Via de Cristo (a Spanish term meaning “Way of Christ”) is an ecumenical movement bathed in Lutheran theology. Its seminal roots stretch all the way to the Roman Catholic Church, the island of Majorca, Spain, the 1940s, and the Cursillo® Movement.
The Spanish Civil War had ended in 1939 and the church, like the nation, was bloodied and divided. Catholic Action for Young Men, the organized apostolate, wanted to bring healing to both church and nation. They began to organize a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James, located in Compostela, Spain. The shrine had been a great pilgrimage center during the Middle Ages and these committed Christians anticipated their pilgrimage would be a stirring effort against “lukewarm” religiosity and encouragement to true community. All pilgrims would strive together to be fully devoted to Jesus Christ. They could change their world through his grace.
In order to prepare leaders for this pilgrimage, Catholic Action offered what was called “Little Courses for Pilgrim Leaders.” Unfortunately, the aftermath of the Civil War and the havoc of World War II repeatedly delayed their pilgrimage. It was 1948 before the dream of pilgrimage became reality. However, the long period of preparation did yield a gracious benefit, the birth of the Cursillo® Movement. The literal translation of the word Cursillo® is “little course.” The Cursillo® community celebrates August 1944 as its start. It was January 1949, after the pilgrimage, when the first “Cursillo®” weekend was held at the monastery of St. Honorato in Majorca.
To its founders the Cursillo® Movement was not an accident of fate, nor was it a clever human product. First, a group of faithful Christian men dedicated themselves to introducing the younger men of their city to Jesus Christ. They prayed, studied, and talked together as a team. In the light of God’s Word, they discussed the state of the world and the effectiveness of their efforts to bring the light of Christ to it. By grace, over time, God revealed to them a method that has proven effective and fruitful. Many years of effort within the Christian community and diligent prayer by the renewal movements within the church accompanied its birth. Because of this, the first three-day weekend was surprisingly similar to the present-day Cursillo® weekends. In the beginning, the weekend was only offered to the young Spanish men of Catholic Action. However, the courses were so effective that later it was decided to offer the Cursillo® to other young men without requiring a commitment to Catholic Action.
In 1950 Eduardo Bonnin resigned from Catholic Action to become the chairman of Cursillo®. Supported by his bishop, Juan Hervas, they worked together to clarify its method and defend the movement from its critics. Through God’s grace, even the opposition assisted the founders by forcing clarity of thought and the avoidance of variations. These leaders felt Jesus Christ close to them, affirming them and inspiring their efforts for his Kingdom.
In the early years the Cursillo® Movement remained largely a local effort on Majorca. The original leaders had remained there working together, praying together and hammering out the basic understandings of Cursillo®. Group reunions, three-day weekends, ultreyas, leader’s group and team meetings, each evolved in a systematic way. In 1955 Bishop Hervas was transferred from Majorca, and he took the idea of the Cursillo® Movement with him. Other leaders, some as early as 1953, helped spread the method as they were called away from Majorca. The whole movement grew through sharing. One person would tell another who in turn would tell someone else. It soon included women. Eduardo Bonin has told a delightful story of a lady in Barcelona, Spain who, after her husband was transformed on a weekend, demanded that the Bishop (a family friend) provide a weekend for women. She could no longer understand his behavior and if she was not allowed the experience she was sure they would end in divorce. The method has touched many without regard to age, sex, or national origin.
Today the Cursillo® Movement is worldwide. From Spain it moved to Latin America. By 1983 there were centers in nearly all South and Central American countries; also in Canada, Mexico, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia, Australia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and several African countries.
Father Gabriel Hernandez had experienced the Cursillo® in Spain under two founders of the movement, Eduardo Bonnin and Father Juan Capo. He later moved to Waco, Texas. In 1957 two Spanish airmen, Bernardo Vadell and Augustin Palomino, were in training with the United States Air Force. Together the priest and airmen formed a team and conducted the first United States weekend in May of 1957. They continued to assist groups, holding weekends across Texas. In 1959 the Movement expanded into Arizona and in 1960 into the East at New York City and Lorain, Ohio. It quickly spread to many other states. The first English speaking weekend was held in San Angelo, Texas in 1961. The National Catholic Secretariat was organized at a 1965 meeting in Kansas City, and by 1981 most of the Roman Catholic dioceses had introduced the Cursillo® Movement.
The Catholic Cursillo® community assisted other church bodies in holding similar weekends. Each new movement reflects its own traditions yet maintains the integrity of the original method. The Episcopalians use the name “Cursillo®,” the United Methodists use the name “Walk to Emmaus,” and the Lutherans use the name “Via de Cristo.” There are some inter-church efforts, “Tres Dias,” for example, and a prison effort called “Kairos.”
Two Lutheran movements began in 1972, each unknown to the other. Florida began with Spiritual Director Pastor Edward Simonsen and held its weekends in Miami. Iowa began with Spiritual Directors, Pastor Gene Hermeier for the men’s weekend, and Pastor Allen Hermeier for the women’s weekend, and held its weekends in Atlantic. Each group adapted the Cursillo® method with modifications for Lutheran use; and with assistance from Catholic and Episcopal leaders, each began to grow. The groups discovered one another “by chance” at a national church convention and combined their efforts to host a weekend in Chicago in 1976. By 1979 there were several Lutheran movements expressing interest in a national body for the Lutherans. Invitations were sent to all known Lutheran movements to meet in January 1981. The leaders came together at Cross and Crown Lutheran Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Assisted by Bishop David Wolber of the newly-formed Southeastern District of The American Lutheran Church, the group documented their desires and wrote the first draft of the National Lutheran Secretariat Constitution.
It is fundamental to the Cursillo® Movement that all movements maintain a close affiliation with the Church. In the 1980’s, because of the extensive spread of the movement and the many variations springing up, the Roman Catholic National Secretariat began attempts to enforce this church affiliation, requiring any movement that wished to use the not-as-yet registered name, Cursillo, to hold weekends for same-faith participants only. In 1983, during a meeting in Coral Gables, Florida, the President of the National Secretariat of the Cursillo® Movement, Gerry Hughes, came to the National Lutheran Secretariat (NLS) meeting. If NLS would agree to hold weekends for Lutherans only they would be licensed to use the name Cursillo®. Through its next four meetings the NLS deliberated in great agony on the decision. Finally, in February 1986, at a winter meeting held at St. Michael Lutheran Church in Ottawa Lake, Michigan, the NLS decided that its commitment to ecumenism outweighed its attachment to the name Cursillo® and adopted the name Via de Cristo. Although the NLS does not require local movements to change their names in order to affiliate with them, they do suggest “Via de Cristo.” Most affiliated movements have adopted it. By 1992, only twenty years after the first Lutheran weekends began, twenty-eight secretariats serving in twenty-one states were affiliated with NLS.
The first Via de Cristo weekend held by the current Via de Cristo of Southern California and the Central Valley was held in March 1997 at El Camino Pines camp in Frasier Park, California. Since then many weekends have been held and new leaders sent back to their churches from the area.
We’ve held weekends as far south as Tujunga, California and as far north as Posey, California drawing members from churches in between them and beyond. The movement has varied from between 2-4 weekends being held per year and between attendance of almost 150 and 75 depending on the weekend.