235. How Campus Ministers Can Transform Student Life with the Theology of the Body

Students and tourists rest in lawn chairs in Harvard Yard, the open old heart of Harvard University campus

Earlier this week, I was interviewed by colleague and friend Mike St. Pierre, executive director of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association (CCMA), for their podcast episode on how Catholic campus ministers can utilize John Paul II’s “theology of the body” in their important roles.

We talked about obstacles Catholic campus ministers face as well as a couple of steps they can take to strengthen their faith and, subsequently, their influence as campus ministers. Below are a couple of excerpts, and you can listen to the full interview at the end of this post. I’d love to hear your advice for campus ministers in the comments of our Facebook and Twitter posts.

Mike St. Pierre: For our listeners, most of whom are ministering to college students, what would you say are the obstacles that the culture places in front of college students that makes it harder to accept that truth of who they are?

Christopher West: That’s a great question. These are mysteries when we’re talking about the human heart at that level and its deepest desires. I came up with this metaphor, my little parable if you will, for what is going on. Bruce Springsteen said it best: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” We’re yearning for something, longing for something. The Church calls that hunger eros. We’re all looking for some kind of fulfillment and satisfaction.

A lot of people grow up in Christian homes and they think the basic message is: your desires are bad, you need to repress all of that and follow the rules and you’ll be a good, upstanding Christian citizen. I call that the “starvation gospel.” That is not our faith. You see this on a college campus writ large. The typical college campus is saying: Come over here, eat this — and I call that approach the “fast food gospel” — you’ll have immediate gratification of those desires of your heart. And I ate a lot of that fast food growing up myself, and let’s be honest, those chicken nuggets taste good going down. But if you eat enough fast food, you’re going to feel it. The grease and the sodium is going to catch up to you. And that’s where I was in my college years in the late ‘80s, having eaten a lot of this fast food because it’s better than starving to death. It put me on my knees, begging God, ‘Is there something more?” In discovering this Theology of the Body, I really felt invited to a banquet.

So to answer your question — I had to put that analogy out there — one of the biggest obstacles on a college campus for men and women discovering who they really are, is thinking the Church is against them because the Church has nothing really to offer our deepest desires. And to think the college campus party scene and hookup culture is everything I want because I get immediate gratification. Yes, you’ll get some immediate gratification but it will dump you out the other end more hungry than ever and despairing because you thought this was going to fulfill and what it brought was real pain and sorrow and suffering. This is where the campus minister has a tremendous role to play and a tremendous privilege to enter this scene and say, “Let me show you what you’re really looking for. Let me be a witness that there is a feast of life and love that corresponds to the deepest longing of the heart.”

Put it this way, if the contest is between the starvation diet and the fast-food approach, who wins?

Usually the fast food.

The fast food wins hands down, especially on a college campus. But if the contest is between the fast food and an invitation to a feast, who wins?

God-willing, the feast.

The feast! Jesus puts it this way, “Go out into the main street (and invite everyone to the wedding feast) …” Let’s put it in college terms: “Go out onto that college campus and invite everyone to the wedding feast.” As a campus minister, we have to be convicted in our bones that we have something far better to offer these students than anything the fast food gospel has to offer. And we’re not inviting them to starve with a bunch of oppressive rules. We’re inviting them to redirect their desires according to God’s design so they can reach their destiny, which is this ecstasy of union in love with God and all humanity for eternity. This is our destiny, and the Bible describes it as a wedding feast.

What’s your advice if we could sit down with 5, 10, 100, 200 Catholic campus ministers? They’re right there on the front lines. There is tremendous gender confusion. Many times, their institutions are unclear or they’re promoting everything under the sun… What’s your advice for campus ministers?

I guess this will be predictable coming from me, but my advice is to take up a prayerful, serious study of this theology of the body that John Paul II gave us. It was deepened by Pope Benedict XVI. And it’s also been deepened by Pope Francis. So take it up. If we are not armed with this, it’s like a boxer going into the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world with one hand tied behind your back. We have been given the tools.

To go with the battle metaphor, it’s a David and Goliath fight. It really is, what’s going on on a college campus in today’s world. The stone is Jesus, right? There’s no other victory. Jesus is the victory. The gift of the theology of the body is it gets us in touch with the Word Made Flesh, right? That’s what the theology of the body is — it’s a deep reflection on the incarnation and what that says about the meaning of our bodies.

The stone therefore is Jesus, but may I suggest that the sling that gives us the proper aim to bring this Goliath down is John Paul II’s theology of the body. We live in a world that tells us incessantly that our bodies are meaningless, when the truth of the matter is our bodies reveal ultimate meaning. And we can be so cowardly in the cultural climate today that we don’t even say anything. We don’t want to talk about it, we’re too afraid to talk about it, so we go over here and let’s just talk about spiritual things. Wait… time out. Catholic campus ministry has to be about incarnate spirituality. Not spiritual conversations disconnected from our bodies, because that’s disincarnate and that’s an attack against our faith at its deepest foundations.

If we are not finding compelling ways to engage the culture in these questions, we are doing a disservice. We have a profoundly compelling response to all of this gender confusion and chaos. John Paul II has given us that compelling response in his theology of the body.

Please, I beg of you dear campus ministers, take up a serious, prayerful study of it. And I’m going to pledge myself to you Mike and CCMA and everyone involved in campus ministry… I have the Theology of the Body Institute and The Cor Project. One is a training facility and one is a ministry outreach… I’m going to put either one of them at the use of anybody who is need of training in this Theology of the Body. Say the word, we are at your service. Anyway we can be, we want to be. I believe the faculty we have at the TOB Institute have a particular charism to teach this message. I believe The Cor Project has a particular charism to show people how to bring this to the culture in a compelling way. We are at your service.

What advice would you add? Share on Facebook and Twitter.

Listen to the full interview below.

Image: travelview, iStockphoto.com.


For such a time as this have we been given Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. By taking us beyond the alternatives of prudish repression and damaging indulgence, the Theology of the Body opens the path to the redemption of sexuality and the real healing of our wounds. Learn more by watching my short film, The Cry of the HeartWatch the trailer below.

Watch the Short Film