Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Faith Lives Bloom From 40 Years Of Cursillo Weekends

Published September 22, 2005

When Father David Smith of Miami made a Cursillo weekend, he was a layman who heard his own divine calling after witnessing the transforming power of God in ordinary people’s lives.

After the weekend the bilingual Floridian, who worked in exporting, discerned through his Cursillo “brothers” in 1976 his calling to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Miami. By 1977 he was in the seminary and was ordained five years later. As a priest he went on to serve as the national spiritual director of Cursillo and is currently the regional spiritual director of the retreat movement, along with being the Latin American administrator for Human Life International.

“I saw the Spirit of the Lord at work in ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. It’s a lifestyle event,” said the priest of Cursillo. “Christ equips us just to be the good news and to share it with each other, and we know we can’t do it alone. That’s why we have small groups.”

The tall, lanky priest with white hair explained that the international retreat movement of the Catholic Church known as Cursillo was started in the 1940s after the end of the Spanish Civil War on the Spanish island of Mallorca by Eduardo Bonnin. The soldier wanted to reach out to his unchurched military comrades and help them to find faith and use their natural talents for God and through his grace. The first retreat had seven practicing Catholics and seven who were non-practicing. He and others prayed, studied and planned together to form Christian life in Mallorca.

It was “to take people with ordinary talents, to bloom where they were planted and be exposed to the Gospel. So in an ordinary way we, through our lives in submission to God’s grace, will literally be changing the environment around us,” he said. “It comes through renewal of heart.”

A member of the International Catholic Organizations of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome, the lay movement spread globally, even before the Second Vatican Council, with its focus on giving one’s life fully to the love of God and man and faithful living in daily life—the most natural form of evangelization. The movement first came to the United States in Texas in 1957. The retreat was offered first in Spanish and was translated and offered in English in 1961. Immaculate Heart of Mary Church was the first Atlanta-based parish to offer the weekend in 1965.

Father Smith joined other “Cursillistas” for a lively Mass in English, Korean, Vietnamese and Spanish celebrating the 40th anniversary of the English Cursillo movement in Atlanta. It was held the evening of Aug. 20 in the parish hall at Holy Cross Church. The gathering also honored Father Richard Kieran who is celebrating his 40th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. As a young priest from Ireland, Father Kieran participated in Atlanta’s first Cursillo and went on to serve as a spiritual director for many years. He learned Spanish and helped establish the Spanish Cursillo in 1972.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory was the main celebrant, and concelebrants were Father Guillermo Cordoba, Father Kieran, Father Steve Yander, Father Smith, Holy Cross pastor Father Patrick Kingery and Father John Seog-Chil Seo, SJ. Assisting at the altar, which was decorated with red and yellow roses, daisies and gladiolas, was Deacon Mike Balfour, a Cursillo spiritual director, and acolyte John Peterson. With over 400 participants, Anglos gathered alongside many young adult Hispanics, as well as Vietnamese and Korean Cursillo community members.

Cursillo is short for Cursillo de Cristiandad, or short course on Christianity. Kevin Rickwood, who recently finished a two-year term as lay director, said the English weekends run Thursday night to Sunday night and involve three talks each day by lay leaders and two a day by spiritual directors, usually a priest, sister or deacon. Topics range from the sacraments and faith sharing to Ultreya follow-up meetings and community participation. It’s an intensive review of what it means to be a Catholic Christian in today’s world, focusing on prayer, study and action.

“You get challenged by what the church means and what being a lay person means … They try to challenge you as an adult about making a choice,” about intentionally being an apostle. There is also Mass and time for prayer, small group sharing and Scripture study. In English there are two men’s retreats and two women’s retreats offered each year, drawing about 30-35 people each, at King’s Retreat in Dallas, Ga. Each retreatant has a sponsor who helps one connect with a small group afterward.

After this once-in-a-lifetime retreat participants may attend Ultreya (Spanish for onward) meetings, held monthly, usually after a Mass, at participating parishes, during which those attending also break up and gather with their small “friendship group” for faith sharing. There is also a leaders group meeting every Thursday at St. Pius X High School.

During the Mass Archbishop Gregory, in his homily, referred to the Gospel reading from Matthew where Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is and affirmed the value of the movement to help many to learn the answer.

“Cursillo has been an opportunity for people to answer the burning question of today’s Gospel. You’ve found the correct answer in many small faith group encounters that serve as a hallmark of Cursillo. You have found important answers about who Christ is in the world and made Him more accessible for one another and the entire world,” he said. “We are all challenged to respond from the heart from the depths of our lives, not just passing on what the church proclaims but what I have discovered in my own life.”

If one truly believes that Jesus is Lord, one’s response to that reality must be reflected in treatment of one’s family, neighbor, the stranger, the immigrant, the enemy and the poor, he continued. Actions “must bear witness to the response we give to that essential question … Our answer is, after all, a matter of life and death,” said the archbishop.

Sister Margaret McAnoy, IHM, spoke of how the late Msgr. Michael Regan and some IHM members made a Cursillo in Chicago in 1965 and later an African-American rector and his teams came down from Chicago to lead the first weekend for men and women in Atlanta in August despite threats from the outside community toward the rector because of his race. Father Kieran was among the first candidates and Father Kingery’s father Bill was on the first men’s team.

In 1969 the women began meeting at Ignatius House, and in 1970 the men started going to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. In 1972 the Spanish retreat started, in 1973 groups were led for Lutherans, in 1974 Ultreya began, and in 1977 Episcopalians joined them for a few weekends and by 1985 the first Korean weekend was held.

