Posted in discernment, theology

Should you attend a Cursillo weekend? (Great Banquet/Walk to Emmaus/Tres Dias etc). These people did

By Elizabeth Prata


Part 1 here: The Cursillo Theology
Part 2 here: The Cursillo Experience

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:

global cursillo
This screen grab shows all the countries Cursillo programs are in

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.

cursillo list.jpg
This screen grab is a listing of all the different titles of the various
Cursillo programs. Some are denomination-specific, others are non-denom

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.

Marcoux writes,

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.

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.
Skimpy meals.

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.

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.

(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 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.

Further resources:

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)

Episcopal Clergy Talk letter (pdf)

Blog: THE CURSILLO MOVEMENT IN AMERICAAn Interview with Kristy Nabhan-Warren

Short video- this is good.


The Cursillo method is used by:
Awakening (college students),
Cum Christo,
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),
Lamplighter Ministries,
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),
Tres Dias,
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


Posted in theology

What happens at The Great Banquet/Walk to Emmaus/Tres Dias etc weekend? Part 2

By Elizabeth Prata

This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Part 1 here. Part 3 here.


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

Scripted Manipulation

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.