Book Review: The Heart of Faith – A Field Guide for Catechumens and Candidates

I have been involved in RCIA ministry for about 12 years, and yet I still feel like a novice in this ministry so I continue to plow through the many resources available looking for something to help me better understand the process and hopefully be helpful to those on the journey. Now that I am in diocesan ministry, I find that the questions I encounter are different; I see that frustrations are abundant for team members and that adaptation is a key word.

Among all the resources that I have read or used, The Heart of Faith: A Field Guide for Catechumens and Candidates by Nick Wagner is a unique text that is written specifically for both catechumens and candidates. Wagner, editor of Today’s Parish, has more than 25 years experience as a leader and trainer in liturgical and catechetical ministries. He has written several books on parish ministry and RCIA including The Way of Faith: A Field Guide for the RCIA Process.

This new book is not a “how to” for team members, nor is it a commentary on the RCIA ritual text. Instead, this text is designed to help the catechumen or candidate understand his or her place in the church as he or she prepares for the sacraments of initiation or for full reception into the Catholic Church. Wagner claims, “This is more of a lifestyle book” and I would tend to agree. In the introduction he states, “To become Catholic, you have to have a change of heart. Becoming Catholic is a process of falling in love” (4). This book is not about specific doctrines or explanations, but instead provides a framework to help catechumens and candidates begin to explore what it would mean to live as a Catholic.

Wagner suggests that the reader first spend time with the first four sections before moving on to the rest of the book. The first of these, “Living the Jesus Way,” seeks to introduce the catechumen to Jesus through the Gospels, and the community’s witness. We come to know Christ through the stories passed on generation after generation and that each of these stories “use images, symbols, and metaphors to communicate the deep . . . mystery of the person of Jesus” (9). As we reflect on these stories, we are invited to discern how God is calling us to live and witness Christ in the world.

The second section, “Imagine seeing God,” examines how the community sees God. We all have an image of God that has come through our imagination and experiences, but Wagner focuses on four ideas of how the community comes to know God; he discusses the Scriptures and tradition, the church community, our experience with the poor, and the liturgy. The end of this section explores the meaning of symbols, which communicate the “love story . . . of Jesus and the church” (23).

The third section, “See the world with Catholic eyes,” is primarily a general overview of the community’s worship. Wagner stresses that our liturgical gathering, “shapes the way we act in the world” (28) and that our gathering demands we go out to serve the community. The end of this section helps clarify the role of the catechumen and candidate. Wagner eloquently explains that the catechumen’s responsibility is to “hear God’s word” (35) and that the role of the candidate for full reception (who is already a member of the body) “is to pray for others . . . in the intercessions” (36) and “participate in all the thanksgiving prayers and actions” of the assembly, except Communion (37).

The fourth section, “Live a life of worship,” addresses what a Catholic does day to day to prepare for the climax of our week on Sunday. Our prayer, reflection on Scripture, and service all invite us back to the assembly to offer thanksgiving. Wagner briefly addresses participation in the liturgy by examining postures and gestures, singing and eye contact.

In the next three sections, Wagner addresses three main areas of the Christian life: living the word, living in community, and serving the poor. He roots all of these in our worship, which he addressed earlier in the text. These chapters give some background on the Lectionary, some images of church (e.g. sheepfold, bride, field, and body), and our mission to proclaim the good news.

The last three sections, “What’s expected of you?”, “Preparing for baptism”, and “Your baptism”, give an excellent, but brief overview of the process of formation. Wagner addresses the beginning of faith, the rites of acceptance and election, leading to the Triduum and baptism at the Easter Vigil in a simple, but accessible and clear manner.

The book does include a short appendix that provides an overview of the annulment process, postures for prayer (e.g. sitting, kneeling), Catholic customs (e.g. sign of the cross, liturgical colors, relics), and an outline of the Mass, which are always topics those in formation are intrigued by.

What I love about this book is that it is accessible and user-friendly; it certainly invites the reader into deeper reflection. At the end of each chapter, Wagner has provided some great questions to further engage the reader in discovering how Christ is alive and present in his or her life. He has nicely woven many personal stories, Scripture passages, and metaphors throughout the text to help articulate what it means to live as a Catholic. This text will be a perfect companion for any catechumen or candidate as they journey to the Easter Sacraments. I also recommend team members get a copy and use Wagner’s method of storytelling as a way to enrich and enliven their formation sessions.

I love the RCIA and I am a firm believer that this process has the potential to transform any parish when a parish family engages the process with an open heart and mind. This type of resource has the potential to help our catechumens and candidates engage in the story and process more faithfully and more confidently. It can also help RCIA teams to refocus on the process of formation, which often gets much shorter shrift as teams focus on the easier task of teaching doctrine.

This book should be available from Twenty-Third Publications some time in December.

You can also visit TeamRCIA for more inforamtion and resources for the RCIA process.



  1. I look forward to reading it and appreciate the commentary on it. In my 30 years of RCIA, what has been the biggest concern for me as a priest and pastor is the number who enter the Church through this process and then seem to leave just as quickly. I think this might be a phenomenon nationwide. It’s the same with marriage preparation. You see the couple at Mass during their engagement and once married, they disappear!
    Part of the problem is that through the RCIA a strong faith “small community” is formed with fellow pilgrims, but once received into the Church and after any “mystygogia” they’re cut loose from this support group and then flounder once the “high”of having been received into the Church wears off and old ways come back. A “lifestyle” approach with those in RCIA might be just what the doctor ordered and also for those preparing for marriage!

  2. I was involved with RCIA from the mid 1980s through to the mid 2000s. During that time I progressed from being responsible for an entire evening – talk, discussion and prayer – to just sitting there dumbly as the priest did everything. At one point the entire RCIA team was summarily dismissed because the assistant pastor apparently didn’t like our style.
    In my view this showed the increasing lack of trust the clergy in our parish had for the laypeople as far as evangelization was concerned.
    I have since moved to a new and much smaller parish where we have few candidates and the priest looks after matters on Friday evenings for an hour or so.
    During my couple of years of exile from the RCIA, I did look after a six session mystagogia program and I believe many who participated found this helpful.

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