ACTS retreats have enriched the lives of hundreds of thousands of men, women and teens; rich and poor, Catholic and non-Catholic, in the United States as well as other countries. It has reinvigorated the spiritual lives of individuals, families and of entire parishes. Yet, prior to 1987, it did not even exist.
No history of ACTS would be complete without the help of, and some familiarity with, the Cursillo retreat. Cursillo began in Spain in the years between WWI and WWII, in response to what many in the church saw as the increasing secularization of many Catholics in Spain at the time. It was intended to be a short course (the Spanish for short course is “cursillo”) on the Catholic faith, and soon became widely popular for its profound effect on people’s spirituality. By the mid 1980’s, it had spread to many places in the world, including Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Selma, Texas, a suburb of San Antonio. It was here that three men who were heavily involved in Cursillo planned the first ACTS retreat.
Ed Courtney, Joe Hayes, and Dr. Marty Sablik were instructors and coordinators with Cursillo, with years of Cursillo experience and a mutual friendship. They thought that several aspects of Cursillo could be improved in order to make the retreat more relevant to the needs of the parish, especially after the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. From the beginning, they all felt that it was important for the retreat to be open to everyone, not just to Catholics, and not just to those who were sponsored by someone. Ed, acting under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, met Joe and Marty at a coffee shop to build a new retreat called ACTS. This seemed logical to Ed since the Acts of the Apostles described what the apostles did, and are we not the apostles of today? Since the three main points in Cursillo were Piety, Study, and Action, Ed felt it absolutely necessary to bring them into ACTS. Once again under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Ed used a dictionary to help him correlate the letters A, C, T, and S into the themes of Adoration, Community, Theology, and Service. Joe Hayes, with the help of the Holy Spirit, was instrumental in securing the approval of both their pastor, Fr. Patrick Cronin, and that of Archbishop Flores. Another friend and parishioner, Wallace Vaughn, was inspired by the Holy Spirit to read Acts 2:42-47, the passage that became the biblical inspiration for the weekend.
After that first retreat in 1987, ACTS spread parish to parish in the San Antonio Archdiocese, and by 1997 there were about 15 parishes with an ACTS program in place. In that year, ACTS Missions was formed as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization for the purpose of spreading and maintaining the ACTS retreat wherever the Holy Spirit prompted it. From its headquarters at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, this small organization now leverages thousands of volunteers every year to bring the retreat to even more thousands of people, allowing them to experience the love of God through their fellow Christians. Today, ACTS is in at least 26 states in the U.S., 8 states in Mexico, as well as Canada, Honduras, South Africa and England.
People have credited ACTS with saving their lives, saving their marriages, convincing them to be ordained as priests or deacons, or leading them to the religious life, simply by opening their eyes and their hearts to God’s word. Pastors have praised its positive effects on their parishes, leading to highly invigorated parish life. Bishops and other church leaders have called it the most important movement in the Catholic Church today; all this from a handful of faith-filled people with the courage and perseverance to be led by the Holy Spirit.