The National Catholic Review
Susan Lang Abbott

The Jesuit priest and educator William O’Malley has long poked, prodded, cajoled and inspired his readers. The Wow Factor is vintage O’Malley but also new and timely. It offers challenges and caveats as well as inspiration and hope. His initial challenge: “We’re educated. And Catholic. But probably very few are educated Catholics.” Ouch. O’Malley declares, “This book is about all the things that should have happened at confirmation and almost certainly didn’t.” It is a book for “people who have spent a lot of time looking for causes.” Causes as in Why?, not causes as a reason for protest. Always in touch with popular culture, O’Malley mentions reality TV, noting that we live in a world “where instant gratification takes too long.” Consider, then, the paradox of the Christian who follows a book called The Good News, which promises resurrection but only after Calvary. How do these worldviews co-exist? By page six the author puts his cards on the table: “I’m trying to sell a very unpopular attitude: surrender.” We’re off and running.

Lack of wonder is rampant today, in our spiritual lives and in the world. Not even moon landings excite us. Having been warned that “pondering God is an adult activity,” we are challenged again: “Can we be grown-up enough to surrender at least in part our hard-won knowledge and sophistication to re-grasp the imagination, surprise, and wonder of children in order to come at the Truth afresh?” O’Malley helps us tackle this challenge but not before asking, “Is it just possible you’ve been treating your ‘soul’ no differently from the way an atheist would?”

In good Ignatian fashion the author encourages his readers to read Scripture with all of their senses, but cautions not to settle for a false image of God. God is neither a micromanager nor the “dewy-eyed Jesus of our cowboy hymns who just wants us to ‘be not afraid’ and leave the driving to him.” Jesus cherishes us, but don’t ignore the Jesus who also challenges us. Here is the promise: “Something exhilarating could happen to your living if you ever owned the truth that the Unspeakable Holy One, the Architect of infinite quasars and infinitesimal quanta—the Ultimate Wow—knows you by name, calls you his, finds you precious.”

How do we come to own that truth? Much of the book examines how we understand and teach the sacraments of reconciliation and confirmation. This dimension of the book makes it essential reading for all engaged in sacrament programs.

Like many involved in adolescent catechesis, O’Malley takes issue with celebrating confirmation before or at puberty. We’re just not ready to comprehend the enormity of the sacrament. Citing Prof. Monica Hellwig, O’Malley tells us that baptism is an Easter event—an experience of resurrection. But confirmation is a Pentecost event—missioning. It cannot be perceived as just a commissioning; it must be a felt commitment. Most of us at the time of our confirmation, and adolescents today, are incapable of grasping what it means to be adult Christians. We have not internalized the gifts of the Holy Spirit even though we recite them facilely. This critical observation is followed by a warning that sacraments “almost always come with an unsettling challenge attached.” With empowerment comes God’s insistence that we put the gift of the sacrament to good use—there is no backing out. No excuses. Moses, O’Malley asserts, was more like Elmer Fudd than Charlton Heston. “God is notoriously on the prowl for dullards to inspire.”

As for the sacrament of penance, the author’s examination is both encouraging and nettlesome. O’Malley reminds us that “sin isn’t a debt to a Banker, but an insult to a Friend and Benefactor.” Jesus did not come to make us feel guilty but to offer us freedom. Caveat: don’t be lulled into a fuzzy security. Indeed, Jesus does talk about punishment. The God who offers us unconditional love is not a “Cosmic Patsy.” Bland indifference, smug complacency, arrogance, self-absorption and ingratitude are the sins that will be our undoing.

Any book on the spiritual life worth its salt helps readers take the next steps. As this one draws to a close, “…we leave the theoretical for the down-to-earth…practical ways to bring ungraspable truth into our everyday hands.…” O’Malley suggests nine exercises toward that end. They are wonderful, helpful and rich. In justice, they cannot be summarized; they must be read and pondered.

O’Malley is “helplessly exuberant” about being Christian, admitting, “It is difficult to ponder a crucifix and still content oneself with being ‘reserved’.” Throughout the book readers get a glimpse into the author’s unreserved faith. Jesus and the real presence in the Eucharist have been the “bulwarks” of his nearly 80 years, what he calls “my validation, and my incentive to keep going.”

This is a lovely book, even in, or perhaps because of, its challenges and taunts.

Susan Lang Abbott is the director of the Office of Religious Education for the Archdiocese of Boston.