WEST HARTFORD – There is a little-understood lay evangelization movement in the Archdiocese of Hartford – even though, nationwide, it claims to have a million participants, and many multiples of that worldwide.
Joan Reynolds, a parishioner at Our Lady of Victory Parish in West Hartford, is the lay coordinator for English-speaking participants – called cursillistas – of the Cursillo Movement in the Archdiocese of Hartford. She said archdiocesan priest Father Donald J. O’Leary (d. 2007) was an early pioneer and a spiritual director of the movement in Connecticut, where Cursillo has been active for over four decades.
Acting as spiritual director of the Cursillo Movement in the Archdiocese of Hartford since 1978 has been Father John M. Cooney, now retired from active ministry and residing at St. John the Evangelist Rectory in Watertown. Father Cooney has guided cursillistas until this year, when Father Carlos Zapata, pastor of Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazon Parish in Waterbury, succeeded him.
What is Cursillo? In Spanish, the word means "short course," as in, a brief course of study. But before we get too far into that, a little background is necessary.
The Cursillo Movement began in Spain in the 1940s, as a response to religious repression during the Spanish Civil War. A group of men wanted to bring the word of Christ to other young men of Mallorca, Spain. The movement spread throughout the world, coming to the United States in 1957.
A 1995 booklet titled "The Cursillo Movement: What Is It?" warns at the outset: "To explain Cursillo to someone who has never experienced Cursillo is, at best, difficult. Often, for those who have experienced Cursillo it is still somewhat mystifying."
The Transcript attended a Cursillo meeting at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in February and interviewed both Father Cooney and, later by e-mail, Father Zapata, as well as lay cursillistas.
What sets Cursillo apart from other lay Christian evangelization movements is its signature three-day weekend retreats. As Father Cooney explained, "It really is based on the adaptation for laypeople of the Ignatian 30-day retreat, the four weeks of the Ignatian retreat, so it’s very much Ignatian spirituality."
He said that the founders adapted the retreat for the conversion of laypeople.
Ms. Reynolds said, "The first three days are on the weekend and the rest of your life is considered the fourth day. You go out and you’re doing your thing among others. You meet with other people. There are little groups all over the diocese that meet, small groups of friends, and they share their piety in this study and their actions."
The Cursillo weekend, according to the booklet, features daily Mass (except the first day), a silent period of meditation and prayer, presentations by laypeople and clergy, table discussions among participants, and exercises designed to bring participants closer to God.
After the weekend, follow-up is important. New cursillistas are encouraged to form small groups and hold a "group reunion" and then meet with other such groups. This last step is called Ultreya, which is Spanish for "onward."
Mike Veretti, a cursillista whose home parish is Our Lady of Mercy in Plainville, said he was sponsored in 1980 by Regina Albee of the same parish, who was also at the West Hartford meeting. "You really get a real sense of who you are as part of being church. Regina can attest that I was a very quiet, shy individual. Now I’m involved in social justice, health care issues and stuff. It’s been really, really exciting."
Ms. Albee had joined five years earlier, in 1975, she said. Fellow parishioners urged her to participate, and she said, "I decided to go but only if they agreed to take care of my children. It ended up that it took a whole Ultreya, which is a group of people who meet besides this. It wasn’t just one or two people who could take care of six kids."
She works at a medical office, and they hold group reunion meetings there, she said.
Nancy Ryan, of St. Peter Claver Parish in West Hartford, said she joined in about 1982. "I always had a strong spiritual bent but [was] very private, and what Cursillo really did and what [her sponsors] did is they were there to keep me involved. The weekend was a tremendous experience."
Father Cooney said, "I think every one of us can attest to the fact that it’s had a huge impact on our spiritual lives and development. I know it has very, very much enriched my priesthood and my spiritual growth because you’re responsible, you’re getting together and reporting to other persons what you’re doing in your prayer life, in your spiritual reading and what you’re hopefully planning to do. And then they have the audacity," he continued with a chuckle, "when you come back the next time, to ask if you did it. So that accountability to a group is very helpful in terms of spiritual growth."
Father Zapata, successor to Father Cooney, is bilingual and will be spiritual director for both English- and Spanish-speaking cursillistas. In an e-mail, Father Zapata wrote, "Most cursillistas in the Archdiocese speak Spanish as their primary language. I would say they represent 85 percent of the Cursillo [Movement]."
He took his Cursillo retreat in 2005 and has been active in the movement ever since, often as a presenter at retreats. He credited Father Jose Mercado, archdiocesan director of the Office for Hispanic Evangelization, and Father Emmanuel Ihemedu, as being helpful and named several other priests of the archdiocese who are involved with the movement.
Father Zapata hopes that more English-speaking people will decide to experience Cursillo by taking part in the three-day initiating retreat. He sees his new assignment as an "opportunity to reach out to many people and to help the Church’s mission of evangelizing society. I’m happy to be able to support the Cursillo Movement."
To learn more about the Cursillo Movement in the Archdiocese of Hartford, contact lay coordinator Joan Reynolds at 203-676-1425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.