From the NLS President · December 8, 2022

Why are the Essentials of Via de Cristo

At some point, most of us who are active in Via de Cristo have been exposed to the “Essentials,” usually as a list of things that we must do as a part of this movement. And many of us are examining ways to adapt our current practices due to health issues or other societal changes over the years. This makes sense – after all, I’m pretty sure a participant from a 1949 Majorca Cursillo weekend would see many differences from what he experienced. But that participant would also recognize many things that have not changed, and those things are the essentials.

Much like the law of God, some might think of the essentials as “constraining” or “limiting.” But properly understood, the essentials give us great latitude to adapt within them, keeping our movement current and fresh, while remaining true to what it means to be “Via de Cristo.” Think of it this way: if I serve you “pumpkin pie,” you have certain expectations. Various makers might change exactly what spices they use in what proportions, may add a whipped topping, or even use different crust recipes. It’s still pumpkin pie.  On the other hand, if I decided to use sweet potatoes instead of pumpkin, I might have a delicious pie, but it’s not “pumpkin pie.”

So too, we can vary how we do things on weekends and still be “Via de Cristo,” so long as we ensure the essentials are maintained. Participants have a right to expect those essentials (even if they don’t know what they are) if they come on a retreat. You can certainly have a wonderful spirit-filled retreat that does not conform to the essentials – just as you can make a great sweet potato pie – but it wouldn’t be Via de Cristo.

But rather than just provide a list of the essentials to be followed without thought, it may be more helpful to examine exactly why each of these elements are essential. By such an examination, we may discover there is room for modification in how we fulfill the essentials, while ensuring we don’t lose the real essence of Via de Cristo. So just what are the essentials and why?

Let’s start with the obvious and easy one….

14/15 Talks – Actually, “one talk given in 14/15 parts.” Cursillo stand for “short course,” and these talks are the content of that course. By adhering to the outlines, we are ensuring every weekend is providing the same content to the participants. While no two rollos will ever be exactly the same – after all, “rollo” means “a sharing” – by covering the outlines, every weekend delivers the same key points.

Palanca – intentional, sacrificial prayer, whether in action, writing, or word. Via de Cristo works because it is “bathed in prayer.” This can and should take many forms – prayers before the weekend, prayers for the participants, sacrificial gifts of service to the weekend, and more. Interestingly, our Essentials Manual does not dictate the specifics of how the prayers are done – including prayers during each rollo or the 72-hour prayer vigil. How they might be done could vary by community, but palanca remains a vital element of all aspects of Via de Cristo.

Retreat – meaning, “a time apart.” While “retreat” often refers to a quiet, contemplative time, in this case it just means a time away from normal distractions – a time to focus on God.  Every participant in a Via de Cristo weekend can attest that there is so much to experience, it’s hard to absorb it all. By seeking a setting where the participants can avoid distractions, whether a camp or a church, we provide them with a place to be with God and to hear His call. Often we hear that some find it difficult to be away from their everyday life and responsibilities, but sponsors can and should present the time away as a gift, an opportunity to spend time with the Lord away from distractions.

The concept of “retreat” is also behind the practice of limiting or prohibiting the use of electronics. In our increasingly-connected society, this is a matter that needs to be handled with consideration of all sides. As much as possible, both participants and team should be encouraged to “unplug” from electronics and “plug into” the Holy Spirit. But should the issue become a distraction in itself, some accommodation may be advisable.

72 hours – Closely related to retreat is the 72-hour requirement. Beyond the simple fact that it would be incredibly difficult to fit in all the essential elements of a weekend in less time (the weekends are already full as it is), it takes time to develop community. Table community, in particular, is very different on Sunday afternoon than it is on Friday. Just as with retreat, the time is actually a gift to the participants – an opportunity for a less hurried “walk with the Lord.”

Note-taking, write-downs, table discussions, posters, Decuria – All these essentials are actually related. People have different ways of learning and most lessons have to be repeated several times to be remembered. Via de Cristo uses a variety of practices to help our participants understand our method and movement. Auditory learners grasp things by hearing them said – so the rollo speaker serves them best. The process of note-taking helps visual learners as they see the words on paper – and the process of taking notes also enables the listener to process the content of the talk and turn it into their own words. Along with write-downs, note-taking helps the listener remain focused and absorb the message. Table discussions, aided by the table leader, help participants review and build upon the key points of the talk, making them more real and relatable to their own lives and experiences. Making posters adds another dimension to learning, as the key concepts are converted from words to pictures, which may also help some visual learners and invariably helps the group synthesize the message of the rollo. And at Decuria, the table once again gets to review their discussion and poster, helping emphasize the key points of each rollo.

Taken together, these essentials provide each participant with multiple ways to grasp the method of Via de Cristo, both individually and as a team. But it is worth noting that our Essentials Manual is silent on how many of these are done. Projecting write-downs, using graphics, providing participants with “fill-in-the-blank” outlines – all these are done differently by different Secretariats. The key is to ensure we give the participants all these opportunities to hear, process, and absorb the message and method of Via de Cristo.

