I “lived my Cursillo,” as we newly minted Cursillistas put it, last weekend at a retreat house outside of Boston.
Call it a pep rally for Catholicism. Lots of songs, jokes, laughing, crying, hugging, eating, and listening to poignant stories of powerful faith made more powerful through Cursillo. We started Thursday evening. We went pretty much nonstop, 7 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. We ended, exhausted and exhilarated, late Sunday afternoon.
That’s when 16 newly minted Cursillo graduates stood before a microphone and testified to transformation. Some said they’d never felt so close to Christ. Others said they were now ready to defend their faith and recommit fully to God. They’d be Christian leaders and evangelizers in their home, parish, and workplace. One woman said Cursillo had melted away years of anger she’d felt for the Church. She now felt God’s unconditional love poured out upon her.
It was remarkable, really. If you do not feel loved by God, or loved in life, or have trouble loving yourself, Cursillo swaddles you in love, attention, and caring. The idea is that God’s love comes to you through others, in this case, Cursillistas who are with you all weekend as well as those checking in from places far beyond.
What exactly is Cursillo?
Originating in Spain in 1939 and now growing worldwide, Cursillo, says the Boston Archdiocese, is a “little course in Christianity.” It’s aimed at revitalizing the laity and training Christian leaders to transform where they live and work through this “deeper walk with Christ.” There are separate weekends for men and women and regular reunion gatherings.
What do you do for three days? You hear talks, many many talks, from spiritual directors, laywomen, and a priest. They include the teachings of Christ, grace, obstacles to grace, studying the faith (with suggested reading), taking action in faith (“make a friend, be a friend, bring a friend to Christ”), and evangelization without alienating or horrifying everybody in your office.
You hear familiar phrases over and over:
God gives us all we need to praise, reverence and serve him.
God gives us all we need to be the person we are meant to be.
He will be with us, always, to the end of time.
We are called to discover Christ in the world and help the world discover Christ.
Put on the mind of Christ.
We are members of Christ’s body in the church.
To paraphrase St. Teresa of Avila: Christ has no body but yours. No hands on earth but yours. No feet or eyes but yours.
After each talk, we reviewed its points in a small group at our table, the same table every day. This was my favorite thing. When women right next to me speak of their faith and prayer life with such conviction, with so few doubts or hesitations, I want to know exactly how they got there.
And between all this, seamlessly choreographed by Cursillo leaders, came the swaddling in love part.
Cursillo is a lot about surprises. I vowed not to reveal too many or the exact details of the intimate and sometimes painful stories presenters reveal. So here’s a spoiler alert: If you’re planning on attending a Cursillo weekend and want no further info, stop reading. If not, here’s a tidbit about one Cursillo surprise. It comes in the form of letters from previous Cursillo candidates, dozens and dozens of letters, handwritten and addressed to you by name.
“Dear Margery,” one reads in part, “Please open your heart and embrace all what God has in store for you! And it’s okay to cry like a baby.”
“Dear Margery,” reads another, again in part, “How wonderful that you have said ‘yes’ to Christ’s gentle invitation to meet Him in the special way of this Cursillo weekend. You are His beloved, and He has been waiting to shower you with His blessings.”
Complete strangers not only write you at considerable length, but also draw you elaborate pictures, send you candies, tell you they’re saying rosaries and going to Mass and giving up chocolate all in hopes of making your Cursillo weekend the best possible.
You even get well wishes from Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
Cursillo is not for everyone, and it’s not without its critics. It’s intense and intensely scheduled, although candidates don’t know the schedule so they don’t know what’s next. More typical retreats — ones I prefer, to be honest — are lower key, subtler. There’s lots of silence, quiet prayer, optional services, walks around spectacular oceanfront or mountainside grounds (Catholics do own such fantastic property), lounging in secluded nooks reading spiritual books, or catching up on sleep.
At Cursillo, unless you are asleep, you’re in a group. There is no down time. Some also complain that Cursillo is too churchy, too controlling, conservative, and “praise the Lordy,” to quote one naysayer.
But this Cursillo was run by the exceedingly gentle Rev. John Sassani and the exceedingly charismatic Mary Ann McLaughlin of the Boston archdiocese Spiritual Life office. At our no-holds-barred table, we talked “Spotlight” and the sexual abuse cover-up, women priests, gays, annulments, and abortion. I likely was the lone pro-choice, hierarchy-trashing, professional Catholic critic there. But the women I met didn’t seem to hold it against me. The Cursillo leaders particularly appeared faith-filled, open-hearted, and walking the walk: soup kitchens, prison ministry, Sunday school, home Communion for the sick, parish clothing drives — all those volunteer works of mercy.
At one point in the weekend, a Cursillo leader told of a stunning family development that pushes the envelope even for big social liberals and goes against everything the Church preaches about sexuality. When this leader said she told her pastor and Church community the truth about her son, whom she fully supported, I expected her to say she faced rejection. Instead, in one of those beautiful “who-am-I-to-judge” Pope Francis moments, she said her pastor and parish embraced and loved her. The women at Cursillo embraced and loved her, too.