HISTORY

A Brief History of Cursillo in Christianity
by Mary Ann Dowd

In his book “Liberty’s Lions”, author Dan Leroy recounts the heroic deeds of the many Catholic visionaries who shaped our country during the American Revolution. In this retelling of the story of the genesis of the Cursillo in Christianity Movement, once again we see the supernatural movement of The Holy Spirit in the lives of simple men. These young visionaries made a decision to live the radical Catholic Christian life Our Lord dreamed for each one of us and, in the process, began an adventure which transported them from their little world in Spain to the ends of the earth.

Timing is everything as they say and so the formation of the Cursillo would not have evolved as it did if it were not for the many historic events which both preceded and followed its birth.

The time was immediately following the Spanish Civil War. A war fought between Catholics themselves; those who considered themselves religious Catholics and those who identified as political. It is difficult to imagine such a conflict. Or, perhaps in this time in history, not that hard to believe.

The undeniable atmosphere of the environment was that of RESTLESSNESS! As with all the other “civil” wars and revolutions in history, those who lived through it were determined “NEVER to let this happen again!” They would change the world and learn from history rather than repeat it. Let’s stop right here and ask ourselves how that resolve has worked out in our own time and place? The only difference in the case of the young Cursillistas, is that they actually did it! First by changing their immediate environments and then by changing the world, one friend at a time.

The place was Mallorca, Spain and what would seem a chance meeting between a young man, Eduardo Bonnin and a group of young men involved in what was then termed “Catholic Action”. Eduardo, who is considered the Father of the Cursillo movement (although he was a humble man and did not like that term), had served for nine years in the Spanish Civil War. He had been brought up in a strict Catholic home, the second oldest of ten children. Augustinian Priests provided his education and formation in the Faith. His parents were diligent in providing additional teachers for their children in their home, in order to be certain of their instruction in the
doctrines of the Catholic Church.

Eduardo’s conscription in the army during the war proved invaluable, both for the basis of his life and the formation of the Cursillos in Christianity. He was captivated by his new surroundings and rather than be appalled by the lack of traditional religion among his fellow soldiers, he imitated Christ in a unique way. For just as Jesus, being God, knew the joys and sorrows, minds and hearts of those he encountered; Eduardo, being human, extrapolated this knowledge through the simple methodology of friendship; always with a profound respect for the dignity of
the human person.. This natural and authentic basis for his life became the basis of the Cursillo as well.

The full title for this movement of the laity within the Catholic Church is Cursillo in Christianity (Cursillo meaning little course). When Eduardo was 26 years old he encountered the Catholic Action group who were in the process of preparing pilgrims to walk The Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage is unique in the fact that the road itself is the pilgrimage. While the destination of the great St. James Cathedral is the goal, the pilgrimage is forged along a 500 mile stretch of road which leads to the ancient church. There are no modern means of transportation involved in the true pilgrimage and “The Way of St. James”, by which this road has come to be known, is dotted with official pilgrim hostels where pilgrims can stop for the night and receive a stamp on the official passport which will be shown at their arrival at St. James Cathedral to indicate that they have indeed walked the Camino to Santiago. The youth group at this time was preparing the pilgrims, in what was then, a week-long course for this adventure when they met and engaged Eduardo and encouraged him to attend the second Cursillo for Leaders of Pilgrims. The year was 1943 and, as they say, the rest is history.

The group saw the potential for leadership in this young man and Eduardo saw the potential to disseminate the method inspired in him by many Catholic writers of the time, including a book written by Pope Pius XII which seemed to give a blueprint for putting into action in the world the practice which Eduardo had begun in the army; that is, making a friend, being a friend and bringing that friend to Christ. “The Study of the Environment”, the first rollo (talk) written by Eduardo when he became a member of the leadership group, is an almost fully formed work of the Charism of the Cursillo. It is of particular importance to note here, that from this time, until
his death on February 6, 2008, Eduardo Bonnin devoted his entire life to this Charism, given to him by the Holy Spirit of God for the good of the Church. A gift of the Holy Spirit which took him from Palma de Mallorca across five (now six) continents with the simple yet profound message that God in Christ loves us.

The first Cursillo in Christianity began on August 22, 1944, in a cottage in Cala Figuera on the Island of Mallorca, which lacked electricity. From the very beginning, the intent was primarily to reach those who were “far off”(the unbelievers and indifferent) with the ideals of Christ in a natural, warm, friendly atmosphere. From the very beginning a priest was in attendance to live the weekend along with the candidates and team members, in order to provide the Sacraments, spiritual direction and explain the spiritual talks (rollos). These Cursillos have, from the
beginning, relied on the prayers of many and the sacrifice of a few.

After the success of that first Cursillo, two major deciding factors took place. First, it was decided to shorten the cursillo to three days (tres dias) rather than a week. Second, this experience of God’s Love would be offered to anyone, not just those preparing to walk the Camino. In this way, the original Charism given to both Catholic Action for Youth and the newly formed Cursillo in Christianity could be more fully realized; that is, the Christianizing of environments by the people within these environments.

A long standing dream of Catholic Action had been to have 100,000 pilgrims who lived in God’s Grace, walk the Camino to Santiago. Pope Pius XI had given his blessing for this undertaking and now, with the addition of the Cursillos, this dream was finally realized in August of 1948 when 70,000 arrived at St. James where they were met with a radio address from Pope Pius XII! It was Pius XII who contributed to naming the Cursillos by referring to it many times as “Cursillo de Cristiandad”. This name was officially given to the movement by Bishop Hervas (a major driving force in Cursillo) in 1953.