5 meditations – much as the rollos provide a description of the Via de Cristo mission and method, the 5 meditations assist the participants in examining their relationship with Christ. These are blessed moments on each weekend to spend time hearing the voice of Jesus calling us.

Daily Communion – Jesus is truly present in the Word and Sacrament and both are made available to all participants each day of the weekend.

Silent retreat – the overnight period of silence that starts each weekend. This is a perfect example of a gift that can be misunderstood. This time of silence is not to restrict our participants or to make the weekend “mysterious.” Coming on Thursday evening, right after the participants have left all the activity of their “normal” life, the silent retreat is a gift of time – time to focus on the Lord. Time to ponder their hopes (or fears) for the weekend. Time to connect with God. This is a gift we often have difficulty finding in the “real” world and should be presented to all as a special blessing. Ideally, the team should be given this same blessing, for none of us ever gets too much time to spend with God one-on-one.

Celebration of Repentance – an examination of conscience, this is an opportunity to give over to God the burdens that each participant, both team and pilgrim, brings to the weekend. The timing and method vary with different Secretariats, but this time remains a vital essential of Via de Cristo.

Crosses – a tangible reminder of both the weekend and that “Christ is counting on you.”

Closing – The closing ceremony welcomes the new cursillistas into the larger community, helping reaffirm that we are all the body of Christ and serving Him together. The sharing that normally is part of the closing is a wonderful opportunity to renew the commitment of all who participate. The location, timing, and form of the closing can vary by Secretariat.

Group reunion – In many ways, the essential of Via de Cristo. By building small communities of believers committed to serving Christ, we help one another remain focused and energized in our mission. Christ is counting on us and our reunion sisters and brothers help us reflect on how we are doing in our daily walk. To focus on weekends more than reunion is to focus on the extraordinary but perhaps diminish the authentic.

Ultreya – Ultreya helps sustain the larger community. Ideally, ultreya assists those seeking to find a reunion group, develops a greater sense of community within a Secretariat, encourages team membership, and builds the body of Christ. Fourth-day speakers at ultreyas provide us an example of how God is working through those who are living out the Via de Cristo method.

And now a word for “adiaphora.” Because many of us only learned this term as a contrast to the essentials, it is often misunderstood. Adiaphorous items are not “unimportant” – they are ideas and actions that can be used to support the essentials, but are not essentials in themselves. If a Secretariat is finding it difficult to take care of all the essentials in a weekend – perhaps the schedule seems overfilled – it is best to examine how much time is devoted to adiaphora and consider how they might be modified. It can be somewhat shocking when we realize how many things we love on our weekends are actually not part of the essentials. For example, the agape dinner and serenade are not essentials – though no one is suggesting we stop them. However, if these begin to impinge on the essentials, they might be modified to allow more time.

Via de Cristo is a wonderful gift of God and the essentials help define exactly what is meant by “Via de Cristo” and how it works. Like our God, it is both dynamic and unchanging at the same time. It can be fresh and relevant in any time and any setting, yet never lose the core elements that make it unique and impactful. God equips each of us to serve Him in our environments and that means that each Secretariat will likely reflect its own situation, culture, and history. The essentials bind us together as a movement, but there is wonderful freedom within those elements to be Christ where we are planted.

I’d like to close with a brief quotation from Eduardo Bonin on the essentials. As he makes clear, the real essential of Via de Cristo is an authentic experience that changes the lives of those who go on a weekend. He said, “Perhaps there are many things within the Cursillo Movement which could be changed without disturbing its essence. Thus we could conceive, perhaps, of someone who would design Cursillo which would last only two days, or one which might be expanded to five days. In so doing, they might not tamper with the essential element, but undoubtedly they would destroy the simplicity, the unity, and the clarity of the message in the process of changing it.”

“The Cursillo is designed as a direct channel which should move people from where they are to where they ought to be. It might be compared to a very beautiful and wide new expressway, which would enable an ordinary man to reach his destiny without too much difficulty. Naturally, it would be foolish to expect such a beautiful expressway to always pass near our homes, for our own convenience.”

“When we speak of a Cursillo, as you well know, we are speaking of a group of persons who come together for three days to share friendship, personal contact, and joy. It is here that we must bring into focus and clearly delineate the purpose of the Movement. The question which presents itself is: Just what is it that these people wish to achieve, and how do they propose to achieve it? The Cursillo proposes, and with the grace of God, achieves for the individual understanding, conviction, a living experience, and a warm personal sharing, i.e. convivencia, of all that is basic to living Christianity.”

God loves you and so do I!

John Aclin
NLS President

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John is NLS President, from 2021 to present. A retired engineer and Naval officer, I have been an active member of Via de Cristo for over 23 years.