1930 - 1991
1930 - 1991
Christiane Brusselmans was a Catholic religious educator, catechetical advocate for children and a pioneer in the implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation in the United States. She authored several innovative Roman Catholic religious education programs for children and their families: We Celebrate the Eucharist; We Celebrate Reconciliation; and SUNDAY: Celebration of the Word. Born in Belgium, her influence in the field of religious education extended to many continents over a period of three decades. In Europe, she taught courses at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium and in the United States at Fordham University, Union Theological Seminary, Boston College and Harvard Divinity School as well as a number of other academic institutions. Brusselmans' vision, determination, and belief in the vocation of the laity and the importance of the family in the mission of the church still resound today.
Christiane Brusselmans was born the sixth of ten children of Augusta and Franz Brusselmans on All Saints Day, November 1, 1930 in Louvain, Belgium. The family moved to the village of Korbeek- Lo when Christiane was three and it was her home for the rest of her life. As her brothers and sisters married, several of them had homes on the same property and in this place of great natural beauty she was always surrounded by the family that she loved and who supported her in all of her endeavors. Love of family and appreciation of natural beauty were two of the early experiences that would shape her life and work. It was in the family and from her father and mother, that Christiane received the most memorable "Christian education." The generosity and welcoming spirit of her mother was the pattern of her own openness and warmth towards all that she met. Each night before bed, her father, a professor at the University of Louvain and a Member of Parliament, would bless each child on the forehead. This simple act of faith and trust by her father left a deep impression on Christiane. This ritual, and many others she recalled from her childhood, would affect the way she would catechize and design programs for use with children and parents (Roll, 1992, 3).
The parish church was another influence in her early life. The church, the center of life in Korbeek-Lo, was only a short distance from their home. The ringing of the angelus bell three times daily, about six in the morning, noon, and six in the evening reminded the villagers of the presence of God in their lives. The church bells summoned them on Sunday mornings and her family, with the other families from the village, walked to Mass. Faith was the fabric of life. In reflecting on these experiences, Christiane noted: "It was an experience of communion with one another, and also with nature, which was extremely important as far as celebrating Sunday was concerned" (Zimmerman, 9). As Margaret Power notes, "More than a half century later, the title of Christiane Brusselmans' last published work would bear the same resemblance: "SUNDAY" (Power, 33).
Christiane's childhood was interrupted by the Second World War. Germany, which in 1937 had guaranteed Belgian neutrality, attacked and occupied Belgium in May, 1940. The war years were desperate times in Belgium as in other countries. Schools were closed; citizens fled the cities that were quickly taken over by the prevailing occupying military force; food was scarce and people lived in fear. Life in Belgium was harsh under the occupation by German troops, particularly against the Jews in Belgium. The numbers vary but the 1944 U.S Government War Refugee Board Report estimated that "approximately 50,000 Jews deported from Belgium were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers between April 1942 and April 1944 (Weber, 1999). Any Belgian aiding a Jew was killed or imprisoned. Seeing the Jewish children forced to wear a yellow badge on their clothing was a very sobering memory for Christiane but also a realization of the meaning and the evil of discrimination. Despite the appalling number of Jews who were exterminated, the number of Jews that were rescued and saved by an effective Belgian resistance, hidden in monasteries, convents and private homes, is a testimony to the people's belief in the dignity of all people. The occupiers confiscated food, cars, machinery and anything of value. Liberation by British and American troops, aided by a Belgian underground army, came in September, 1944. The unsuccessful German counteroffensive of December 1944-January 1945 caused even more destruction, adding to damage previously incurred by invasion and by Allied air raids. Christiane in her talks sometimes spoke about the experience of daily life in an occupied homeland: the fear, the powerlessness, the lack of food, the senseless destruction of the university library and other historic buildings. Even her family home at times was taken over by both German and allied troops. She recalls that near the end of World War II, the kitchen of the family homestead served as a military center for American GI's. It was from the GI's that she learned English by singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and other African American spirituals. She often told audiences how she raised chickens to eat, sell or to barter in order to help provide food for her own family. It was amazing to her listeners that from those years Christiane only seemed to remember the ways in which families helped one another, shared what they had, welcomed the refugees, risked their own safety to stand against oppression and tried to go on with their lives by protecting and providing for their children.
