doubt from the whole entire event. I don’t feel that anything was directly against the Bible. But nothing was directed to me to read my Bible. And in that it’s very dangerous. The entire time was an emotional roller coaster.
The letters from loved ones was touching but I could have done that on my own.
I would not recommend anyone to go. I know you know this but if it’s not grounded in the word of God, I say stay away. It was very edifying for me in my flesh. That is extremely dangerous.
(female, Tres Dias)
Yes, whatever you can to deter people from being involved in this. I attended this is 2007, so I don’t remember everything. But there are certain things that stick out to me. I imagine you will be exploring the theological inaccuracies taught there, which is important but I often reflect on the cult-like principles of it. I believe I was a false convert at the time and yet by God’s grace and a whole bunch of particular circumstances I had already started questioning some of the things taught in the church and their behaviors were alarming.
I’m not sure if you are aware that at these retreats they take your watch so you don’t ever know what time of day it is. They tell you when to get up, go to bed and eat. You are not allowed to talk between moving from one place to another. They choose your roommate for your stay and they choose which table you sit at and who sits with you. No one is told there is a spy at the table who has been to a retreat before, and they are there to take back to the organizers all you say. They reveal this the last day.
This is deception, lying and spying is what communists do to Christians, it should not be a behavior found among each other. I felt very angry about this without understanding what I was angry about.
There is also a session where you are led into a room and seated in a circle on the floor and one fellow goes around the room just looking you in the eye and you are not allowed to look away. No one is allowed to speak. Does all this not sound cultish? I mean where is this found in the Bible? It makes me very upset because I know lots of people still running this that I attended the church with who are nice people, just deceived, like I was.
FIRST PERSON REVIEW.
This person is a female, Methodist, with a MA in Christian Education from Southwestern Seminary. She attended a Walk to Emmaus and wrote about her experience on her blog, which can be found here.
My first impression was that I was being initiated into some weird “Christian” cult (and, I’m not sure that my impression changed until the very end on Saturday). I believe that as Christians we are called to represent Christ with truth and excellence, and I did not see that in the weekend. Don’t get me wrong, the end result was good, but for the most part it was frustrating, annoying, weird, and made me angry. It took me almost the entire Walk to get over all of the things that kept me from spending time with my Father, and it shouldn’t have been that way.
I was turned off at many points during the weekend, and if I hadn’t come into this weekend rooted deeply in my faith and understanding of Christ, I probably would have run screaming. Following a script. Life doesn’t follow a script. Jesus didn’t follow a script. And the original walk to Emmaus with the men and Jesus definitely didn’t follow a script.
Maybe it’s so everyone can have the same experience, but come on, no one ever has the same experience. I felt like I was being read to the entire weekend, and it seemed to suck so much life out of the stories and experiences shared. Christ came to bring us LIFE not a script.
This next review is from a web page called Questioning Cursillo, which I recommend. This excerpt below is from a male participant, who at the time was/is a pastor of a Baptist church and a professor at a Seminary. I recommend you go to the page and read the reviews in their entirety.
FIRST PERSON REVIEW
(Male Baptist pastor/professor.)
Cursillo-based retreats are at best a social experiment in conformity and a distraction from the Christian life, and at worst, for some sensitive individuals, a true potential trauma. They are not a cult in the sense that they do not extract money from participants, seek to control them long-term, or commit serious abuses. But they do use techniques that are psychologically manipulative—techniques quite similar to cult techniques—to produce a supposed experience of God. If God is real, God has no need of such things; they only serve to give faith a bad name as mindless conformity.
1. Cursillo is heavily influenced by Catholic theology. No one denies that the Cursillo movement began as an effort at spiritual renewal within the Catholic Church in Spain. The weekend I attended was sponsored by the _______ Cursillo Council, a Protestant organization. However, on the first evening we recited Catholic liturgy underneath a Crucifix. It was the first time in my life I had ever heard of Veronica. [A Catholic saint].
