HOMILY AT MEMORIAL MASS FOR WALTER J. ONG, S.J. 1912-2003
August 19, 2003
John W. Padberg, S.J.
fly fishing to cosmology --
From a sixteenth century savant, Peter Ramus, to a freshman student
From the origins of human consciousness and culture to the celebration
of the Eucharist --
From the meaning and the use of words to the very word of God.
all of these Father Walter Ong turned his interest, knowledge,
experience and imagination. And when he turned to anyone of them,
he did so with the full force of his being. That is why it is
appropriate to recall these three passages from Sacred Scripture
as we remember Walter Ong.
But before I go further, to Walter’s cousins, to his colleagues
at Saint Louis University, to those academic colleagues here present
from other places of learning, to his friends, his former students
and his brethren in the Jesuit infirmary with whom Walter lived
most closely in the last few years, may I offer in the name of
the entire Jesuit community here at Saint Louis University our
prayers and our sympathy at the loss of a man who was for so many
reasons dear to you. To all his brethren of the
Jesuit Hall community itself, of which he was a member for so
many years, may I also as Rector of that community share our and
my sense of loss. As we pray for Walter, we count on his prayers
before the throne of God.
have chosen these three readings from Sacred Scripture because
of what they say in themselves and because of how Walter’s
life and work resonated so closely with them.
exclaims, "Oh, would that my words were written down . .
. that they were cut in a rock for ever . . . . but I know that
my Vindicator lives . . . . him I myself shall see; my own eyes,
not another’s shall behold him and from my flesh I shall
see God.” If ever there was a man who was a person of the
word and of the consciousness thereof, Walter Ong was surely such.
His whole intellectual life was devoted in one way or another
to those realities and their implications, words and consciousness.
Perhaps his most famous book was Orality and Literacy: The Technologies
of the Word. It was also the most idespread of his works, translated
into a dozen Western and Eastern languages. It ranges from human
culture before writing was first developed on through typographic
culture and to our contemporary electronic culture. It draws out
the implications of those changes for fields as diverse as biblical
studies, social theory and male and female relationships. Job
would have his words written down and cut in the rock forever.
Walter’s words were not only written down; the title of
an article by a Professor of New Testament says directly what
Father Ong accomplished, " Walter Ong’s Three Incarnations
of the Word: Orality -- Literacy -- Technology.” Often long
before others had seen it, Walter understood what a change had
occurred when knowledge and tradition were transmitted no longer
exclusively by the spoken word (as was so long the case for all
civilization) but also by the written word and by the rise of
literacy, and how the rise of electronic communication is again
transforming speaker, speech and hearer. So many of those changes
he saw, understood, called attention to and worked out the implications
thereof. Other of Walter’s works such as the Presence of
the Word and Interfaces of the Word explored the same phenomena
and how they affected the ways we think, the social institutions
we build, the ways we behave.
academic reputation was first made almost fifty years ago by a
book, Ramus, Method and the Decay of Dialogue, a study of Renaissance
intellectual history through the life and work of Peter Ramus,
a sixteenth century educational reformer and logician. The book
grew out of his doctoral dissertation at Harvard which, up to
then, enjoyed the reputation of being the single longest doctoral
dissertation ever done at that university. It may still be such.
It was the fruit of research in more than one hundred libraries.
Walter could be more methodical than even Ramus himself was.
much books and ideas meant to Walter, and indeed they did, things,
real things, living and inanimate, meant more. His theories have
been very influential even though he often said he was not a shaper
of grand theories but that he just pointed out how things actually
were. He would have found himself perfectly at home with all the
items in Lewis Carroll’s lines, "The time has come
the walrus said/To speak of many things/Of ships and tacks and
ceiling wax/ Of cabbages and kings. "He loved the outdoors.
