WHAT’S it like being married to the Catholic Church’s most prominent teacher of love and human sexuality?
According to Christopher West and his wife of 21 years, it’s long and painful.
The critically acclaimed teacher of John Paul II’s 129 lectures on human sexuality learnt “the hard way” that his life’s mission is not just to be “the Theology of the Body guy”.
In 1995 he married Wendy, and believed the first 10 years of marriage were all smooth sailing.
He was utterly wrong.
“In November 1996, my wife Wendy and I were celebrating our first wedding anniversary,” Christopher said.
“We were at a party and somebody said, ‘How’s the first year of marriage been?’.
“I said, ‘You know, lots of people say the first year of marriage can be tough. For me and Wendy, it’s been easy.
“Years later my wife would tell me, ‘That’s when I knew you were utterly clueless’.”
The offer to accept a “lucrative book deal” with the world’s largest publishing company was the icing on the cake for his career.
The book’s proposed title was Loving Her Rightly.
“You should have seen the look on Wendy’s face when I told her that title,” Christopher said.
“She said, ‘Honey, you and I need to talk, and it’s going to be long, and it’s going to be painful, but let me just tell you, you are in no place to be writing a book for husbands called ‘Loving Her Rightly’.”
The father of five now looks back on his trials with humour, as he did sharing it with guests at a fundraising dinner in Brisbane.
But at the time, the effort to remove all the “weeds” from his marriage was just as his wife suggested – long and painful.
This year, the Wests will celebrate 21 years of marriage.
In an interview before his Brisbane talk, Christopher said his married vocation was a greater gift than teaching Theology of the Body around the world.
“I have learned this the hard way because men have a tendency to put their work sometimes above relationships and my wife continually calls me back, and I know that my sacrament is my real gift to the world,” he said.
“If my relationship with Jesus is growing, my relationship with my wife is growing, then the way I do my ministry will also grow and deepen.
“Those are my priorities – deeper intimacy with Jesus, deeper intimacy with my wife, and then everything else flows from there.”
His gift took him to Australia between October 22 and 24 for a whirlwind tour, including a last-minute detour to Brisbane for a talk and 15-minute interview.
The last time he was in Australia was for the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney with Pope Benedict XVI.
This time, there was another papal occasion waiting for him Down Under – the feast of his hero, St John Paul II, which coincided with the inaugural Renaissance of Marriage conference in Sydney.
“That was a great treat for me,” Christopher said.
“It was a real honour to be doing this work on his feast.”
The 47-year-old even posted a live video on his Facebook page, followed by more than 90,000 people, of his three favourite JPII quotes.
“I did a little live Facebook video Sunday morning, which still was the feast of John Paul II back in the states,” Christopher said.
“I like to do live Facebook videos on feast days, so this was a particularly special one for me.”
But social media is one area where Christopher struggles to be leader of the pack, admitting he was slow on the digital frontier.
“And part of me wishes I was 15 years younger because I would have ridden the wave,” he said.
“I feel like I’m a late-comer to social media.
“I’m trying to get into the groove, but I’ve never sent a tweet in my life.
“I have a Twitter account and I have lots of followers on Twitter, but I just tell my media person, ‘Here’s what I want to tweet’, and he does it for me.
“I don’t even know how to do it.
“So I’m a little personally backward when it comes to social media but I know it’s really important to use it, so I have people who help me to use it.”
Christopher agreed that being slow on the uptake of digital and social media was a common problem in the Catholic Church.
“Oh gosh, the Catholic Church moves like molasses,” he said.
“And there’s an art form to it too.
“The Church used the be the patron of the arts, you know.
“Somewhere along the lines, in the last 400, 500 years, we’ve lost that, and so the people who really know how to communicate artistically are usually in the secular world.”
So what does Christopher think of St Paul, the most famous early Christian evangelist, owning a smartphone?
“He would have reached a heck of a lot more people,” Christopher said, pulling out his phone.
“These things, I like to call smart phones, these are the modern Roman roads.
“You know, 2000 years ago, the Christians used the roads that the Romans had built to bring the Gospel to the known world.
“Well, imagine if St Paul had one of these in his pocket.
“I think we have a responsibility to go where the people are.
“I feel a little behind the curve there but I’m trying.”
What Christopher does do well is write.
His books have been best-sellers around the world, if causing some controversy among the faithful.
Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia is at the centre of Christopher’s latest manuscript.
“What (Pope) Francis gave us in the Joy of Love is beautiful,” he said.
“My next book is taking a key section of the document – everybody zooms in on the controversial stuff – (but) the heart of that document at Francis’ own insistence is the focus on St Paul’s hymn to love – love is patient, love is kind, right.
“My book that will be coming out hopefully in the next few months is that reflection of the document.
“Pope Francis shows himself to be a true master of the interior life, and if you really meditate on that section of the document it’s like being in spiritual direction with the Pope.
“You want some great spiritual direction?
“Read that section of Pope Francis’ document.”
The working title for Christopher’s new book is Living the Joy of Love, and to his profit, his wife has no qualms.
By Emilie Ng