2. Cursillo is influenced by a charismatic approach to sanctification. Many people involved in the Cursillo movement seem to think that three days at a Cursillo retreat means someone is instantly mature and ready for service. The whole concept is similar to the Charismatic belief in a “second blessing” whereby one becomes instantly sanctified and free from sin.
This is my primary objection to Cursillo. Maturity does not come in three days and it is misleading to teach someone that it does. Instead, maturity comes from a consistent, daily walk with Christ. There are no short-cuts to Christian growth. I do not recommend the Cursillo movement for anyone who is serious about spiritual growth. Doctrinally, the concept has a flawed view of sanctification. Practically, it creates a super-spiritual attitude that is divisive to the local church.
My own bias is that I’m suspicious of para-church organizations. Sometimes they are quite helpful. But many times they compete with the local church.
Cursillo is at root a Catholic movement in its theology. It is also an ecumenical movement. It deliberately downplays theology in pursuit of unity based on emotion. For example, here is part of a FAQ page from a Walk to Emmaus saying to overlook theology in pursuit of what I personally would consider a false unity. –
Emmaus is for fostering unity in Christ, not for theological debate and arguments about denominations. Emmaus tries to foster appreciation and openness to the different faith-perspectives of the participants. Bring a spirit of Christian tolerance and charity toward others, including members of other denominations. If you cannot affirm your unity with other kinds of Christians, if you tend to define Christianity narrowly and legalistically or are intolerant of those who see things differently, then Emmaus is probably not for you.
One of the things that a different Walk to Emmaus page said, was that doctrine and social issues divide. One issue they say to set aside, that is too divisive, is salvation. Let that sink in.
The issues of doctrine & social issues, can, and have been, divisive within the church. Doctrinal issues have included the method of baptism, gifts of the Spirit, salvation, and eschatology to mention a few. Social issues have included marginalized persons who are homeless or imprisoned, pro-life vs. pro-choice, abortion, caring for the aged, ethnic inclusiveness or exclusiveness, and gender affinity. Clearly, the issue of whether or not the practice of homosexuality is compatible with Christian lifestyle is at controversy in the church today. … In Emmaus, such social issues are transcended and set aside as we affirm one another in our fundamental beliefs …
[underline mine] Source (pdf). And while homosexuality and gender affinity are social issues, they are also issues that directly contradict Imago Dei and everything we read in Genesis 1 and 2. Therefore, I consider them theological, foundational issues.
I contacted the United States founder of the Great Banquet, Jack Pitzer. I had read on the Great Banquet pages that the GB is “Governed by an ecumenical board of directors.” That phrase is repeated on almost all FAQ Great Banquet pages. Curious that though the Board was mentioned frequently, the names or denominations of the Directors were not. I wanted to know which denominations they were from, if there were any women on the board, and if any of those women were pastors or in control of spiritual direction or curriculum. So I contacted Mr Pitzer to ask. I wrote,
I would be interested in knowing who is on the Board of Directors of The Great Banquet and what faith background they come from?
Thank you so much!
Mr Pitzer replied the next day. This was his reply in total:
Who is Elizabeth Prata?
It was not the reply I was expecting.
I sent back an answer. At the time I was sincerely just interested in finding out a bit more about the GB on behalf of my friend. Little did I know that secrecy and stonewalling would spin me out on a three-month odyssey of discovery about Cursillo, which in turn would prompt me to write these essays about the movement. My emailed reply:
I’m a Christian woman in Georgia whose friend was invited to The Great Banquet and I’m just interested in knowing more about it. On the websites I read they said that there is an ecumenical National Board. Several of the sites encouraged interested parties to contact the people in charge FMI. Would you be so kind as to share who is on the Board and which faith backgrounds they come from? Thanks!
Though Mr Pitzer is no doubt a busy man, I did appreciate that he replied.
I wrote the Great Banquet back in 1990. It is a “short course” in Christianity. It is a “cursillo-model” experience. The Board is made up of Presbyterians, Baptist, and Independent Christian. If you want to know about me – get on line and look up Lampstandpc.org. I am the Head Pastor and you can even listen or watch sermons or Bible studies I have done. Jack Pitzer
I did contact other regional Great Banquet leaders to find out more specific information for my friend who is in the Midwest, (where GB is most popular) asking about who comprises the “ecumenical Board”. One woman who was very kind to answer my questions, said at one point, “We don’t talk about the name of our church or what denomination we are. We are all Christians who believe that Christ Jesus is our Lord and Savior.”
