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It’s a Saturday morning in Gallup, NM, and Mary Cullen is busy checking on on the progress of two workshops being led at Sacred Heart Family Center, next to the Cathedral.
Cullen is the lay leader of the Cursillo movement for the Diocese of Gallup, and today is the second day of the retreat that the movement puts on every few months. The dates and locations rotate from parish to parish in the Diocese, but the goal of each retreat is always the same.
“Cursillo is a shortened course in Christianity. In the Gallup Diocese it’s learning about the Catholic Church – there are Cursillos in other religions but ours is about the Catholic Church,” Cullen explains.
The movement has spread to other denominations, most notably the Episcopal church, but the origin and tradition of Cursillo is firmly Catholic. To really understand Cursillo, the best step is to examine the foundation of the group, formed in the 1930s and 40s in Spain.
In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, two priests, Manuel Aparici and Sebastian Gaya, were in charge of a group known as the “Catholic Action for Youth”. They wanted to show local anti-Catholic authorities that loyalty to the Faith was still strong, especially among young men. The idea they settled on was to mobilize as many youth as possible for a pilgrimage to the basilica at Santiago de Compostela.
This Basilica, in northwest Spain, is believed to hold the remains of the Apostle St. James the Greater. The earliest records of people making a pilgrimage to the site date from the 9th century, but the route, known as the Camino de Santiago, or way of St. James, was officially organized by Church officials in the 12th century. Despite looting by a Muslim caliphate, and the later rise of anti-clerical Fascists in the early 19th century, the Basilica and pilgrimage remained popular attractions. It was well-traveled enough that in 1779, John Adams took the route in reverse, from Spain to Paris, and later wrote that he regretted not visiting Santiago.
So for the members of the Catholic Action movement, a pilgrimage to the site was a natural demonstration of their devotion to the Church. But because of the logistics required for such a trip, the pilgrimage took several years to be realized. This is where a man integral to the modern Cursillo movement comes in, by the name of Eduardo Bonnin Aguilo.
Bonnin was introduced to Catholic Action for youth by a friend, and because of his zeal and earnest manner, he became one of the key members. It was decided that in order to prepare everyone spiritually for the pilgrimage, a week-long cursillo – Spanish for “class or workshop” – was held.
In 1948, the long-awaited pilgrimage was made by 70,000 men. Their movement had grown so strong that when they arrived at Santiago, they were greeted over the radio by Pope Pius XII. The classes, fellowship, and meetings that prepared them had proved so effective in inspiring the men to take their faith back to their local communities that the Cursillo movement eventually took shape and evolved into the weekend retreats we know today.
Manual Zepeda is one of the local directors for the Gallup Diocese Cursillo. A native of Mexico, he helps organize both English and Spanish retreats, and says that Cursillo reignited his passion for life.
“My first Cursillo was in 1996 in Durango. That’s when I was really born in my faith, because before, I didn’t really understand anything. Where I came from, I received the Sacraments – Baptism and Confirmation on the same day, and then after that my parents sent me to CCD. I went because they said. But after that, I jumped to being a teenager, and my mother would tell me to go to Church, yes I’ll go to Church, but I didn’t understand anything. But now, I do.”
This weekend’s retreat is bilingual, with sessions held in both English and Spanish. In one room, a man with a guitar leads the participants of Cursillo, called cursillistas, in song, just as the young men of Spain would sing at their own gatherings in the 1940s.
Across the building, another group of twenty or so people listen to a lecture in Spanish. The participants of this weekend’s Cursillo range in age from their early 20s up through retirement age, and they come from various parishes all over the Diocese. But today, they have come for the same purpose.
Both Cullen and Zapeda explain that one aspect of Cursillo that sets it apart from other Catholic retreats is the focus on taking what they’ve learned during the weekend and implementing it every single day in their community. They refer to it as a “tripod”.
“In our talks, we talk about piety, study and action. Those are our tripod,” Cullen says. You have to have all three.”
Another set of three Zapeda mentions is the three encounters Cursillistas are asked to make.
“[Cursillo] has a moment when we understand who we are – that’s the first step we do, in meditation: who I am. And the second is about the prodigal son. When we understand that we are the prodigal son, then we come a little closer in understanding and finding our ideal. In these three days, for every human being it’s an experience: you encounter yourself, you encounter Christ, and then your community. That’s what makes the difference, see, we are not a group. We as cursillistas – cursillistas means the type of life you’re living with Christ in your community.”
The “tripod” then guides the cursillistas in how to live as community members.
“Piety, you know, when you have piety in yourself, you understand others and you understand the love of God. Study is the way you discover the mission the Holy Spirit has for every one of us, especially myself. And action, of course, I cannot be a good Catholic if I sit on my couch, right? I have to get up -”
(here he claps his hands and smiles)
“- and go, and do.”
Just as the Spanish pilgrims persevered in the face of opposition by coming together in fellowship, so too do Cullen and Zepeda the the strength and future of the movement in their fellow cursillistas.
“Even though we might not speak the same language as anybody else, we’re all the same,” Cullen says. “We all have red blood.”
Zepeda spreads out his arms and gestures to the mass of people in the hall, now visiting and eating with one another during the lunch break.
“The only thing I can tell you – Christ is alive. Believe me, He is.”
Learn more: gallupcursillo.com
Feature image: Monument of the Pilgrims