AS ONE OF TEN children who has 45 nephews and nieces, Dr Christiane Brusselmans is deeply and happily rooted in family life. Indeed, it was her experience of helping to prepare children of her own family for the Sacraments that first brought her into the field of religious education and led her to specialise in the sacramental initiation of children and their A sacramental theologian with a doctorate in catechetics, Dr Brusselmans spends half her time lecturing at Louvain University. in Belgium, her native country. In alternate years she travels the world, leading courses on preparation for the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. For the last week she has been leading such a course at St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill, Middlesex.
Her strong family ties have profoundly influenced her approach to catechetics. "My first dream was to associate the family with the religious education of the children," she says.
"Being a family person, always surrounded by brothers and sisters, I always found that exclusively school-centred religious education was not reaching out to the environment where a child really grows into the Faith".
Her answer was to help to develop, first in France and later in America, a model of religious education involving the family, the school and the parish which is now widely known as the catechumenate.
We need to re-centre the sacramental pebparation of children on the family and in the parish, the school participates in this effort but it does not do the whole job," she says.
In the catechumenate the initiative for preparing the children for the Sacraments conies from the parish, and parents are invited to join in. They are asked to come to monthly meetings for at least a year at the same time as their children are receiving instruction.
Each meeting ends in a liturgy — "a moment of prayer for the total.community," as Dr Brusselmans puts it — in which the adult approach to the Sacraments is adapted for the C hildren.
The catechumenate model is more than just a theory, and at 45. a woman of boundless energy, Dr Brusselmans has put
the method into practice in some of the toughest inner city parishes in the world.
A firm believer that her students should have practical experience, while lecturing at Forum University in America, she accepted an invitation to try out the catechumenate in the New York archdiocese.
"I asked, well, give me a difficult place to work because as long as my students are in a training programme we should be able to tackle difficult situations." Her request was granted, and for the next seven years she worked in Harlem.
Working first with the children, she soon made contact with many immigrant parents who were baptised but had never received the other Sacraments and who perhaps, even more than their children, needed the catechumenate model.
"It was an ideal place for me to work — difficult, but ideal," she says. Today 120,000 families go through this process every year in America.
Does she ever meet with opposition because of her ideas or because she is a woman?
"You are always going to aggravate some people in the Church when you attempt to do something new, even if it's most traditional as catechumenate is, you can get on the blacklist whether you are a man or a woman," she says.
Personally, however, she meets with little opposition. "In my work I give real priority to the theological backbone and content. This is probably why I never got into trouble. I will never regret the four years' theology I did prior to all my catechetical studies."
Priests appreciate what contribution a woman has to make, and many envy her freedom. She says: "As a lay person I can move from diocese to diocese. Of course I am always invited and this is already a sign that they trust me or they wouldn't invite me."
Her dream is that the catechumenate will become the accepted model for the instruction of children. youth and adults all over the world. With an enthusiasm not dulled by experience, she says: "I think it is something that could really be a future for the Church _and for the renewal of our parishes."