Last week an obituary appeared in the newspapers: “Internationally known Catholic religious educator, Christiane Brusselmans, died October 29, 1991, the victim of an apparent suicide.”
This obituary needs commentary, partially because of its last line, but especially because of character and importance of the person of whom it speaks. When a person of her character and importance dies, it is criminal if that passing on is not properly highlighted and celebrated. Mircea Eliade was fond of saying that “no community should botch its deaths.” We shouldn’t botch this one.
Christiane Brusselmans, as most of us know, is, and justifiably so, given credit for virtually single-handedly developing the concept of what we call the RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. While doing graduate studies at the Institute Catholique in Paris she, on the basis of her studies of the early church, developed theoretically the paradigm for a revised rite of initiation for adults. Later, while teaching at Harvard, she rallied around herself an interested group of Christians and together they initiated one woman, Jane, into the Christian community. The rest is history. Since that humble beginning in Harvard, tens of thousands of Christians have been initiated into their respective communities in a way that has brought life to them and to the communities that did the initiating. Thousands of other Christians have matured, immeasurably, in their own faith by playing the role of initiators.
Anyone who has ever been connected with the RCIA knows that it is almost impossible to exaggerate what the RCIA has done for our Christian communities. Christiane Brusselmans is the person most responsible for developing it. It is hard to argue against the fact that this, in many ways, is her child.
It is interesting too to note that, today, almost a generation after she developed this paradigm for initiation, anthropologists around the world are beginning to become healthily obsessed with the importance of initiation rites and their importance not just for proper entry into a community, but also for the continual religious renewal of the entire community. Christiane was ahead of her time.
But there was more to Christiane Brusselmans than the RCIA. Those of us who knew her, and I had that privilege, knew too that she was a person of extraordinary graciousness and goodness. She radiated love, sensitivity, energy, and competence. I first met her in her classroom at the University of Louvain ten years ago. I’ve had many professors, some quite renowned, during my years of journeying through classrooms, but none matched the combination of insight, clarity, love, faith, and pastoral sense of Christiane. I told her as much as the end of the semester and her eyes filled with tears. She was always sensitive and grateful.
During my years in Belgium, her aged mother was housebound and Christiane would invite various priests to celebrate mass at their family home outside of Leuven. I was one of those priests and those times of prayer and celebration, complete with her smoking a cigar in their drawing room, remain among my cherished memories. I last saw her in 1985. She had invited me, along Jim Parker, Tom Caroluzza, and Jim Dunning to spend a day with her, walking the beach, at her family cottage near Ostende. She was trying to coax one of us into writing a book about a symposium she had just organized. The book never materialized but none of us will ever, I am sure, forget the specialness of that day.
She died “an apparent suicide” which, as said earlier, merits commentary. Christiane had the artistic temperament, with all its strengths and its proneness to clinical depression. She struggled a lot, a victim of her own extraordinary sensitivity and giftedness. There were also medical issues, which made this manner of dying less surprising. Like many others who have to suffer the stigma of this kind of death, she was taken out of this world against her will, in the same way as is a heart attack, stroke, or cancer victim. There are simply different kinds of heart attacks and cancers. Hopefully no one will be so non-understanding as to let the manner of her death reflect in any way upon the quality of her person or upon the importance of her contribution. She didn’t just develop a paradigm for the RCIA. She was herself a paradigm of graciousness, faith, fidelity, intelligence, and love.
On this earth we live on through our children. The RCIA, the child she never had, is Christiane’s child. It, and she, live on. Gabriel Marcel once said: “To love a person is to say, you at least shall never die.” Christiane Brusselmans was deeply loved by all who knew her. She will never die.