Faith movement celebrates its 25th anniversary in the Diocese of Knoxville
By Bill Brewer
The Cursillo movement in the Diocese of Knoxville has reached a longevity milestone that many organizations never attain as it celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrated a special Mass for East Tennessee’s Cursillo community at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on Oct. 1, which is the feast day for St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Concelebrating the Mass were Father Alex Waraksa and Father Peter Iorio. Deacon Erasmus Hernandez and Deacon Bill Jacobs assisted.
During the Mass, Bishop Stika called Cursillo a “gift” of the Church, much as St. Thérèse is.
“Years ago, I remember hearing a homily, and it talked about how we celebrate Christmas every day because every day we receive a gift. Then we have to unwrap that gift to see what’s inside that box. The homilist was talking about how that’s what the Church is. The Church has many gifts, and sometimes people don’t see what those gifts are because they’ve never had a chance to unwrap that package,” Bishop Stika said.
“Cursillo is one of those gifts. And what a gift. It’s a gift to discover Jesus. And the example of St. Thérèse. The gift she has given to us is a certain simplicity. Many times in the Church, because of theology and ecclesiology and those other ‘ologies,’ the Church can be kind of complicated, especially when you try to read some of the theologians,” he added. “They’re trying to express in words the immensity of God. Sometimes the verbiage becomes so much because you really can’t describe God or faith. Can you?”
Bishop Stika explained that Cursillo is a gift from Spain. The movement’s founder established the format to teach the faith, to share the message of Jesus with others. It involves “talks” over specific weekends. Up until the early 1960s the talks were in Spanish, at which time they began to be translated.
As Catholic Church organizations and movements go, Cursillo in Christianity is relatively young. It was started in Spain in the 1940s by lay Catholic Eduardo Bonnín and a group of close collaborators.
The first Cursillos were held in 1944, and in 1949 a Spanish bishop endorsed them. By 1957, the movement had spread to the United States. The Cursillo movement in the United States was organized on a national basis in 1965.
In practice, the Cursillo method involves three phases: Precursillo, Cursillo weekend, and Postcursillo.
Precursillo is about the person and his or her relationship with Christ as well as friendship. The Cursillo weekend is an opportunity for individuals to encounter themselves, Christ, and others. Christ in the Eucharist is the central focus of Cursillo weekend. The weekend also is about prayer.
Postcursillo is about carrying over Precursillo and Cursillo Weekend. This is done through personal contact, witnessing, and the continuation of prayer, sacrifice, and works of mercy.
Individuals who complete the Cursillo weekend and enter into Postcursillo, or the “fourth day,” are said to have “made their Cursillo” and thus become Cursillistas.
“The Cursillista is called to be the Good News to others through a life of piety, study, and action in his or her daily life by living the Gospel realities discovered on the weekend. The Cursillista is called to continue discovering and deepening friendships in each of the three encounters discovered on the weekend. The Cursillista is now in a state of progressive conversion and is ‘evangelizing’ and ‘being Christian’ where God has placed him, in his everyday environments,” according to the National Cursillo Movement.
Father Waraksa, associate pastor of St. Jude Parish in Chattanooga, remembers making his Cursillo in Cleveland when he was assigned to St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish after being involved in a Search for Christian Maturity high school retreat as a youth.
He pointed out that Search had an impact on his faith, and he learned that Search came from Cursillo as did Marriage Encounter and other movements within the Church.
Father Waraksa, who noted that he was involved in the Diocese of Knoxville’s first Cursillo weekend 25 years ago, emphasized that a number of Church movements, like peer ministry and lay ministry, are linked to Cursillo.
“I sought it out. As a seminarian, I encountered Cursillistas at St. Augustine Parish in Signal Mountain who were grouping every Saturday morning. To see what motivated these people, what moved them to grow and to encounter Christ and to want to live their faith made me want to seek out Cursillo, and I lived the first one that was here. Father (Joe) Brando was guiding it then. I have been helping with Cursillo since then,” Father Waraksa said.
He and Father Iorio recalled the Diocese of Knoxville priests who were leaders in the diocesan Cursillo movement, including Father Brando, Monsignor Xavier Mankel, Monsignor Bob Hofstetter, Monsignor Al Humbrecht, and Father Paul Valleroy.
Father Waraksa’s Cursillo has led him to leadership positions within the diocese and within the national Cursillo Movement, including serving as spiritual adviser for the national Cursillo Movement.
“God uses all of us, and God calls us to be leaders. A leader is just bringing someone to Christ. It’s not always standing in front and being the public leaders that we think of but one who says, ‘Be my friend; I know Christ; Come to know Christ.’ It doesn’t have to be complicated. Anyone who has been a parent is a leader. If you’ve shown anyone how to do something you’re a leader. It’s very important,” Father Waraksa said.
