Pastoral Plan: Renewal groups, retreats are key to encounter

By Kira Ciupek

For Catholics, the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our faith; however, there is the all-important journey of faith, a metaphor for the road we travel together as a church. And our journeys are often profoundly affected by retreat and renewal experiences.
Dorothy Polchinski, associate director for evangelization at the Diocese of Austin, says spiritual formation for our faith journeys can be found through various parish renewal programs like Cursillo or Amazing Parish, and in retreat opportunities such as Christ Renews His Parish or Cedarbrake Catholic Retreat Center.
“A key element in these retreat and renewal programs is the aspect that we are journeying together toward Christ. A very powerful example we have of that is the Gospel’s road to Emmaus, where Jesus is walking with the two people, and he’s in conversation and listens to them,” Polchinski says. It is often through these “journeys” that people encounter Christ.
Launched in 2015, the diocesan Pastoral Plan focuses on encounter with Christ that leads to transformation. One of the goals of the plan is to help parish communities offer retreats for their parishioners. Through the listening sessions and surveys, people described the value of attending a parish retreat and how much those experiences enhanced their faith life and their relationship with Christ.
There is power in parish renewal groups and retreats, says Polchinski. “It is an opportunity to acknowledge, embrace, and encounter who Christ is, and to live that out in your everyday life — to live out that transformation as disciples.”
One parish renewal group, the Catholic Cursillo Movement, started in Spain in the 1940s and was first established in the U.S. at Waco in 1957. Doc Alvarez, lay director of the Spanish Cursillo for the Austin Diocese, estimates that in the last 60 years 50,000 people have participated in both the English and Spanish Cursillo movements. Cursillo, which means “short course,” begins with a weekend retreat, based on encounters with self, Christ and others. 
“After the encounter with self, the next phase is the encounter with Christ,” says Robin Spencer, Cursillo-English lay director. “Saturday’s talks involve getting to know our Lord, the Passion, looking at the example God set for us here on earth. The third phase is the encounter with others, which is really what the movement seeks to do for people. We want you to experience this metanoia in order to go through this radical change of mind and heart, which includes more growth and learning opportunities as the journey continues.”
Robin Sutton, a parishioner of Holy Family Parish in Copperas Cove and a Cursillo member for 15 years, credits the Cursillo weekend retreat with changing her life. 
“I entered that weekend being a Catholic who did what Catholics are supposed to do; go to church on Sundays, take your kids to church, and go through the motions of being a Catholic,” says Sutton. “I came out of the weekend completely embracing being Catholic as the primary part of who I am. The whole weekend was a very profound experience, being totally in (the Lord’s) presence.”
The weekend retreat is followed by the “Post Cursillo,” which includes large group meetings called Ultreyas, and smaller “Groupings,” which are friendship groups for either men or women that meet weekly to discuss piety, study and action. 
“The most important part is the fourth day — the rest of your life, following the three-day weekend. Within the methodology is a support system. When you leave a Cursillo weekend, there are people in your environment who will help you along your path,” Spencer says. 
A life-long Catholic who has been a Cursillo member since 1999, Spencer says, “The support network exists for you. It helps us stay on a mature level, rather than reverting back to a human, emotional level. Grouping sisters and brothers are there for the purpose of supporting you, and helping you persevere when you feel like giving up.”
According to Alvarez, who has served on the international Cursillo North American Caribbean Board, the Austin Diocese has grown to include Spanish, English and thriving Vietnamese groups. The only difference between them, says Alvarez, is language. 
“Cursillo is about being in community,” he says. “The rubric in line with the Pastoral Plan, in terms of evangelization, is that it has a follow-up and follow-through. For example, we meet with small groups to discuss your piety, what are you doing on a weekly basis? If you take to heart the concept of Cursillo, you will always have that community to fall on, to reach to out in prayer.” 
Retreat Center
Cedarbrake Catholic Retreat Center, established on 44 acres of woodlands along Leon River near Belton, is focusing many of its 2016 retreats on fostering that “encounter with Christ” by awakening faith, engaging hearts and transforming believers. 
Brian Egan, the director of Cedarbrake, says three retreats have already been scheduled for 2016 based on ‘encounter.’ The first retreat was held earlier this year and led by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and the two other retreats will be led by Franciscan Father Albert Haase. 
“When we do encounter the love and mercy of our Lord, we will magnify this same love and mercy to others and, thus, make the body of Christ stronger as a whole,” Egan says.
In addition to their most popular retreats, Desert Solitude and the Advent and Lenten silent retreats, Cedarbrake offers a unique experience called Healing Hearts, which is a retreat for women who have experienced sexual trauma, says Beverly Collin, assistant director of Cedarbrake.
“This retreat offers women a safe place to tell their story, to experience God’s healing and compassion, and to renew or deepen their own relationship with Jesus Christ. The breakthrough has been so powerful that there have been times when I did not recognize the participants on the final day. The transformations are beautiful!” she says.
Cedarbrake, which also hosts groups such as parish councils, and other religious and lay groups, sees an average of more than 7,000 visitors per year.
“I have heard so many people say, ‘When I come up the long driveway entrance into Cedarbrake, everything feels lighter,’” Egan says. “Giving yourself the gift of a retreat is a gift of being aware and of letting go. Walking on the grounds here and observing simple things in nature re-opens your heart and mind to God who creates all that surrounds us.”
Polchinski, who serves as a resource and support for parishes needing to connect with parish renewal groups or retreats, said the beauty of these various retreats is that not only do they provide an opportunity to encounter Christ, but also to experience him through the love of the team members putting on the retreat.
 “Attending a retreat or a parish renewal group accepts you wherever you’re at on your journey. You don’t have to have it all together. You just have to come as you are. That’s where Christ will meet you,” Polchinski says.
For more information about Cursillo, visit For more information about Cedarbrake, visit