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

More than a name, “Hard as Nails,” evoking Christ’s crucifixion, is a tough, terse creed — a belief in more modern, “in-your-face” preaching to capture the ADHD-addled imagination of America’s teenagers. “We try to talk to kids about Jesus the way MTV talks to them,” Fatica says. “If I’m not more exciting than the iPod, they’ll tune me out.”

At events, Fatica frequently wears a basketball jersey, dances to Christian hip-hop, and walks upside-down on his hands. He prods teens with tough questions, sometimes urging them to stand if they’ve felt worthless or suicidal, or if they’ve been involved with cutting — a form of self-mutilation prevalent among today’s adolescents. Then he turns to those who remain seated. “You’re afraid!” he roars, admonishing them to love their embattled peers. “You’re afraid!”

“Our mission is to light a fire in the youth culture,” asserts Tim Hanley, 24, who serves as the ministry’s executive director in Newark. (Fatica remains, in many ways, its spiritual leader.) “We talk about loving God with an extreme love, and we do that by speaking at parishes, high schools, rallies, retreats.” Hanley adds that they aim to build communities for teens, training them to continue the work after his team departs.

Though Hard as Nails is professedly Catholic, its contemporary modes of witness have attracted a large, ecumenical array of young Christians. “We’re a Catholic group that happens to have a platform that appeals to evangelical circles as well,” says Hanley. And though Fatica’s personal devotion includes practices such as Eucharistic Adoration, he’s pleased that the program attracts teens in a way that transcends theological liberalism or conservatism. “When we stop labeling and start loving, life will be a lot less complicated,” he says.

Strengths and Limitations
If anything, Fatica is a man who recognizes his strengths and his limitations. He knows his spirit galvanizes and encourages youths, but he’s fast to point out he’s a preacher, not a theologian. “I’m a moron,” he chuckles. “I got an 820 on the SAT. Nobody accuses me of being an intellectual.” He considers himself the “shock treatment” who comes in before Hanley and company catechize the teens and develop their community.

Fatica’s candor and charisma made him a documentarian’s dream, says filmmaker David Holbrooke, whose crew followed the youth minister both at home and on evangelization trips across America and the Caribbean for nearly 16 months beginning in 2005. The resulting documentary ran at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, and its HBO debut in December was covered by Newsweek, The New York Times and ABC’s “Nightline.”

“I honestly didn’t even notice the cameras much,” Fatica says of the filming. “I live my life as an open book. I can’t live with myself if I’m not real, and Holbrooke liked that.”

Criticism hasn’t been lacking since HBO introduced Fatica to the world. The documentary includes several scenes that feature Fatica hugging and patting teens on the back, but it doesn’t shy away from the strong reactions that Fatica provokes. The depiction of some of Fatica’s more controversial practices have prompted some journalists and bloggers to paint him as a religious fanatic with a penchant for pro wrestling theatrics.

In one scene, his face nearly purple, Fatica screams at a young woman, “If you sin, you better be willing to bash Jesus’ face in!” In another, he lets a colleague strike him in the back with a folding chair (a symbol, he says, of Christ’s sacrificial love). Later, an overweight team member tells a crowd about her struggle for acceptance, and Fatica shouts that it’s “because she’s fat.” (He calls this a dramatic sketch, to which the team member gave her blessing.)

Fatica doesn’t deny that some of his tactics are extreme. But he claims that they speak to disaffected young people, and are less prominent in his ministry than the film portrays. “You have to do the math. They had 120 hours of footage for a 78-minute film. They took the wildest stuff for entertainment.”

“We try to talk to kids about Jesus the way MTV talks to them,” Fatica says. “If I’m not more exciting than the iPod, they’ll tune
me out.”

The response from within his own church has distressed Fatica far more, however, than anything from the media. He knows that many Catholics, particularly traditionalists, view him with suspicion. According to Fatica and others, almost all of the positive response to the film has come from Protestant circles. “Does it hurt, not to get that encouragement from my own church?” Fatica asks. “Yeah, it hurts a lot.”

Fr. Richards says he heard from some concerned priests after he appeared in the “Hard as Nails” documentary. “They said ‘This guy’s a nut. What are you doing?’ And to them I say: what are you doing to reach these teens? Sure, Justin would kill an older crowd, but he’s touching people that we aren’t dealing with.”

Filmmaker Holbrooke defends Fatica, saying he sees a need for programs like it, while admitting he would have reservations about allowing his own children to participate. “What I learned watching Justin was how many kids are hurting out there,” Holbrooke says. “He gives them comfort in ways they hadn’t had before from their schools, their families or often from the church, quite honestly. They’ve been preached at by priests who sometimes don’t get them, and in walks this 29-year-old who understands their pain.”

Paul Houlis, 25, is a third-year seminarian in the Newark diocese. Like Tim Hanley, he was a student at Paramus Catholic during Fatica’s years at the school. “[Justin] is intense and never meant to be for everyone,” Houlis says. “He goes after the kids who are forced to be there, who just don’t care and think they’re too cool.” Houlis counts himself as one of the troubled souls that responded to the message. At age 14, he landed in rehab for drug addiction; Houlis largely credits his friendship with Fatica for the faith and sobriety he enjoys today.

When critics attack Justin’s methods, Houlis cites Matthew’s Gospel. “By their fruits you will know them,” he says. “I’ve seen the fruit from Justin’s style. I am the fruit from it.”

Preparation Needed
In November 2005, the Burlington diocese invited Fatica and Hard as Nails to undertake a traveling tour of parishes in Vermont. (The previous year, his edgy message impressed diocesan leadership, and they were eager to bring him back.) With a van full of young event assistants, Fatica crisscrossed the diocese — which encompasses the entire state — and orchestrated a series of “evangelization nights.”

“He really made a huge impact on a lot of kids,” recalls Rob Szpila, the director of youth ministry for the diocese. “It was the most important thing, some kids said, that they had experienced of the church — ever.”

On the tour, Fatica contacted a teacher at South Burlington’s Catholic high school, Rice Memorial, about scheduling a visit. It was quickly arranged for Fatica to spend a day speaking to the school’s religion classes. In their haste, neither Fatica nor Rice’s religion department alerted the administration, or the students’ families, to Hard as Nails’ extreme techniques.