Brian V Janssen
In two previous articles we have explored the historical origins and the semi-Pelagian theological perspective underpinning the Cursillo movement as well as the unscrupulous psycho-social techniques which are used to create the dramatic effect. In this final installment, we will discuss the long-term effects of the Cursillo weekend and movement and suggest appropriate responses by those who are concerned.
What are the lasting effects of the Cursillo weekend? It largely depends on the individual who attends. For many it may seem like a pleasant retreat weekend composed of surprising experiences and meeting new friends. For others, the weekend may captivate them. In my experience it is the more emotionally needy participants who tend to have the most dramatic initial response. This emotional catharsis is overwhelming, and its inevitable fading is viewed as a great loss. For some, the Cursillo weekends become their life.
The first long-term effect is that the experience tends to wear off. Some will quickly dismiss it, but for others, the quest begins for more and more emotional, weekend experiences: usually a new pattern of attending frequent Cursillo weekends as a part of the team. But this quest falls prey to the law of diminishing returns. Subsequent experiences are not nearly so powerful, and eventually they have little or no emotional impact.
The weekend also tends to “spoil” the candidate. Such a powerful experience is unlike anything else in life, and so normal life tends to lose its luster and seems flat and dissatisfying. When this perspective is brought to the local church, the church is found wanting. Church services cannot match the emotional high achieved during the weekend, and so the result is often a growing disaffection with and drifting away from the local church – a transfer of loyalty to the Cursillo community.
The weekend can also create a sense of spiritual superiority. “If my local church never provided this deep, religious experience, and if my elders, pastor, or fellow church members have not been enriched as I have, then I must have advanced beyond them.” This sense of superiority is exacerbated by the fact that candidates are sworn to secrecy. They have become a part of the in-group, possessing special knowledge and experiences beyond those of the uninitiated. The inevitable result is a cliquishness, an affinity toward fellow Cursillo participants which transcends church membership and even family ties.
During the weekend candidates are led into an emotional regression in which they are released from adult responsibilities for 72 hours and encouraged to behave like children. Participants may retain their new-found childish perspective and avoid serious responsibilities, calling this a “child-like faith.” But children are ill-equipped to cope with adult demands, and they resist the sobering, Christian maturity to which Jesus calls us. This, combined with the emotional-rollercoaster and the steadily-ebbing decline of the ability to regain or retain the emotional high, often leads to emptiness and depression.
Cursillo participants are largely wasting their time chasing after an elusive emotional experience, when we are called to take up our cross and follow Christ into the serious service of discipleship. I know of one pastor who is nearing retirement age. As a young pastor he was attracted to the Cursillo movement, and it became his life and ministry. Instead of a lifetime in the approved labor of preaching the Gospel and caring for souls, he has now wasted his precious years on phantom work that bears little lasting fruit for the kingdom. This is a tragedy of incalculable proportions.
How can you, the reader, respond?
First, become informed. Look up the website below or secure a copy of my book. The enforced secrecy and the glowing Cursillo testimonies have long masked the troubling aspects of this movement.
Talk to your pastor and other church leaders. Direct them to the website or give them copies of these articles. Help them wrestle with these issues as well.
If you know those who are involved in the movement, approach them with care. In many cases, Cursillo has become their de facto religion. They may have assumed that they have at last arrived at the true, spiritual experience and may have difficulty listening to someone whom they consider to be a spiritual inferior. Such a deep, emotional experience is not easily repudiated, so approach them gently. And be confident that there is hope in God’s providence and power.
I know this because I was engaged for several years in something quite similar to the Cursillo movement, involving emotional, religious weekends. I served on the leadership team, and eventually hosted some of these events myself. And then late one night, three high-school students challenged me on my methods. They felt as though they had been tricked, manipulated into an emotional response. Their probing question led to my serious re-evaluation, repentance, and recommitment to the biblical ministry of the ordinary means of grace. So there is always hope, and I am but one more example of the liberating power of God’s truth.
For more info or to order the book, Cursillo: Little Courses in Catharsis, visit questioningcursillo.com.