“But the most important part is about Christ. If you ever tell someone what He means in your life and try to enliven His presence in their life, you’re a leader. These are very simple and important things. I’m very blessed that when I searched for Cursillo I found it, and I’ve been able to help since then,” he added.
Father Waraksa encourages Catholics to continue searching out to do Christ’s work, just as Cursillo emphasizes.
“Cursillo is one method among many. It’s blessed many lives. Sometimes it’s the first profound experience in Christ. It can have a very special place in their hearts, and they would like to help others to have that experience of God’s love for them,” said Father Waraksa, who noted that Christ must be at the center of our lives.
“If He isn’t, we can lose our motivation, desire, and the reason we are serving other people. It has to be the call of Christ and for Christ so that others will know Him. Essential things are very simple to Cursillo. That is why friendship is something we’re all capable of. It’s not something beyond us or apart from us. Christ is the one who calls us to friendship with Him and to bring others to Him through that friendship,” he continued.
Sara Carey of St. Alphonsus Parish in Crossville grew up in Sacred Heart Parish and then went away to graduate school. She made her Cursillo while she was away.
“When I came back, I called the diocesan office to ask if there was a Cursillo in the diocese. They said yes and they put me in contact with at that time Father Evan Eckhoff, who is now deceased. He said yes, there was a movement that was just getting started,” recalled Ms. Carey, who said the 25th anniversary is significant.
She remembered that a couple of meetings were held at the Chancery to get Cursillo started and that there were enough interested parishioners to form a team for the diocese’s first Cursillo weekend in October 1997. Father Eckhoff was a priest in the Order of Friars (OFM) and served in the Diocese of Knoxville from 1993 to 2010. He died in November 2011.
“Now that it’s been around for 25 years and to know that I was a part of it at the beginning, it’s very rewarding to see that it is still going,” Ms. Carey said.
Ms. Carey explained that Cursillo weekends are divided for men and women because the talks are personalized. She noted that Cursillo is for everyone, from young adults to older individuals, including retirees.
“It’s a big deal. Cursillo teaches you to live your faith in everyday life. They talk about apostolates. Different people have different apostolates. For some people it’s their family. For some people it’s their job. For some people it’s a particular ministry they’re in. It’s basically how can you live your everyday life and your faith together,” Ms. Carey pointed out.
“They talk about the three legs of Cursillo. They use the image of the three-legged stool, and the three legs are piety, study, and action.So, if you have a prayer life, you’re going to Mass and receiving the sacraments, if you have formation or study, such as you’re reading good things like Scripture or you’re in Bible study or learning about the saints, whatever that happens to be, then that will help you have that action that helps you to evangelize and tell your story about your relationship with Christ and hopefully bring others to Him,” she added.
Bishop Stika fondly remembers making his Cursillo and praises the impact the movement has had on the Church.
“I did my Cursillo in St. Louis about 18 years ago. These movements in the Church are significant because they appeal to a particular group. Cursillo began in Spain and involves the three talks on that first weekend, which keeps the flame of faith alive in our hearts,” the bishop said. “So many people have benefited from this process and the renewal in that. It’s a beautiful thing. There are all these precious gifts within the Church, like Cursillo, and sometimes people don’t realize that. The witness of Cursillo and the people who have gone through it are the best advertising you can have. It’s the witness to the faith. It’s a real blessing.”
Joe Szmidt of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa has been in Cursillo since 1997. The metallurgical engineer explained that he worked for Alcoa and was at one time assigned to the aluminum manufacturer’s Hong Kong office. He and his wife were new to the Catholic Church, and someone invited them to a Cursillo weekend.
“That first weekend was a very moving weekend. I probably would not be as involved in the Church without the impact of Cursillo,” Mr. Szmidt said. “It’s a movement where the Holy Spirit talked to me directly. It touched my heart. It brings an emotion out that you just don’t experience from anything else.”
The Cursillo group at Our Lady of Fatima meets each Saturday following the 8 a.m. Mass, according to Mr. Szmidt. He said the Cursillo men and women meet separately. Frequently, the Cursillistas join for an Ultreya, or large gathering of men and women from across the diocese.
“Cursillo is not a movement that does service projects. What it does is it touches your heart so that you move on to other things,” Mr. Szmidt further explained.
Father Iorio calls Our Lady of Fatima the center of Cursillo in the Diocese of Knoxville “just because we have so many folks who are Cursillistas.”
The pastor of Our Lady of Fatima said it is spiritually uplifting to see Cursillo active in the diocese 25 years later.
“I first encountered the word Cursillo when I was growing up at St. Augustine in Signal Mountain because that is where solid men who were leaders and involved in the parish were involved in Cursillo, I learned, and they grouped every Saturday morning in the parish rectory. When I became pastor there in 2004-06, they encouraged me to make the weekend. That is the beginning of it for me,” Father Iorio said.
