I’ve made a big decision to take on a leadership role in one of the most important contributors to the growth of my Christian faith over the past three decades.
I’ve accepted a request to lead a Challenge weekend for the Roman Catholic Church this coming October. We’ll welcome young men from across Cape Breton to Camp Bretondean, located in the Mira area, for a three-day look at Jesus Christ and how He can work in our hearts and lives today.
Now, this certainly isn’t my first encounter with Challenge or the adult movement that spawned it, Cursillo (a Spanish word meaning “short courses”).
I made my own Challenge at the Villa Madonna Retreat House in Bras d’Or just over 28 years ago, only a few months before I graduated from high school. I’ve served several roles at Challenges held at the Villa Madonna, as well as St. Joseph’s Renewal Centre in Mabou between 1998 and 2012, from music leader to “detail” (that is, assistant to the rector). And I’ve attended, and assisted at, many of the regularly-scheduled reunions of Challenge and Cursillo participants, including the Challenge Follow-Ups and the adult reunions known as Ultreya (another Spanish word, which translates to “Onward”).
For a movement developed in 1944 by Catholic laymen in Majorca, Spain, Challenge and Cursillo have shown remarkable staying power and evolved dramatically over the past 74 years.
In Nova Scotia alone, there are retreat weekends for men and women, with the occasional co-ed Challenge taking place. In addition to the Catholic retreats, there are now ecumenical Cursillos and Challenges, as well as those held for different denominations of Christianity, including Anglican, United, and Presbyterian. (Cathy made her own Presbyterian Cursillo in 2007 in her native Pictou County, four years after I continued my journey in the movement by formally making my Catholic Cursillo at the Villa Madonna.)
From my own personal perspective, these weekends have been far more than a 48-hour Bible study or a couple of days spent in the company of priests and other fellow Christians. As a candidate and as a volunteer leader, Challenge and Cursillo have each enabled me to strengthen my personal relationship with Christ, infuse His presence, words and teachings more directly into the way I live my daily life, and form a community of believers with many others across Cape Breton and northeastern Nova Scotia.
These moments have all come at exactly the right points of my life. As a teenager in 1990, I needed Challenge to reinforce the lessons and fellowship I was receiving from other youth ministries the Diocese of Antigonish was carrying out at the time, including their summer youth camp, the Diocesan Youth Council (which counted me as a Richmond County representative), and Catholic teenage rallies held everywhere from Sydney to Antigonish.
Working on future weekends in Bras d’Or and Mabou, and attending Follow-Ups and Ultreyas in Louisdale, Arichat, St. Peter’s and Sydney, would bring me more of the encouragement I needed to keep working, playing, and living for God in my parish and my community, no matter where either of them happened to be at the time. I was also fortunate to make lifelong friends, many of whom have shared laughter and smiles in the good times but also offered kindness and support in my lowest moments.
I have also seen God at work in the hearts of so many others at a Challenge or Cursillo. I have seen teenagers begin the weekend literally shaking under the burden of their mistakes, and end the weekend with the joy and enthusiasm that comes with receiving Jesus’ forgiveness. I have seen the roughest, toughest men – everyone from coal miners to body-builders – wipe away tears as they realize the immense power and wideness of God’s love and mercy.
And, in a moment that I will never forget, I saw an older man from Eskasoni bring silence upon the Villa Madonna conference room with his harrowing tale of the abuse he suffered at a Catholic-run residential school decades earlier. One of the priests in attendance on that particular Cursillo weekend suggested that this man share his own story of reconciliation. He hadn’t set foot in a Catholic-owned building in decades, but now he was ready to forgive those who had wronged him and fully embrace God’s teachings.
I hesitated when I was first asked to serve as a rector for a Challenge weekend, knowing of the wide-ranging commitment it would require. But I can’t write about the power and effectiveness of this movement – this channel for Christ – without taking my own first step in faith to give back to the community that has strengthened, nourished and encouraged me for nearly three decades.
So I accept the Challenge – humbly and gladly.