After the stunning success of this pilgrimage, the number of Cursillos increased to several a month and extended beyond Mallorca to all parts of Spain and surrounding countries until eventually the “little course” arrived in the United States in 1957 when the first Cursillo weekend was held on May 27th of that year. This came about when two young Spanish Air Force officers were sent to Texas for cooperative training with the United States Air Force. Since Cursillo is a movement of the Laity within the Church, they found a Parish in Waco with a priest who had lived a Cursillo weekend and was willing to cooperate in holding a Cursillo there. Next it moved to Phoenix and so on until the little course is now being lived in a multitude of countries on six continents.

Pope Paul VI named St. Paul as the Patron Saint of the Cursillo Movement and these are his words as he addressed the first World Ultreya in Rome on May 28, 1966:

“Cursillo de Cristiandad, that is the word, purified through experience, affirmed by its fruits, that today travels with citizenship papers throughout the world. Beloved sons and daughters permit us to express our overwhelming joy that at this moment, floods our soul before the immense chorus of your faith in Christ, your fidelity to the Church, your fervent loyalty to this Chair of Peter and to the Ministry of the Episcopal Hierarchy. Cursillo in Christianity, Christ, the Church, the Pope, are counting on you!”

Our beloved Saint Pope John Paul II addressed the Cursillo community on many occasions during his pontificate. July 29, 2000, the occasion of the meeting of the Third World Ultreya, saw the Pope address the enormous crowd with these words:

“The Tiny seed planted in Spain over fifty years ago has become a great tree laden with the Fruits of the Spirit. The Cursillistas transform the world by becoming new men and women.”

The Pope continued saying that he was “delighted to join in giving thanks to the Lord for all God had done and never ceases to do in the Church through the Cursillo in Christianity.” Our Holy Father then enjoined the Cursillistas to be courageous, to “ultreya”! This is a word the pilgrims use to encourage one another when the road becomes difficult; it is loosely translated as to “go forth” or “onward!”

What a consolation it must have been to hear this word spoken from the lips of this Pope now Saint.

Just as it would have been impossible to explain the genesis of the Cursillo without mentioning the name of Eduardo Bonnin, so too, the history of the Cursillo in the Diocese of Trenton could not be told without the mention of Father John (Jay) Bowden, our Spiritual Advisor Emeritus in Heaven!

Father Jay (as we all knew him) lived his Cursillo in Brooklyn New York in 1967, five years after his ordination to the Priesthood. That experience instilled a love of the “little course'' in him that lasted until his death on July 3, 2019. How appropriate that he should die on the eve of Independence Day in America since he had lived and preached the freedom of Christians in the Life of Christ Who loves us beyond measure.

Father Jay was instrumental, along with members of the Newark diocese, In holding the first Cursillo in the Trenton Diocese in May of 1972. It is amazing to note that a group of Cursillo leaders came to the Trenton Diocese from Buffalo, New York. Yes that's right, your eyes are not deceiving you. This group made a trek of hundreds of miles in order to share the Life of Christ in them with people they did not even know. This first Cursillo in the Trenton Diocese was followed by a women’s weekend in June of the same year. 

After living his Cursillo weekend, Father Jay was part of many, many Cursillo teams and his character and love of the movement helped to guide and shape us here in Trenton for over 50 years. Perhaps most telling in his life was his love of the hymn Hosea. “Come back to Me with all your heart. Don’t let fear keep us apart.” These words embody the little course as well; to reach out to our “far off” brothers and sisters with Christ’s Love.

In the final analysis, the history of Cursillo whether in Spain, Trenton, or anywhere on the continents where the Holy Spirit has breathed it into existence, is still being lived and written. The many who have lived the blessed three days and who have continued to live their fourth day are still writing it. The many Cursillistas who have gone home to the Lord and those in Purgatory stand as a great cloud of witnesses to its authenticity and its far-reaching success as a Charism of the Holy Spirit. The Trenton Cursillo in Christianity is one small part of a world-wide Catholic Christian movement of the Laity, approved and joined by priests and bishops of the Church. It has been given authenticity and encouragement by Popes both past and present and has continued to prove itself down through the decades to be a living,
breathing organism perpetuating the very Life of Christ in HIS Church. May God continue to bless this movement for another 78 years and beyond around the world and in our humble Diocese of Trenton for another 50 and as far into the future as His Mercy will allow. 

Our late great Bishop John M. Smith of the Diocese of Trenton, who had lived the Cursillo as a young priest, was fond of describing Cursillistas as “a pilgrim people within a pilgrim Church” and so we are. It is fitting that the past, present and future of the Cursillo in Christianity rests where it has from the beginning; with the individual pilgrim on his journey, walking along with his brothers and sisters toward his final encounter with The One who set him on the road.

Gracias a Dios

Postscript:
It must be noted that a short history of this kind will, by necessity, omit many important names not written in these pages. Men and women, clergy and dedicated religious who devoted their time, energy and lives to bring a richer, deeper, life of Faith to their brothers and sisters out of a sense of Christian love. In Eduardo’s case, besides the many in Catholic Action, was his brother who picked up the work of the family business so that Eduardo could devote his life to this Charism. The many diocesan Priests and religious deacons and sisters who served on teams over the 78 years since Cursillo has been in existence are too numerous to recount.

RESOURCES:

My Spiritual Testament, Eduardo Bonnin Aguilo
Cursillo History & Memory, Francisco Forteza Pujol
The Thinking of Eduardo Bonnin I, Foundation Eduardo Bonnin Aguilo
Eduardo Bonnin An apprentice Christian, Eduardo Suarez del Real Aguilera
100 Years Biography Mentality
Leader’s Manual, United States Catholic Cursillo Movement