Yet, it perhaps affected her more than she realized. For the next few years, she searched for some meaning in her life. She made a journey to Lourdes, where she stayed for a year caring for the sick. Part of her search had to do with questions of God, faith and religion. Her father recognized this crisis to be deeper than simply attendance at Sunday Mass (Parker, 19). He suggested that she attend the University lectures given by a new professor, Father Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P. His lectures on the Eucharist motivated her to enroll in religious studies at the University of Louvain, where she was also influenced by many other theologians with broad perspectives (Parker, 19). After receiving the Licence en Sciences Religieuses in 1960, Christiane was encouraged to continue her studies at L' Institut Catholique de Paris where she completed the Maùtrise en Pastorale Catéchétique in 1962.
Both Louvain and Paris offered Christiane vanguard experiences and opportunities. . During her years of studies, Brusselmans took full advantage of extracurricular opportunities. She witnessed the developments of movements such as the Young Christian Workers with their watchwords of engagement, incarnation and presence in the world. She was introduced to liberation theology in informal seminars which introduced her to many prominent international figures, such as Canon Francois Houtart, professor of the sociology of religion at Louvain, an advisor at that time to the Conference of the Latin American Episcopate (CELAM), and now a member of the International Committee of the World Social Forum. He also was mentor to several forerunners in the articulation of liberation theology: Gustavo Gutierrez, who studied philosophy and psychology at Louvain and Camillo Torres, who studied theology and philosophy at Louvain.
In Paris, Christiane experienced the theological foment of movements such as la nouvelle théologie that in reaction to Scholasticism called for a return to the sources of Scripture and the writings of the Fathers of the Church in order to give direction to the current questions facing the church in the world. Many of the great figures in theology and the liturgical movement in France were her teachers: Jean Danielou for patristic studies, Dom Bernard Botte for liturgy, Yves Congar for theology of the laity and Louis Bouyer for Protestant theology. In Paris, she became friends with the missionary orders of the White Fathers and the Holy Ghost Fathers who told her about the formation process offered to those asking to become Christians in the African and Asian countries in which these missionaries ministered. This process was modeled on the catechumenal formation of the early church. Another student at the Institute, Father Michael Dujarier, was completing his doctoral dissertation on the catechumenate of the early church. Hearing both the research and the first hand accounts of missionaries, Christiane realized that the process of conversion was not simply a personal journey but needed to take place within the family and the whole community of believers.
During her years of study in Paris, Christiane worked within an innovative catechumenal process at the parish of Saint Sulpice (Parker, 1992, 19) that recognized the liturgical rites as a means of catechesis together with the catechetical instruction that involved the parents, godparents and local parish of the individual being initiated into the Church. From this formative experience, the desire to restore the catechumenate was to become one of her life works and her sacramental programs for children were based on a catechumenal model (Roll, 1992, 4).
In 1962, Christiane had hoped to return to Louvain to begin doctoral studies but at that time, like other theological schools, the Louvain Faculty of Theology did not admit lay men, women or religious sisters. Only priests and seminarians were accepted for advanced theological degrees. She then applied to the department of religion and religious education at The Catholic University of America. One of the aims of the department was to enable laity to obtain theological degrees. Father Gerard Sloyan, chair of the department of Religion and Religious Education not only accepted her for doctoral studies but invited her to offer a MA level seminar on the catechumenate in order to bring many of the insights of the European liturgical and catechetical movements to the university community.
For Christiane, music and song were important in her catechesis and prayer. It was she who introduced the music of Father Lucien Deiss to the English speaking world. The English edition of Deiss' Biblical Hymns and Psalms (1965), acknowledges that the "the present work is the result of the enthusiasm of Miss Christiane Brusselmans who organized the committee and who wrote a number of the catecheses." (Deiss, 1965, 4).
Christiane completed the doctorate in 1965. Her doctoral dissertation, Les Fonctions de Parrainage des Enfants aux Premiers Siecles de l'Eglise (100-500) under the guidance of Professor Kevin Seasoltz, OSB, reinforced her convictions about the catechumenal process and the role of parents and godparents in the child's sacramental preparation.
Tribute prepared by Catherine Dooley & Lisa Gulino.