Justin Fatica, a dynamic twenty-nine-year-old, is spreading the Catholic faith with an intense, in-your-face approach that eclipses that of even the most passionate preachers of any denomination. The subject of a recent HBO documentary, Fatica is known for his electric presence in front of groups large and small, showing an emotional range from joy to anger, calmness to fervent pleas—all meant to inspire his audience to break free from whatever burdens they may have. In an era where Catholic-church attendance is waning, the success of Justin’s exploding Hard as Nails ministries is a welcome, if sometimes controversial, means of reaching the spiritually hungry.
Fatica offers a message of hope for all ages, and especially for the growing number of youth who feel displaced and lost. While some are just getting used to Justin Fatica’s style, there is little doubt that this dynamic, charismatic preacher will continue to draw attention for his radical and passionate ways of spreading the gospel.
"I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts."
Without the word of God, you have no purpose, you have no mission, and you have no goal," I yelled. Some of the teens in the audience shifted in their seats. I had Joseph, my one-year-old son, in my left arm, and as he reached out his hands trying to grab the microphone that I was holding, all I could think was here is my heart I do this for you.
"How many of you have been destructive and knew you were wrong? How many of you were afraid? I used to be destructive and afraid. When I was younger I didn't have a mission, and I was afraid. I didn't have a purpose, and I didn't have a goal in my life."
I paused and looked out at the young people who had gathered here today. I have to connect with them, to let them know that I am hearing them and that we are all bringing the love of God to them. I have to connect with every person sitting in front of me; it's the only way that I can really bring the full force of the message of God's love to the group.
I shared my story with them to let them know that I came from where they are now; that with God anything is possible--look at me, look at the ministry. Connecting with these young people is the most important thing that I do.
I continued. "I remember, when I was in high school, my parents took me to a psychologist. My parents and I were sitting in front of this psychologist, and I looked over at my dad. I'll never forget his expression--I could tell he was thinking about all the pain and the harm that I was bringing into my life. All the things I was doing, getting in trouble. The psychologist said, 'Justin probably won't make it into college. He'll probably have to go to a special school.' I looked to my right, where my dad was sitting, and my dad was crying."
It's hard for me to tell this story, to remember that look in my father's eye and the pain that I brought to my parents. My voice cracked as I continued the story, and I could feel myself tearing up.
"My dad was crying. Tears were streaming down his face. My dad! A guy who never cries. Because of my destructive personality! I hurt my family. I hurt my school. I hurt my friends. And I hurt myself. I did all of this because I didn't have a mission. I didn't have a purpose. And you wonder why I'm so intense, huh? HUH?" I paused to take in their breathless response. "I'm intense because I know what 'I can't' feels like. When I fail, I feel like a loser--a nothing."
That's only the beginning of the story of my conversion. The problems didn't stop there! It was much, much deeper than that. I remember getting caught by the cops for stealing a gumball machine. My father told the cop to arrest me; the cop could only laugh at me while he was reprimanding me. He couldn't believe I stole something so meaningless. Yes, one of those huge gumball machines you see in the grocery store. The one that every kid wishes they had in their bedroom. I picked it up, with three of my friends, put in my red Jeep Wrangler with the ragtop down. We took it to my friend's house.
Two days later my father got a call at his office: "Mr. Jack Fatica, did you steal a gumball machine from our store?" (At the time my father was president and owner of his own company. Why would he steal a gumball machine?) Even though I had done it, they called my dad because his name was on the insurance card for the Jeep Wrangler that we had used to steal the gumball machine! My dad laughed and told them that he certainly hadn't taken it but that he probably knew who had.
I was so bored with my life. My mission was, well, I had no mission, so I had to steal stupid things to make my life exciting, worth getting up for each day. I was told I would get caught, but I didn't care. Creating chaos was for my enjoyment, the way that I dealt with the boredom and lack of direction.
I was this caring grandson who loved his grandmothers and spent hours with them, but I was also this crazy teenager throwing boulders off of bridges onto cars, shooting cars with potato guns, lighting creeks on fire, stealing things, and so forth. Who knows what might have happened to me. Like many people told me, I was either going to make a big difference in this world or ruin the world.
My junior year of high school, I hated this priest. He was so annoying. I couldn't stand the guy, like some people can't stand me today. I'll never forget it, that day I finally drove Father Larry too far. He had just rolled into the classroom; he was six feet tall and he was a big guy. He taught at our all-boys school, and he looked tough. He wanted to let us know that he could handle us. Walking to the blackboard, he turned his back on us and began to write.
This was the opening that I had been waiting for. I smiled at my friends, took off my shoes, and threw them to the ground like I was in charge or something. Sitting in the front row, I leaned back in my chair and put my feet up on the priest's desk. I cupped my hands behind my head and smiled.
Father Larry stopped writing and turned around to face the classroom. He said, "I'm sorry that I was late for class. I got caught up . . ." He stopped talking when he saw my feet on top of the desk. Father Larry's hands dropped to his sides and he snapped, "Justin, get your feet off that desk NOW!"
"Father," I replied, "say please."
I just smirked at him. He stood silently for a moment. Then he blinked. He stared at my feet and blinked again. Now he was very angry, actually red with anger.
Father Larry's thick eyebrows met above his nose, creating a unibrow. The unibrow furrowed in rage. He rushed at my desk, knocking my feet to the floor, grabbed me by the shirt, and ushered me out into the hall. He slammed the classroom door behind us.
He backed me up against a wall and invaded my personal space. With our heads so close I could see the pores in the skin of his face and hear his rapid breathing. Father Larry really towered over me, his face painted red with rage. Spit flew from his lips as he bellowed into my face, "Get OUT of my classroom!"
