For four days last fall, Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., was the scene of what Dominican Father Jonathan Kalisch, the school’s chaplain, calls an “old-fashioned Catholic revival.”
It started with 25 student leaders learning how to give a basic evangelization message and ended with a main event in which 300 students packed the cafeteria for a talk, confessions, Mass and Eucharistic adoration.
In between, students got up at five in the morning to chalk messages on campus sidewalks that said things like “God loves you” and “You’re amazing.” They attended morning “prayer workouts,” a “Fight Night” for guys, and a “Mystery of Intimacy” seminar for women. By the last night, Father Kalisch recalls, students who previously had been Catholic in name only “really powerfully reengaged their faith.”
At the center of the campus-wide outreach was Justin Fatica, cofounder of Hard as Nails Ministries, a successful and sometimes controversial Catholic youth ministry that was profiled in an HBO documentary in 2007.
Fatica, a 30-year-old husband, father of two and member of the Knights of Columbus, shouts and stomps his way into the hearts of young people, showing them that without God’s word their lives have no purpose.
Employing techniques that mimic those used by evangelical Protestant youth ministries, Fatica nonetheless preaches a Catholic message — one that brings teens to Christ through the sacraments and Church teachings. “I’m all-the-way-through Catholic,” Fatica says. “If people say the way I bring the message looks Protestant that should give the Catholic Church hope. Call me Protestant and I’ll be Catholic, and we’ll be in this together.”
Not everyone is comfortable with Fatica’s intense, in-your-face style. His response: “I need to change if my intensity hurts people, but if I’m about loving, caring and building people up, then guess what? I’m honored. I think John the Baptist and St. Paul were a little intense, too.”
Fatica says his message and manner are necessarily different from what Catholics have come to expect from youth ministry because the world in which contemporary teens live is no longer the one that birthed, for example, the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). He’s convinced that today’s youths don’t look to the Church to provide them with a place to play sports because they can find these in any number of places.
“We need to find real, authentic ways” of communicating, he says, citing activities that can “get kids saying, ‘Hey, faith is more than just: Let’s hang out and eat pizza.’”
One of the ways Fatica rallies the troops is by sharing his own conversion story.
And it’s a good one. Until he accepted an invitation from Father Larry Richards, a teacher at Cathedral Preparatory High School in Erie, Pa., to a Teens Encounter Christ (TEC) retreat, Fatica was a young man without a mission. He was stealing, drinking, womanizing and generally causing trouble wherever he went. In his new book, Hard as Nails (Image/Doubleday), he writes, “Creating chaos was for my enjoyment, the way that I dealt with the boredom and lack of direction.”
The retreat turned out to be a life changer. Fatica went to confession on the weekend and, as he says in his book, “I have never been the same.” He returned to school determined to bring others to Christ, began a daily regimen of prayer, and improved his grades. At graduation, he was named the most influential student in the senior class.
Fatica went on to Seton Hall University and became a teacher and campus minister, eventually developing a ministry that now reaches 100,000 youths a year in parishes, Catholic high schools, colleges, and at youth conferences.
His advice to adults concerned about their teen children is to listen. That means scheduling family prayer time and family meal time, he says. “When you hear what they’re saying, if you don’t get charged up and changed to make a difference, I feel sorry for you,” he adds. “Kids share everything without even asking for everything. They want to be heard; they want to talk; they want to share who they are.”
In his book, Fatica gives young people the opportunity to do just that, by including their stories with his own. Rick Kharas, a 20-year-old student at St. John Fisher University in Rochester, N.Y., is among those who tell in the book how their lives were changed by Hard as Nails.
Kharas first encountered Fatica while attending Bishop Ludden High School in Syracuse, N.Y. “He was talking about God and stuff,” Kharas recalls. “I didn’t pay much attention to him, but I thought he was cool.”
At the time, Kharas was, as he said, “at the bottom. I was looking for anything, really. So somebody who came in and talked about something other than what everybody else was talking about was pretty refreshing for me.”
When Fatica invited him to a Hard as Nails retreat at the beginning of his senior year, he agreed to go. He spent the first night of the retreat in the church staring at the cross and praying. For the first time, he said, things seemed clear. He promised God he would change.
Kharas started going to daily Mass and inviting other students to join him. Within a month, about 25 other students were accompanying him. Although he later struggled to live a new life during his first year of college, Kharas ultimately realized he couldn’t go back to his old life and decided that no matter what happened he was going to keep God first. Now, he said, “Really, for the first time, I’m realizing the beauty of the sacraments, the Catholic faith, and seeing how they can make you grow.”
Today, he says, “If it wasn’t for [Hard as Nails], my life would be a lot different and a lot worse.”
Back at Quinnipiac University, Father Kalisch saw similar changes in students after Fatica’s visit. Some students, he says, returned to confession and Sunday Mass as a result of their exposure to the ministry.
“In four days, he really transformed the campus,” Father Kalisch says. “His message of love and forgiveness says the parts of you that are most hurting you need to bring to the light of Christ and have him heal that. He’s most effective with people who don’t know the power of God’s love in their life or think because of what they’ve done or what has been done to them they stand outside of that love.”
Judy Roberts writes from