“About 85 percent of permanent deacons made weekends, and I think it took for most of them.” Sister McAnoy also testified that several men either heard or confirmed their call to the priesthood on a Cursillo weekend. Father Kieran was one of them, having made his first weekend when he was a brand new priest.

“He has just kept on going and the Cursillo movement has touched so many lives and the world is a better place because of Father Richard Kieran.”The congregation stood for extended applause as the priest smiled warmly from behind the altar, quietly saying, “Thank you, that’s good.” Deacon Balfour thanked the archbishop for his presence and added, “I want to point out I am one of the ones for whom it did take!”Father Smith, wearing a stole depicting children of many races, declared in Spanish and English from a Rolling Stones song, “it’s the singer, not the song,” and that one must live faith sincerely as “faith is not taught, it’s caught.”

Following the Mass an Ultreya was held where Bill Allen, a member of St. Brigid Church, Alpharetta, who made the retreat in 1993, told the story of how a wise old rabbi once advised a troubled young rabbinical student who was unable to pray. He told the student to start by giving thanks, and then Allen spoke of how he has refocused his own private prayer on gratitude to God for his blessings instead of proclaiming a litany of complaints. This has brought him more peace and led more to conversations with God.

Father Yander added, “We have to be willing to learn from spiritual leaders outside our own tradition. You can learn from a Jewish rabbi … what can be easier than (praying about) our experience of life on this day and giving gratitude for it.”

In an interview, Czech Kozel said she made a Cursillo weekend in 1993 that was “amazing” and prepared her for a trip to Israel later that year. It helped her realize her responsibility as a lay person to be involved in ministry, and she continues to attend Ultreya meetings at her former parish, IHM. “What was special was having a sense of it enriching my life in a very profound way and even though it was very enriching it was something that would be continued ahead, not just that weekend.”

She remains thankful for the “tremendous amount of community support” not just from her own parish but from others in the archdiocese.“It promotes lay persons being involved in the parish and sharing in the life of the parish, making a contribution, not just leaving it up to the priests and deacons.”Roberto Rodriguez, the lay director of the Spanish Cursillo, recalled how he had lost his faith after immigrating from Puerto Rico to New York, until he made a retreat in 1968.“Cursillo was really like a new breath of spirituality for me. I was born again. It’s something I’ll never forget. It was the beginning,” he said.

For Rodriguez, the retreat brought him into a faith community but, most profoundly, brought the reality of God right to him.“Really what impressed me the most was the presence of the Holy Spirit and the person of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist … Even though I believed he was there, I never saw him as being so close to me.”After coming to Atlanta in 1983 Rodriguez became involved here, and said they now hold two men’s and two women’s Spanish Cursillo retreats a year. Their fall schedule, however, hasn’t been set because they are looking for a new retreat space but there will be a renewal retreat for those who’ve already made a weekend Jan. 19-22 at King’s Retreat.

About 10 Spanish Ultreya groups in parishes also meet, usually once a month, and archdiocesan-wide Spanish meetings are held bimonthly. At his parish, IHM, there are five small groups whose members share with one another and other groups during Ultreya meetings.

Dung Vo, a leader of the Vietnamese Cursillo, said that Vietnamese Catholics are less open with others about their faith and that the retreat challenges them to reach out to others more as they strive for holiness. Vo, whose English name is James, said that there are about 143 Vietnamese “Cursillistas” mainly from Our Lady of Vietnam Church in Riverdale and the Vietnamese community at Holy Cross. They also hold monthly Ultreyas.“We know we are not alone and have friendship and encouragement to live as a Christian in the world,” he said. “People start to realize they have to live the Christian life in their work, whatever they do.”Assistant director of the Korean Cursillo, Jay Yoon, a member of Korean Martyrs Church, Doraville, was happy to be able to gather for the first Cursillo with all ethnic groups, and hopes that this will lead to more interaction.“This gives us a great chance and good exposure to connect with other communities. This is a way of uniting with other ethnic groups and nationalities.”

Korean director Anselm Shim added, “It is the best way to become a real Christian from our heart and to get more outsiders into our religion.”Rickwood, a member of St. Lawrence Church, Lawrenceville, who is married and has two adult children, said that the retreat is for Catholics age 25 and older who want to deepen or renew their faith. He encouraged those interested in making a weekend to attend an Ultreya meeting at a participating parish to learn more. The retreat helped him to experience God’s love, which brought fulfillment to his life and led him to pray more and become involved in a small faith group and leadership roles for 25 years. The lay leader, who works as a maintenance chief, recalled being most impressed with the talks by the laymen.

“Although I had heard the words, I had never really felt that God loved me, and after sitting with a bunch of guys for a while I came off of that (weekend) convinced that was true.”The discovery was intense.“… it makes a lot of other things easy and fulfilling,” he said. “They were laymen like me, not clergy preaching. They were laymen sharing. It was powerful. I think it still is. I’ve worked these teams for 25 years afterwards and as you watch people these three days you can see them light up.”

For more information on Cursillo visit leaders school begins on Thursday, Oct. 6, with Mass at 7 p.m. at St. Pius X High School. In English, the next men’s weekend is Sept. 22-25 and for women is Sept. 29-Oct. 2. For information on the Spanish Cursillo e-mail Roberto Rodriguez at For Vietnamese Cursillo e-mail James Vo at and for Korean e-mail Anselm Shim at