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

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a sucker for free books. Even given the pile of unread material sitting in a milk crate on my living room floor, I’ll take any opportunity to snatch up free books. So when I saw that Nick Wagner was giving away 20 copies of his new book, The Heart of Faith: A Field Guide for Catechumens and Candidates, in exchange for a written review, I quickly sent in my request.

Interest in freebies aside, I can justify my request on professional grounds. To be sure, my interest in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is fairly new. However, since the National Directory for Catechesis (NDC), echoing the General Directory for Catechesis, states that “The baptismal catechumenate is the source of inspiration for all catechesis,” it seems self-evident to me that catechetical leaders need at least a basic understanding of the RCIA in order to fulfill the bishops’ vision for catechesis in America.

Which brings us to The Heart of Faith. Mr. Wagner is clear from the beginning that his book is not a catechetical textbook or program for the RCIA. Anyone looking for an outline of the Church’s doctrine, a theological explanation of the liturgy, or a guide to Sacred Scripture will be disappointed. (The book does end with appendices dedicated to postures of prayer, particular Catholic customs, and the annulment process, but they are hardly exhaustive.)

Rather it’s a companion book for those entering into the RCIA. It outlines in a general way what will happen during the periods of the rite, what to expect at particular times, and offers suggestions for symbols, gestures, and stories that catechumens and candidates should keep an eye out for. (In this respect, calling the book a “field guide” is very apt!) Indeed, the book invites the reader multiple times to “pay attention” to what is going on during the RCIA process: “Most of what you’ll be doing   in the catechumenate is learning how to pay attention… [S]eeing God is mostly a matter of paying attention. And the first step in paying attention is knowing what to look for.”

The meat of the book is Mr. Wagner’s outline of four disciplines of the Church: Worship, Word, Community, and Service. In these chapters Mr. Wagner invites the reader to reflect on the liturgy, Sacred Scripture, the Church, and poor. Again, while not exhaustive, the material is presented clearly and concisely. Several times I started to take exception with some language or use of terms, only to remind myself that the book is aimed at those without a lifelong grounding in the Church’s tradition; from that vantage point, the book is a good “first step” into the faith.

Mr. Wagner does a nice job of differentiating between catechumens (those who have not been baptized) and candidates (those who have been baptized outside the Catholic Church). Too many parishes simply lump the two groups together, ignoring the clear directives of the rite. While the majority of the book is applicable to catechumens, candidates will find lots to reflect on and good questions, suggestions, and advice for their particular situation.

I have two main critiques of The Heart of Faith. First, while it impresses on the catechumens the importance of Baptism and Eucharist, it has less to say about the other sacrament of initiation they will participate in at the Easter Vigil. A little more explication on Confirmation would be a welcome addition.

My second concern is that the book — like many parish RCIA programs — stops with the Easter Vigil, neglecting the final period of the rite: the period of mystagogy. I’m sure that Mr. Wagner, as a member of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, is aware of this; my hope is that a future book will present a mystagogical catechesis on the initiation rites to compliment this preparatory book.

These concerns aside, The Heart of Faith: A Field Guide for Catechumens and Candidates would be an excellent gift from a sponsor or family member to someone entering the Church. More information on the book is available at