The priest's voice turned stern and low. "Don't come back into my classroom until you realize your potential!" I could hear the boys in his classroom laughing and talking. They loved what was going on, but they thought I was kind of an idiot.
Father Larry's face was full of anger and resentment. "You drive me NUTS, Fatica!" he hissed. "Do not come back to my classroom until you realize your potential! Go to the office. NOW!"
After Father Larry kicked me out of his classroom, I was pissed off. As I was going down the stairwell I was swearing. "I hate that a-hole. I can't stand that guy. He drives me CRAZY!" But what I didn't know, you see, was that Father Larry cared about me. He really cared about me.
In December of that year I got a letter from him. It was a Christmas card. And I'll tell you what, I drove this guy nuts. I drove this guy to the point where his unibrow was practically falling off. You know what I mean? In the letter he wrote: "Justin, I know that I struggle with you. But that's why I pray for you every day. Because I see your potential. I see your gift. I see you as a person who is amazing and great."
At this point in telling my story to the kids at one of our events, I paused and I looked out at the group of young people watching me intently, waiting for the story to continue. I called out to them, "And you wonder why I'm so intense, huh? You wonder why I care so much! I care because it is so important! YOU are SO IMPORTANT!"
My life was still pretty soft when I got Father Larry's Christmas card. I was screwed up, but I thought I was okay, that it was under control. I read Father Larry's words, and I thought, "Screw it. I don't care what Father Larry says. I'm going to do whatever I want. It's my life."
I used to get myself into a lot of trouble, but up to my junior year in high school, my life wasn't terrible. It didn't get scary all at once, but gradually I became more and more out of control, and eventually my life reached a horrible crescendo. Life started off soft, but bad things started to happen because I didn't have any meaning in my life. Little by little, life got louder. When I began to doubt myself and my purpose, when I lost track of the differences between good and bad--that's when my head filled with loud, lousy thoughts that attacked me from all sides. As the volume increased, I got scared. The volume in my life finally got to a level that was deafening and terrifying.
Not too long after Christmas I had a party at my parents' house while they were away. I hung out with my friends in the kitchen and in the hot tub. Some girls came over and things got pretty wild. One particular girl paid a lot of special attention to me, so I got into the hot tub with her. I took her up to my parents' bedroom and, for the first time in my life, I really messed up.
I gave myself to her. My whole heart, even though I thought it was just something teenagers did for fun. I only knew that girl one day. I'll never forget it. I told the girl that what I had done was wrong, that I was so sorry. I left her in my parents' bedroom; I was disgusted with myself and went to my bedroom. That night, after it was all over, I sat on my bed hugging my wrestling buddies Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior feeling like they were my only friends. I dropped to my knees, and I only knew two prayers. I only knew the Our Father and the Hail Mary because I went to Catholic school. That's all I knew, because I had never prayed much in my life. But I prayed the Our Father and then the Hail Mary, and I didn't stop for about twenty minutes. I was crying like a baby. I didn't have a mission. I didn't have a purpose. I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know what I was doing. Something was terribly wrong. I could feel it inside, in my heart. I cried. "Our Father, Who art in heaven . . . Hail Mary, full of . . ." that's all I knew, and I'm crying, right?
I went to school on Monday but I was still really upset. I must have looked it. Father Larry saw me and asked me to go on this religious retreat called Teens Encounter Christ (TEC). At first I said, "I know God. I don't need that. I know God. I'm fine." Two weeks later, I told him, "Okay, I'll go." Here's why. . . .
I hadn't spoken to the girl to whom I had given myself. Two weeks after the party one of her friends called me to tell me that the girl was pregnant. After I hung up I just sat in my room not knowing what to do. I sat in my room feeling ashamed, discouraged, worthless. I couldn't believe one time, one sin, one mistake against God could ruin my life. The thoughts in my head were terrifying, painfully loud and intense. My destructive life had built to this loud, terrible crescendo.
I went to the religious retreat, a weekend-long event held at a Catholic elementary school. I hoped it wasn't going to be corny or something. On the first day of the retreat we sat in a classroom and listened to talks, watched skits, and played games; there were about forty of us including Father Larry and the leaders. I thought it was pretty boring until the first night when one of the adults attending the retreat set off firecrackers. Then we had to take my friend to the hospital for stitches because we were having a handclap pushup contest and he got hurt. I said to myself, Firecrackers and the hospital: it might not be that boring after all.
The next day was the start of a new life for me. Father Larry shared with us a story about a man he had known. This man had divorced his wife and left his family to go to Las Vegas. He then remarried, started another family, and eventually moved his new family from Las Vegas to Houston. One day when Father Larry was studying at the seminary he got a call from the man's second wife. She asked Father Larry to come visit the man because at 43 he was dying of cirrhosis of the liver and he wanted to talk to Father Larry. Father Larry knew that it was right to visit the man, so he flew to Houston. The man was so sick that Father Larry barely recognized him with all of the tubes sticking out of his arms. He was so thin and so weak that he could not speak, but he had a chalkboard next to his bed so that he could write notes to the people who visited him.
Father Larry spent two weeks visiting with him, and as he started to leave the room for the last time, the man waved for him to come back to him. Father Larry rushed back to his side and leaned in close to him. The man hugged him and wouldn't let go; Father Larry looked into the man's eyes and said, "I love you too, DAD!" After Father Larry shared this story with us, he told us that for years he had judged his dad, and that the only time he had told his dad he loved him was on his deathbed. He said he had been judgmental about his own father even though he was a seminarian who opened his heart to people every day.
Excerpted from Hard as Nails by Justin Fatica; Foreword by David Tyree. Copyright © 2009 by Justin Fatica. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.