And that is a problem. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Catholics all believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior. Methodists believe that too but rebel against their Lord and Savior by ordaining women. ‘Jesus as Lord’ is not the only benchmark to determine if one should participate in a a 72 hour course in Christianity. For the discerning woman, prior to committing to 72 hours of lectures and a cathartic intimate community experience, I’d want to know who is behind the curriculum and who is guiding the movement’s direction.
For example, The Master’s Seminary’s Institute for Church Leadership (ICL) is organized specifically to train up lay leaders, just as Cursillo is. I can take a similar quantity of credit hours at ICL. If I am deciding whether to invest 72 hours of time at Cursillo (which IS Spanish for “short course”) or take a short course for 60-70 hours at The Master’s Seminary Institute for Church Leadership, I need to make an assessment on which is best to devote my time and/or money. Cursillo’s curriculum and Board of Directors should not be secret.
I looked at other para-church organizations and all of them with the exception of Great Banquet, published the names, photos, and bios of who is on their National Boards. It’s not an unreasonable request to ask of a Christian organization whose forefathers and head of the church were always transparent. (John 18:20; Mt 26:55; John 7:26). Can you imagine Paul being cagey about the names and spiritual biographies of the 7 chosen deacons? (Acts 6:1-6). “Uh, they’re just men from around. Why do you want to know? Who are you, anyway?”
I did get the sense that the people involved in these Cursillos are sincere about helping people become more service-oriented and grow closer to Christ. In my opinion, though, the emotionalism and manipulation is not necessary in a Christian movement.
I leave you with this,
If a “method” can be so readily applied across the world’s different cultures and in so many different denominations, with strikingly similar results, even to the moment, is it of the Spirit? Is the Holy Spirit cookie cutter? Does the Holy Spirit need man’s methods to grow saints in discipleship and service? If one’s service is based on emotionalism and catharsis, what happens when the mood dissipates?
Women should base their service on knowing who Christ is from the Bible. Our emotions we feel about Him and serving others stem from our mind, that is, knowing who He is from His word. He is the rock that never dissipates.
Blog review:Should Baptists Participate in a ‘Walk to Emmaus?’ By Mike McGuire, a SBC pastor
Book: Marcene Marcoux, “Cursillo, Anatomy of a Movement: The Experience of Spiritual Renewal” (1982).
Book: Brian V. Janssen “Cursillo: Little Courses in Catharsis”. (2009)
Thesis: Doug Hucke: The Great Banquet Retreat as a Strategy to Transform Northminster Presbyterian Church (2008)
Blog: THE CURSILLO MOVEMENT IN AMERICA: An Interview with Kristy Nabhan-Warren
Short video- this is good.
The Cursillo method is used by:
Awakening (college students),
DeColores (adult ecumenical),
The Great Banquet,
The Journey (United Church of Christ),
Kairos Prison Ministry,
Kairos (for older teenagers),
Emmaus in Connecticut (for high school age teens),
Gennesaret (for those living with a serious illness),
Light of Love,
LOGOS (Love Of God, Others, and Self) (Lutheran teen),
Teens Encounter Christ (teen ecumenical),
Residents Encounter Christ (REC) (a jail/prison ministry),
Unidos en Cristo,
Via de Cristo (Lutheran Adult),
Chrysalis Flight (Methodist Youth),
Walk to Emmaus (Methodist Adult),
The Walk with Christ (interdenominational),
Anglican 4th Day (Anglican Adult),
The Way of Christ (Canadian Lutheran adult),
Tres Arroyos (Charismatic Episcopal Church)
Journey to Damascus (Catholic hosted Ecumenical with weekly reunion groups for alumni) in The Corpus Christi, Houston, and Austin, TX areas. Source-Wikipedia