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Spanish-language Cursillo group marks 40 years in Arlington diocese

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Iris Chavez was 19 and her boyfriend Rigoberto was 21 when they were invited to attend a weekend retreat sponsored by Cursillo, the lay Catholic spirituality movement named for the “short course” in Christianity developed in Spain in the 1940s.

The three-day retreats — separate events for women and men — reignited their faith and inspired them to learn more. “We were just not aware of how beautiful our faith is,” she said.

It would seem like it's just like another retreat, but it’s not. It does have the power to transform lives.” Iris Chavez

That was almost 12 years ago. Today, at 31 and 33, they are married with five young children and have become leaders in their parish community, the St. Gabriel Mission in Manassas Park, a mission of All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas. 

“We are so blessed and so happy — and it all goes back to what my husband and I learned in that three-day weekend,” she said. “Having encountered Christ, we know what he is calling us to do, and we are able to do so many things. When you live the life God wants you to live, you are happy and joyful.”

The Cursillo (pronounced cur-SEE-yo) movement made its way from Spain around the world, arriving in the United States in 1957. The first retreats in Northern Virginia took place in 1969, initially in English, and English groups continue to meet. A Spanish-language group started in the Arlington diocese in 1981 and marks its 40th anniversary with several events, including a Mass Sept. 25 to be celebrated by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge. Vietnamese Cursillo groups also meet in the diocese. 

“It would seem like it's just like another retreat, but it’s not,” Chavez said. “It does have the power to transform lives.” Largely because of Cursillo, “I see everything I do as an opportunity God has given me to make him present to others.”

Jorge Alas, a parishioner of St. Philip Church in Falls Church, made his Cursillo 19 years ago, in September 2002, and also found it life-changing. “Everything the church teaches tells us your relationship with Jesus Christ starts with an encounter with him, and Cursillo facilitates that encounter,” he said. He added that from the outside, his life may not look a lot different: “I am still a husband, a father, a realtor. But inside of me, my life changed. You try to shape your life around what Jesus is calling you to do.” 

Rob Doerschner, lay director of the English-language Cursillo group in the Arlington diocese, got involved with Cursillo 37 years ago in Atlanta, when he was 27. He said that while most spiritual retreats focus on silence and reflection, “Cursillo is not like that at all. It is meant to engage people. You hear people talk about their faith life and their struggles, and how God is acting in their life.” 

He said the format common to all the group’s retreats includes 15 talks over the course of the weekend, with each day having a different focus. “But it isn’t somebody giving you a presentation. It’s not sugar-coated or canned. There are concepts presented, but they make it very real for people, and you develop a close bond with all the people on your weekend.

“Basically it’s about loving yourself, loving God and loving others, and living your life as a Catholic Christian, through piety, study and action — serving others to bring the message of the Gospel.”

The Cursillo format or “method” developed by founder Eduardo Bonnín (1917-2008) also includes regular followup gatherings of small groups for ongoing faith sharing and spiritual support, as well as a “School of Leaders” and larger monthly gatherings, called Ultreyas, Spanish for “onward.” 

Bonnín (now a Servant of God with an official cause for sainthood underway) “had some divine inspiration coming up with the method,” Doerschner believes.

No matter which language it’s presented in, Cursillo “attempts to meet people where they're at and show what a life in friendship with Jesus and walking with the faith community is like, and how that can bring joy and fulfillment, despite the challenges of life,” Doershner said. 

Find out more

Cursillo groups in the Arlington diocese meet in Spanish, English and Vietnamese. 

Spanish: Email Danilo Rivera, dijo70@aol.com or call 703/470-8095.

English: Visit arlingtoncursillo.org or email Rob Doerschner, laydirector@arlingtoncursillo.org.

Vietnamese: Email Tony Tran, Tonytran0914@gmail.com or call 571/344-4100.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021