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How a “Little Course” from Spain Strengthened Christianity in America



Philip Jenkins - published on 03/10/15

The Cursillo Movement's history and importance today

I teach at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. When I first explored the neighborhood where I live, I naturally visited a pretty Catholic church with the romantic name of St. Francis on the Brazos, and I saw something there that amazed me. A plaque on this nondescript church recalls that this was the first site in the Americas where the Cursillo program was introduced, in 1957. When I shared this discovery with Protestant friends, even those very well informed about Christian history, I found that few had much acquaintance with the movement. I would like to change that. The Cursillo has a claim to be one of the most significant and innovative of movements within modern Christianity, and its importance stretches far beyond the Catholic Church. It is also a remarkable story of how religious movements spread and grow.

We are now very fortunate to have a fine scholarly history of the movement,The Cursillo Movement in America: Catholics, Protestants, and Fourth-Day Spirituality, by Kristy Nabhan-Warren (University of North Carolina Press, 2013). I will be drawing on this in this column, but I urge you to read the whole book.

The Cursillo originated in the grim circumstances of Spain in the 1940s, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. One of the war’s battlefronts had been the island of Majorca, which had suffered invasion and occupation. By 1944, peace was restored across Spain, and faithful Catholic laypeople were seeking ways to restore and rebuild faith among the ruins. Not coincidentally, it was at this same time of disasters, in 1943, that Italian Catholics founded the very influential Focolare movement.

Seeking renewal, Spanish Catholics proposed to revive the great pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and in preparation for that, the Catholic Action movement planned a series of training sessions for potential leaders. In Majorca, a group of laymen led by Eduardo Bonnín together created what they called a short course in Christianity, Cursillo de Cristiandad. I have to be careful here in avoiding the temptation to call Bonnín the founder of the movement. Nabhan-Warren quotes one of his friends as recalling that, “Eduardo adamantly refused to be called the ‘founder’ of Cursillos. He would say ‘El Fundador’ [Founder] is the name of a brandy and I am not a brandy!’”

So what was the “little course”? People would meet together in a three day retreat, where they heard a series of lectures by priests and lay leaders. The communal experience is an important part of the program, and is recreated in subsequent reunion meetings and friendship groups. Graduates of the “Course” learn certain terms and phrases that mark them as members, including the language of being “In Colors,” or under God’s Grace. In broad outline, that has been the format of Cursillo gatherings ever since.

Of the three days, the one that matters most is the fourth, when participants re-enter the world, nourished and strengthened, to apply what they have learned. That is why the Cursillo and its offshoots are called “Fourth Day Movements.” The great strength of Nabhan-Warren’s book is that it draws on a huge range of interviews with present and former cursillistas, allowing us to trace the movement’s full impact on their Fourth Day lives.

The Cursillo movement grew out of a very specific political setting, when Spain was still under a rigid Rightist dictatorship, and its connections with other Western nations were difficult. Only very gradually did the victorious wartime powers decide that Spain could be treated as a potential ally, rather than a Fascist enemy. And that decision had far-reaching consequences for religious renewal. In the 1950s, the US was training Spanish military flyers, two of whom — Bernardo Vadell and Augustin Palomino — were based in Waco. Together with a priest, Father Gabriel Fernandez, they held the first Cursillo weekend on US soil in 1957. And that is how a product of Western Mediterranean Catholic devotion traveled to the New World.

Their military assignments took the two aviators to various centers in Texas, and Cursillo activities followed them. New centers opened in Laredo and Corpus Christi, and the movement then developed its own momentum across the South-West. Until 1961, all Cursillo activities were held in Spanish. Over the following decade, the movement spread nationwide, and reached English-speaking Catholics during the tumultuous years following the Second Vatican Council.

The Cursillo then made an even greater leap as it became widely popular among many Protestant denominations, including — to name a few — Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, and many independent ministries. Sometimes the programs were appropriated directly, but they also provided the format for other imitations and adaptations.

There is so much more that could be said about this story, but let me highlight two main points. First, we hear so much about the growing Latino influence on North American religion, but here we see massive borrowings from Latino faith occurring five and six decades ago. Also, is this not a startling example of the spread of a movement through what initially looks like total chance, in the assignment of a couple of military officers to one US state? Cursillo members, of course, would explain these events by Providence rather than mere chance.

Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

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