Animals fascinated him. If a walrus would have been available,
he would have watched it carefully, read about it and told you
about it, perhaps more than you wanted to know. The fly fishing
that I mentioned was one of his activities. He loved plants and
years he personally took care of watering, feeding, planting,
and repotting all the plants in the university library and many
of them in Jesuit Hall. I don’t think they included cabbages;
perhaps there was a cabbage rose. As for "ships and tacks
and sealing wax,” things, ordinary objects, and how they
operated, also fascinated Walter. I know he could discourse on
maritime adventures and shipboard navigation. After many, many
years of personally typing his manuscripts with little or nor
secretarial help, for which the invention of the IBM Selectric
typewriter was a godsend, Walter took on the convenience of the
computer even if its challenges, when it became obstinate, might
have led him to
think that it was essentially made of tacks and sealing wax.
much books and ideas and things meant to Walter, people meant
far more. How men and women organized themselves in society was
one part of that interest. It was well typified by his Cornell
University Messenger Lectures on the Evolution on Civilization
which resulted in the book, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality
and Consciousness. There he looked at contests in every form,
from sports to political rhetoric, from the biological circumstances
for human cultural activity to sexual differences and the person’s
search for freedom. One society about which he thought much was
the Catholic Church. He loyalty to it was surpassed only by his
awareness of its opportunities, to which he offered encouragement,
and its problems, to which he offered suggestions for solving
them. Emblematic of that interest were his early books, Frontiers
in American Catholicism and American Catholic Crossroads. They
were both published before Vatican II and both anticipated some
insights and decisions. In more recent years, Walter repeatedly
wrote on the Church’s urgent need for a new cosmology and
a new imagination linked to it. He said that we badly needed to
take account of our current knowledge of the earth and the universe
that is literally "new heavens and a new earth” different
from the world with which Christianity for so many years has done
its theologizing. He took very seriously the word of God in our
reading from the Book of Revelation, "Behold, I make all
than books and ideas and things and people in the aggregate, however,
much more, it was men and women as individuals who meant so much
to Walter. So many here this evening can attest to the warm, enduring
friendships they enjoyed with him. He was deeply attached to his
friends; he cared about them, wrote to them, remembered their
anniversaries, comforted them in their sorrows, elebrated their
successes. Of his students he demanded good work. More importantly
expected good work of them because he thought they were capable
of it. He was utterly generous with the help he gave to them to
live up to those expectations. And he remembered them individually
for years to come and took delight into their accomplishments.
As an example, I know personally of one first year Arts and Sciences
woman undergraduate who had the courage or the rashness to take
one of his courses, one hardly meant for a freshman. She had to
work hard. She did well in it. A dozen years later he still remembered
her, asked about her, was delighted at a visit from her.
individuals and the brotherhood that they formed that were dearest
to him were his brother Jesuits and the Society of Jesus itself.
To the Society he gave himself, and to its works he gave all his
life, his talent and his energy. For more than forty years Walter
was a member of the Jesuit community at Saint Louis University.
To the community members he gave a quiet, indeed undemonstrative,
but real affection. To his specific friends within it he was everything
that they could have wished for. To Saint Louis University, of
which he had been Professor of English, Professor of Humanities
in Psychiatry and was at the time of his death University Professor
Emeritus, and of which he was probably the most distinguished
and most internationally recognized and honored member, he gave
a lifetime of devoted teaching and research, and to his colleagues
he gave deep friendship and constant support.
most of all, it was the to the Lord that Walter gave his whole
life. His friendship with God was as undemonstrative as with his
brethren. But it was even deeper. Walter was a pious man and that
is good, but he was also a holy man and that is far better. He
truly believed in a God "through whom all things came to
be and in whom was life, the life that was the light of humankind,
the light that shines in the darkness.” For years he celebrated
the Eucharist early every morning in this College Church and for
years in this same church through the Sacrament of Reconciliation
he brought God’s mercy and love to countless men and women.
The prayer of this man who was an intellectual of the highest
order was that kind of prayer, but it was also the prayer of a
simple man who knew that God was always beyond our complete understanding
but not beyond our confident approaching because "the Word
became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” Because of
Jesus, the Word Incarnate, "we will be God’s people
and God will be our God.”
one of his latest books, Hopkins, the Self and God, Walter Ong
looked at the way Gerard Manley Hopkins, the English Jesuit poet,
celebrated the completely particular, individual nature of each
man and woman in the world the "I,” who is me, myself
and I. Walter gave that self and all his individuality and all
his talent to ideas, to books, to things, to groups, to individuals,
to the Church, to the Society of Jesus, to Jesus Christ. May Jesus
Christ receive him, just as we ask that He may receive us, so
that we may see His glory, "such glory as befits God’s
only Son, full of grace and truth.”