Jen Messing Remembered for Love of Jesus and the Spread of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

In living and dying, Messing ‘put out into the deep’ with her devotion to the Holy Eucharist, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and Pope John Paul II’s teaching on the human person.

Jennifer Messing
Jennifer Messing (photo: Courtesy Photo)

Jen Messing often spoke about the unity of body and soul — or, as she called it, the “body/soul combo” — when sharing Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body (TOB) teaching on the human person with the hundreds of youth and adults she led on outdoor retreats in some of the country’s most beautiful parks. 

Messing’s death last month to breast cancer meant the inevitable separation of the body/soul combo of the 50-year-old TOB presenter and educator who was among the first introducers of the Pope’s message to young adults. She continued to explain the truths until close to her death in November, oftentimes using nature in her Minneapolis-based nonprofit ministry “Into the Deep.” 

At the funeral luncheon at her Minneapolis parish, there were more mourners than available chairs. Friends and family representing different spheres of Messing’s life shared about her deep love for Christ, as well as her energy, insight and joy — even in suffering.

From a young man who experienced a conversion after he was drawn into one of Messing’s retreat groups while camping alone in Glacier National Park to family and longtime friends, all honored her as they reflected on her life.

Messing’s love of nature helped her illustrate Pope John Paul II’s teaching that each person is “unique and unrepeatable.” Later she discovered that her cross of cancer, which she battled for more than two and a half years,  was also unique and unrepeatable. 

“Jen offered her time, materials and even her health so the Lord could use her completely as an instrument for the salvation of souls,” wrote Into the Deep board chair Paul Wagner in a message honoring Messing and her legacy. 

“This immense love for Our Lord was the fuel for her persistent drive to share St. John PauI Il’s theology of the body, and the passion she had to teach each of us the true understanding of our identity, that we are all truly unrepeatable human beings,” he wrote.

Born five weeks premature, Jennifer Rose Messing “was her unrepeatable, determined self from the start,” her mother and sister recalled in her obituary.  A Minneapolis native, Messing belonged to the same parish where she was baptized, though she was often somewhere else in the U.S., hiking, climbing, kayaking, canoeing and camping or road-tripping.

During a 2001 road trip, Messing listened to a cassette tape series on the theology of the body and she was hooked. 

Seeking to promote the message, Messing continued to study it and started giving talks about it. She connected with other young adults locally and nationally who shared her zeal. One of those friends is Monica Ashour, who said Messing lived life to the fullest and was always upbeat and faithful to Christ and his Church. 

“Jen knew that TOB is what the culture needs now and went to great lengths to promote it, ”said Ashour, president of Theology of the Body Evangelization Team (TOBET) and author of The Body Matter, a pre-K to eighth-grade curriculum.

Her friend Anastasia Northrop remembered Messing’s role in the 2003 founding of a network called Theology of the Body International Alliance (TOBIA) with other TOB enthusiasts and in starting one of the first TOB study groups. The first president of TOBIA, Northrop is now founder and director of the National Catholic Singles Conference

Northrop recalled Messing’s energy for outdoor activities and her devotion and zeal for her faith, TOB and fostering connection with God and community with others. 

“Jen was an amazing and vivacious — and tenacious — woman with a heart for God and a passion for helping people know and experience God’s love for them,” she said.

“I look forward to spending eternity with her proclaiming her constant refrain of ‘Praised be Jesus Christ!’”

The same year Messing discovered TOB, she co-founded the Frassati Society of Minnesota to offer Twin Cities young adults cultural and outdoor activities grounded in prayer and friendship through the inspiration of Blessed Pier Georgio Frassati, an early-20th-century Italian who shared his love of God and the outdoors with friends.  

According to one website, there are now at least 27 Frassati societies around the U.S.

She wrote in 2011: “I see Frassati as one of my all-time heroes because he was both devoted to Jesus in the Eucharist and a practical joker, an outdoorsman and politically active, appreciative of culture and a tireless servant to the poor.”

Messing brought her love of TOB and the outdoors together in 2012, when she founded Into the Deep as a way to help people of all ages encounter God and neighbor through Eucharist-centered prayer, TOB and “the adventure of truly living and loving as God intended,” she wrote on her website.

 Along with giving presentations for youth and adults, she organized outdoor “I.D. Retreats” to present TOB while leading retreatants in activities such as hiking and camping.

The TOB teachings about our creation as human persons and our call to love as God loves were the baseline for the ministry’s mission, she wrote, noting that opening hearts and heads to God's original plan “has the potential to transform how we believe, live, and articulate our Catholic faith.” 

Messing led 52 ID Retreats in at least 12 states for more than 650 participants, according to Mary Conway, who manages Into the Deep’s mission support. Messing also led many more youth trips and church group retreats during the decade before founding the ministry, Conway said.  

The Into the Deep board is currently discerning the ministry’s future without Messing, according to her brother and board member Gene Messing. 

Like the rest of her life, Messing saw cancer as an adventure. Starting with her announcement of the discovery of a tumor in her first CaringBridge entry in February 2021 to her final post in July 2023, Messing often professed her trust in God in updates to family and friends on her condition and treatments. Her knowledge of TOB led her to explore natural treatments while it also continued to provide her with insights about her body.

On March 25, 2021, she wrote:

+ Jesus, help me to offer my body as a gift to those that most need prayers by staying with you on the cross! +
What has really started to settle in for me is a parallel with how I have learned the Theology of the Body.  The Lord has brought me deeper and deeper into St John Paul II’s teaching until I could see its most basic building blocks — and thus am able to present it on the level of first graders, adults, and everyone in between. I think with cancer, the Lord will take me deep into discovering the basic building blocks of what caused it and continues to feed it, for the ultimate hope of healing. I see a parallel with understanding the building blocks of sin (what causes it and what feeds it), all for the sake of seeing with clarity how it can be untwisted so that wounds may be healed.

Messing’s body ultimately succumbed to the cancer, but our faith tells us that her “body/soul combo” will one day be reunited. 

Noting the vigor of Messing’s support in sharing the Gospel in her unrepeatable way, Wagner encouraged supporters, saying, “Let us, with that same vigor, storm heaven, appealing to our Blessed Mother to escort her to her Heavenly Spouse.”

As Messing told the Register amid her battle with cancer, “I choose to be an unrepeatable part of this and to be a gift in the world,” adding, “If you put yourself in God’s hands, he will not drop you.” 

May she rest in peace.