Cursillistas celebrate 40th anniversary


for The Miscellany

CHARLESTON Hundreds of cursillistas adherents of Cursillo from across South Carolina gathered at the diocesan cathedral on Sept. 21 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their spiritual movement in the United States.

Bishop David B. Thompson of Charleston presided over the celebratory liturgy. A cursillista himself, Bishop Thompson welcomed the assembly with the traditional “de colores” greeting before praising the four decades since Cursillo came to America from Spain.

“It has been a blessed movement, a grace-filled movement,” he said.

Cursillo means “short course” in Spanish, a reference to the three-day retreat that participants observe to kick off their life in the movement. They encounter Christ in a special way during that requisite weekend, praying together and listening to lay speakers; they take part in a communion of shared spirituality that amounts to an epiphany for them, according to Ken Moore of Christ Our King Parish in Mount Pleasant.

“It results in a total change in spiritual outlook for most people,” Moore said. “They realize after the weekend how much more there can be to life.”

Bishop Thompson, who made his Cursillo 20 years ago at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Pittson, Pa., when he was pastor of the cathedral of the Diocese of Allentown, said that the weekend is when cursillistas find out “what is important.” It may be an important event, even a conversion experience, but cursillistas look forward to more than one big weekend.

The Cursillo weekend provides the tools, the methods and the jump-start for a new spiritual life, Moore said, but the key to the movement’s great appeal is its fourth day when the Cursillo weekend is over. The fourth day is the rest of the cursillista’s life.

Since Cursillo is a movement but not an organization one joins, its devotees are called cursillistas instead of members. They meet regularly, usually weekly, in personal sharing groups of three or four men or women, and then in monthly meetings called ultreyas. At an ultreya, the small groups share with the larger group and listen to one of the cursillistas give witness to the action of faith in his or her life. For many, Cursillo is the first time that they have the experience of talking about God with their peers.

“It sets you free,” said Bob Maguire of Sacred Heart Parish in Charleston. “Now you can discuss spiritual things.”

Brother Tony Quinn, an Irish Christian Brother serving at the parish of St. John in North Charleston, said that the Cursillo movement empowers lay people to indulge an aspect of their humanity that previously lay hidden inside.

“It allows people to talk very comfortably about the spiritual dimension of their lives. It’s something different for many people and it’s a terrific tool for evangelization,” he said.

Evangelization is the function of the movement, according to Brother Quinn and Gerry Cooper of St. Mary Help of Christians Parish in Aiken. Cooper should know about that, since he is both a member of the South Carolina Cursillo secretariat as well as a convert to Catholicism.

“Cursillo continues to grow. The whole point of the movement is to evangelize, by example and by making friends. It’s a movement that supplements the teachings of the Catholic Church,” Cooper said.

The Cursillo secretariat is the administrative body of the movement in the Diocese of Charleston. Father Charles Snopek of Precious Blood in Pawleys Island is the spiritual director of Cursillo in South Carolina; Debbie Bernhagen of Columbia is the lay director.

For many who gathered for Mass and a giant ultreya at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in this see city on Sept. 21, Cursillo has become a major part of a new life.

“I feel like my marriage, the births of my children and Cursillo are the three number ones in my life,” said Cindy Maguire of Sacred Heart in Charleston. “It’s like being baptized all over again.”

Cursillo has been having that kind of effect on Catholics and other Christians in the United States for 40 years.