Hammering Kids for Christ

Controversial Catholic youth minister Justin Fatica is tough and bruised, but soft-hearted, and few dispute he has a knack for reaching troubled kids

The children who show up for Kids ALIVE in Burlington’s Old North End number between 40 and 50, and most range in age from about 8 to 16. Many live nearby, in poverty. On a grey, snowy Saturday morning in February, they trudge in from the cold, filling a small, blue-and-white room in an old building on Elmwood Avenue, and shed their coats, hats and snow boots. The younger kids are shepherded to an adjacent playroom; the rest linger and chatter until a pastor, who oversees the weekly, nondenominational outreach program, leads them in some opening music. They sing: “Jesus loves me, this I know…”

The crowd is larger than usual today, and the reason for this is a young man named Justin Fatica, who stands by the door, bellowing in a baritone that nearly drowns out the rest of the room. Only 29, Fatica has already staked a claim as the most intensely passionate — and most intensely debated — Catholic youth minister in America. As founder of the national Hard as Nails movement, and leader of the Syracuse diocese’s Mega Youth Ministry, Fatica is the face of two successful ministry programs in the Northeast. Last December his life and work became the subject of a highly publicized HBO documentary (also called “Hard as Nails”).

He’s the one the kids have turned out to see. He takes the front of the room and begins his talk.

Justin Fatica, preaching in front of a group of youths, is a sight to behold. Compact and muscular with a square jaw, wide eyes and cropped dark hair, he jumps, dances, stomps and crouches. His voice vacillates between croaky, Jersey-tinged street talk and a sharp, excited bark. His eyes blaze and the tendons in his neck bulge, even when he’s calm. For emphasis, he throws his right arm outwards, cocking his index finger in an exaggerated point, or flicking his wrist as if he were swatting something—Satan, maybe—away. Frequently he is overcome by tears and stops to compose himself, only to launch into another yell.

With a few too-cool exceptions, the kids are enthralled. Several of them saw Fatica during his first visit here in 2007 and took his message back home to their broken families. They seem to appreciate that Fatica talks with them the way he would with an older audience. “I keep it real,” he tells them. (A Kids ALIVE volunteer informs me that some of these children have been exposed to all kinds of abuse. They can handle the straight talk.)

The kids laugh with Fatica’s jokes, and some of the teen girls cry when, choking up himself, he gets to his main point: “I’m here to tell you you’re not worthless. You’re not those things you think you are. You are great, and you are amazing, and you have a God who loves you because of who you are.”

Since the “Hard as Nails” film premiered, Fatica has been praised for his tireless crusade to comfort and challenge the church’s hard-to-reach adolescents, and criticized from another corner for his “extreme” tactics. Both responses illustrate the explosion in notoriety that 2008 has brought to this married father of two, and his unconventional spin on the message of unconditional love.

A small gathering in Burlington, Vt., would seem an unlikely destination for someone in Fatica’s demand. But as it turns out, this small city holds an outsized importance for a man whose zeal for one alienated group has in some ways alienated him from elements of his own church.

Just a Jerky Kid
Even as a child, Fatica says he was brash and outspoken; he didn’t hitch his demeanor to a higher calling until a teenage conversion experience. “I was just a jerky kid,” Fatica remembers of his years growing up affluent in Erie, Pa. “I came from an amazing family, but I didn’t focus on that. I was bored, trying to find something to excite me.”

Fr. Larry Richards, a diocesan priest in Erie and a national speaker, taught Fatica in high school. “He was a kid I just couldn’t stand,” Richards recalls with a laugh. “Obnoxious and cocky. I had him on my prayer list because I prayed for my enemies. Since then, I’d say he’s changed who he works for, but he hasn’t changed his personality.”

Richards encouraged Fatica to attend a weekend retreat when he was 17. At the time, he was tangled in disciplinary problems, his grades were terrible and he feared he had gotten a girl pregnant.

“My parents would tell you this,” Fatica says. “Friday I go to this retreat, I’m a jerk. I didn’t care about what I said or how I said it. Sunday, I was still a jerk, but a jerk who cared. It wasn’t gradual like with most people. I came back and I was changed for life.”

Richards says the transformation was immediate. “He had a great hunger to bring others to God and dragged people to daily Mass. We started a weekly prayer group of about 25 students. One day, of those 25, five told me, ‘I came to know Jesus Christ through Justin Fatica.’ “

When Fatica left for college at Seton Hall in New Jersey, he studied education, but ministry remained his passion. “There was a campus ministry office, but most of it was talking in a circle. That’s fine for me: I have a contemplative prayer life, I was up every morning at 7 for Mass. But some kids need excitement. My struggle was: What’s out there for them?”

Fatica started doing outreach at Seton Hall and at nearby Paramus Catholic high school, where he worked as a campus minister both as an undergrad and after graduation.

In 2002, Fatica founded a new ministry and christened it Hard as Nails. “At first,” he explains, “it was just me speaking at events, really. But the vision was one day to have tens, hundreds, thousands of ministers on board.” The program blossomed into a sizable nonprofit, beyond its New Jersey roots, with a board of directors, eight speakers, and a slew of volunteers. Chapters sprouted up in Washington, St. Louis and even on the islands of Barbados and St. Kitts. The growth continued, as did Fatica’s involvement, even after he moved with his wife, Mary, to Syracuse in 2004, where she was raised and where Fatica assumed leadership of Mega Youth Ministry, a joint diocesan project among five area parishes.