When I was first asked to attend a three-day Cursillo in Christianity near Dallas, Texas, I was sceptical but willing to be convinced. The Cursillo (a Spanish word meaning “Little course”) Movement has swept through the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches in the United States, supposedly transforming dioceses, revitalising peoples spiritual lives, giving churchmen an authentic experience of love in a Christian community.

The Same Old thing?

I had heard, and indeed endured, all this before. At least since the Second World War the American churches have been searching for some new technique, some secret way to renew the Church and to give people a so-called meaningful Christian experience. First there was Group Dynamics in which everyone told everyone else what was wrong with them; a technique based on group psychotherapy which assumed there was no difference between sin and mental illness and that all Episcopalians really belonged in a mental hospital. Then, when it was discovered that talking was not enough, everyone was made to touch each other in sensitivity training sessions. Gradually the whole process became more and more sophisticated with the aid of house discussion groups, group life conferences, speaking in tongues and a dash of Eastern mysticism.

One Fatal Flaw

In spite of the claims however, the only apparent result of all this energy was the ordination of women, schism in the church, and a significant fall in the number of communicants. The reason was not hard to find. There was one fatal flaw in this attempt to find salvation through personal experience. In all the techniques of self-discovery it was assumed that salvation was something to be found within us rather than the free gift of God, that Christian truth was a personal discovery rather than a divine revelation and that renewal comes from developing alternatives to the Church rather than through faithfulness to the Church.

Cursillo sounded very much like the same old thing, now dressed up in the trappings of Catholic sacraments and devotion. People could not tell you exactly what went on during the three days – the experience was too wonderful to describe. The group reunions of those who had made their Cursillo sounded very much like a substitute for the Church rather than an authentic form of the Church. People hugged and kissed and talked of love, they wore special crosses and greeted each other in Spanish as though they alone knew what it really meant to be a genuine Christian.

Something Radically Different

I had seen it all before and would have dismissed it as one more American fad. The only difference was that so many people whose judgement I respected insisted that Cursillo was radically different from all the group dynamics and sensitivity training which had gone before. It was because of them I went to find out for myself.

A Convert to Cursillo

I went a sceptic. But I returned a convert. I discovered that Cursillo is not a variation of Group Dynamics but an alternative to it, in my judgement an authentic Christian alternative. For the instructed and committed Christian it offers nothing new; no hidden knowledge, no new experience. Instead it condenses into three intensive days that which we have learned and experienced gradually in the Church over several years. Like a magnifying glass it focuses the light of the Christian religion to a small point of burning intensity. And it is this intensity which renews and revitalises the individual participant. In three days Cursillo teaches the mind, appeals to the heart and activates the will. It does this by teaching and putting into practice the very truth that the older techniques forgot – that God gives himself to us in love; we do not climb up to him, nor find him in ourselves.

How Cursillo Works

The Cursillo Movement began in Spain after the Civil War through the spiritual reunions of those who had made the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela for the renewal of the war-ravaged country. From that beginning the Movement developed as a method of preparing potential leaders who could bring an effective Christian influence into our secularised society. Soon it was seen that the Christian leadership required for this task could only be developed through an intensive experience in Christian living.

The three-day little course in Christianity was designed to provide such an experience. It begins on a Thursday evening with a meditation, the Stations of the Cross and a silent retreat throughout the night. During the next two and a half days fifteen short papers are delivered on such subjects as grace, sacraments, study and leadership. The specifically theological papers are delivered by priests who act as confessors and spiritual directors throughout the weekend, but the rest are given by lay people. In addition there are various group activities, though no-one is required to do anything they do not want to do. During the three days everyone is flooded with assurances of prayer from those who have been to Cursillo in the past and are fasting, making visits to the Blessed Sacrament or offering Masses on their behalf. Finally on the last day there is a great Sung Eucharist with several hundred people present to greet those who have just made their Cursillo.

It is all very simple. There are no tricks or gimmicks. There are surprises because the Christian life is full of surprises, but there are no secrets, no hidden mysteries revealed only to the initiated. Instead there is a community of love into which the participant enters and by which he experiences the operation of Gods grace. By knowing he is loved he himself desires to love others; perhaps by becoming a member of staff for a future Cursillo, but mostly by offering himself to Christ in his saving work throughout society. The Cursillo develops a kind of apostolic succession of love witnessing to the saving work of Christ, and it is this apostolic succession which keeps the Cursillo Movement growing and expanding.

The Cursillo Movement is one of many renewal movements in the Church today, one which exists for a specific purpose, to renew the face of the earth, to re-Christianise contemporary society. It is not designed to help people with problems, to revitalise our parishes or to encourage charismatic renewal – though in particular instances it may do any or all of those things. It is simply an intensive preparation of those people in a position to witness to the wholeness of the Christian life in their families and neighbourhood, at school or work or business. It offers an experience of the Christian life which every parish church should provide, but in a more intense and concentrated form. It is an extreme measure for renewing a society in which extreme ;measures seem desperately needed.