The History of Christian Experience Weekends (CEW)
The CEW experience brings God into the heart of the individual through; witness talks, time together, prayer, sacraments, and the action of the Holy Spirit. These key elements support not only the strength of the CEW experience, but also the life-changing impact of experiencing the divine. An early Christian example of these elements can be found in the Acts of the Apostles:
When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Phillip and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind and it filled the entire house in which they were. They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, “What does this mean?”
…They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.
This experience of the disciples and their subsequent followers creates the foundation of the Church. It is only after they had an experience, that they sought meaning, fellowship and ritualistic connection to the memory of Jesus, to God. The order of these occurrences is critically important.
Christian Experience Weekends began as an adaptation of Cursillo retreats. Cursillo was conceived in 1939 on the Island of Mallorca as a pilgrimage for the young men and women to dedicate themselves to apostolate. The word Cursillo translates to “short course” in Spanish. The originators conceived of this as training for the young men’s branch of Catholic Action. In its original idea form, they were to pilgrimage to St. James at Compostela. While the political unrest resulting in World War II delayed the founders, Father Juan Capo and Eduardo Bonnin, they held the first “Cursillo s de Cristiandad” in 1948. A deep enthusiasm generated in the attendees. The original concept of pilgrimage permeated the weekend and the spiritual journey that continues following the experience.
A few years later Father Gabriel Fernandez and two airmen from Spain, Bernardo Vadell and Agustin Palmino, attended a Cursillo. In 1957 all three were transferred to the US Air Force base in Waco, Texas where they led a Cursillo. This began the Cursillo weekends in the United States. The movement quickly spread throughout the country and the world. Cursillos are held today in The Green Bay Diocese and are a diocesan-wide function. They continue to inspire the Cursillestas involved.
Cursillos became active in the Dubuque Diocese in 1966. “In 1972 the Cursillo Movement of the Dubuque Diocese initiated a two year moratorium on Cursillo Weekends.” This allowed time for study on the true nature and purpose of the movement in comparison to the experience of the Dubuque Diocese. Two facts were found. They tended to train those already in leadership spots, not average Catholics. Secondly, the three-day format, requiring participants to give up Friday work, was a major impediment. Cursillos were on an invitation only basis; wives were invited following their husband’s Cursillo.
Based on these facts and a lot of prayer, Fr. George Karnik and Sr. Carole Freking, OSF, working with the diocesan spiritual director, Father Joseph O’Brien, created a new renewal program in a two-day time frame. They “felt the Spirit calling” to make this alternate program aimed at average parishioners. This fast paced weekend schedule started the CEW as we know it today. The Cascade-Dyersville-Manchester, Iowa Ultrea groups held the first Men’s CEW on January 18-20, 1974, with the women’s weekend held just two weeks later. Following the encouragement of Father John Barns, in 1975 an annual CEW was started in the Iowa State Men’s Reformatory. In 1976, CEW was brought to the Dubuque area and soon thereafter parishes started to sponsor their own CEWs. This feature greatly supported the community aspect of both CEW and the parish.
By 1996, CEWs had spread to at least 12 new communities in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Florida. There is no central organization and some communities alter the name making it difficult to track the exact number of communities supporting a CEW. In 1992 Rich and Bette Bahnaman, who had moved from Dubuque, Iowa to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, approached the Holy Innocents Parish Council. Their request to start a CEW was approved.
Rich and Bette witnessed at all Sunday masses telling of a unique Christian retreat that could be put on by the parish for the parishioners. They recruited a team of 5 women and 2 men who attended CEWs in Dubuque in the same year.
The first CEW at Holy Innocents (Lakeshore CEW), a women’s weekend, was held in 1993 and led by Bette as rector. The first men’s and women’s Lakeshore CEW teams included parishioners from Holy Ghost in Dubuque. Rich, as a first year rector, describes the first CEWs as “exhausting and exhilarating at the same time, with many of the team members playing multiple roles, but when the last hug was given and the last chair put away, we had enough new members alive with the Spirit to form a team for the CEWs the following year.”
One of the goals of the Lakeshore CEW community was to expand CEW to other communities. In September, 2008, members of Lakeshore CEW met with the Circle of Faith Catholic Community (CFCC) Joint Pastoral Councils, made up of the linked parishes of St. Joseph's, Kellnersville, St. James, Cooperstown, and All Saints/Holy Trinity, Denmark, and were given approval to begin initial expansion planning.
At each of the CFCC linked parishes Dave Scheuer witnessed at the weekend masses, resulting in a total of 5 men and 13 women from the CFCC attending Lakeshore CEWs. The first Denmark Area CEW, a men’s weekend, was September, 2009, and women’s weekend in February, 2010. Both had team members from Lakeshore CEW veterans, CFCC women who had experienced a CEW, and cursillestas from the CFCC.
Many who attend weekends are asked and accept some role on team for the following CEW. There is a three-year progression to rector (lay leader) position. Half of the rectors have been married couples, while the others have been independent men and women who work together in planning their two weekends, and provide visible leadership for their year. This continuous fresh energy constantly fuels the effort involved, and a core group of past and future rectors provide leadership and guidance.
The CEW community includes all who have attended a CEW. The group has within it those from different denominations, such as one spouse who may be Lutheran and one who is Catholic, and the ecumenical approach allows both to participate. The weekend has been attended by other denominations, but is predominantly Catholic. Candidates and team experience prayer in the Sacraments and Morning and Evening prayer. Reconciliation tends to be a major turning point on the weekend. Over the years, more than 450 persons have attended a CEW in Manitowoc, which for many, is life changing. Hearing our Lord’s call to serve, nine participants have become deacons with more in diaconate training. The Holy Innocent’s worship director commented that CEW is the major source of generating volunteers within the parish.
CEW challenges the average Catholic, accustomed to simply coming to mass on Sunday, to come to a two day weekend event. While a lot of persuasion is used for the sign-up, once the weekend starts participants become captivated by the whirlwind speed of events, as well as the intensity of spiritual feelings found. While the weekend may seem by some to go by fast, more than a few have commented that they spent months sorting out what the weekend of religious intensity started. Just like the room where the apostles experienced Pentecost, many average parishioners, who have never had such days, consistently encounter the Holy Spirit. This possibility is for you, for your friends, family members, and your parish.
Deacon Bob Beehner, 2016