Father Iorio made his Cursillo weekend in 2005 with now-Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. at Eagle Rock Retreat Center in Blount County. Father Iorio is grateful to Cursillo because he understands that the Search for Christian Maturity retreat is based on the Cursillo model.
“And that was very powerful for me in my own faith journey. I would even have to say it inspired me to consider priesthood through that Search for Christian Maturity retreat. It was far-reaching, very influential,” he said.
Father Iorio sees the Holy Spirit at work as his faith journey and vocation have led him to Our Lady of Fatima, where Cursillo is so active.
“Active parishioners at Our Lady of Fatima are dedicated to it and to keeping it going. They group, often on a Saturday morning, as they come to morning Mass at 8 a.m. They’re always excited to bring new folks to Christ, and I’m always happy to support them in any way that I can,” Father Iorio said.
“For me now as a priest, looking back over time, some of the men who were participants on the weekend or leaders on the weekend, I had been their pastor sometimes and even have had their funerals. It all kind of comes around in God’s great big embrace of love,” he continued, noting that Deacon Jacobs is one of those active parishioners who also serves as the spiritual adviser for Cursillo in the Diocese of Knoxville.
Deacon Jacobs would like to see more Diocese of Knoxville parishes involved in Cursillo. The Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is among parishes currently surveying members to gauge their interest in forming Cursillo groups.
“Cursillo changes lives. It changed my life for the better. It pointed me in the direction of Christ, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity. It’s not complicated. It’s not hard to do. And the most important thing—it’s not a retreat. The three-day Cursillo Weekend sets you up for what we call the fourth day, which is the rest of your life,” Deacon Jacobs explained.
“We have weekly groupings of men and women getting together, reinforcing their faith, and encouraging each other to progress in piety, in study, and in action. Also, it’s to bring those things that you learn to be active in the community, to bring others to Christ. It’s the only retreat I know of that has that ongoing aspect to it, that we can keep learning, keep growing in the movement together instead of just having a nice feel-good three days, and then a week later you forgot it. That is the beautiful thing about Cursillo,” he added.
Deacon Jacobs pointed out that Cursillo has been a source of many vocations to the Church, certainly to the permanent diaconate.
“Many people who have been in Cursillo have been driven to other ministries, other ways to serve the Lord in their parishes and in their communities. It’s just a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit, ever since 25 years ago, but also since the 1940s, too,” he said. “Bishop Stika is a Cursillista, which is why he is here. Father Peter Iorio and Father Alex Waraksa also are Cursillistas. It’s just a great way to grow in faith. It changed my life completely, and we want to bring that change to lots of others. It’s a diocesan movement; it’s not a parish movement per se. Some parishes are more active in Cursillo than others. We have active communities in Johnson City, in Chattanooga, at Our Lady of Fatima, and in Crossville as well.”
In his homily during the Cursillo anniversary Mass, Bishop Stika said a Catholic can witness to God and to faith, but there are certain things that are just without explanation.
“Those ingredients invite us to try to discover God. Isn’t that what the weekend talks are about? When laity and clergy, people who have discovered the beauty of Cursillo come together and wish to share that with others, it opens the door. It is the unwrapping of that package,” he said. “All of you are here, and you represent other people who were touched by the gift of Cursillo. For 25 years in this diocese, that gift has been proclaimed and lived. Anytime we gather together in the Eucharist and Mass, we do so in thanksgiving. The word ‘Eucharist’ means thanksgiving…we give thanks to almighty God.”
Bishop Stika asked those at the Mass to continue to witness to what has touched their lives—Cursillo—so that they may continue to grow within the Diocese of Knoxville and throughout the world in the very special gift given to them: to accept Jesus’ invitation to know His Father and be inflamed by the Holy Spirit.
“That’s what we do this day, on this first day of October, we give thanks to God for that movement that began in Spain in the 1940s, when Spain was torn apart by civil war and war throughout the world. So, maybe it’s very significant at this time when we hear about the atrocities and craziness going on, such as in the Ukraine and other parts of the world and even in our own country, that precious relationship we are invited to through things like Cursillo to know God through Jesus and through St. Thérèse and all those saints who have gone before us and have taught us by the virtue of witness,” he said. “So, continue to witness to that which has touched your lives: Cursillo.”
Judy Holt of St. Mary Parish in Johnson City was among the Cursillistas attending the anniversary Mass who were appreciating what Bishop Stika was preaching.
Ms. Holt, who has been in Cursillo for 40 years and became a Cursillista in the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., where she made her Cursillo in October 1982, said what most, if not all, the Cursillistas feel.
“Cursillo has follow-up. I have accountability. I have friends. I thirst for Cursillo like water,” she said.