June 20, 2008 -- Jumping up and down, getting hit by chairs and telling girls they are fat is hardly the image of a Catholic preacher. But for Justin Fatica, a 29-year-old unordained priest and leader of a nonprofit called Hard as Nails Ministries, that is exactly the point.
Fatica targets teens with his preaching, and his methods of spreading his brand of the Catholic message have brought him both admiration and criticism.
Fatica said he found Christ at the age of 17, on a Saturday afternoon when he stepped out of confession. This moment planted the seeds for what he believes is his mission to grab the attention of young people and spread the Catholic faith. While he acknowledges that he is "not the smartest tool in the shed," he believes that he has been chosen to preach Catholicism to young people in this way.
A graduate of Seton Hall University, Fatica went on to teach at Catholic schools before before becoming one of the founders and directors of Ministry for Hard as Nails. The organization's Web site states its vision is to "bring the message of Jesus Christ in intense and dynamic ways."
"I was born for this era," Fatica said. "And there's something big that God wants to do with me -- I gotta do something great."
His speeches are untraditional at best. He's passionate, performs stunts, and is brutally honest and aggressive in his message.
Fatica explained that his tough, "in your face" methods are the most effective way to prove he is serious about his faith as well as inspire young people in today's culture.
"I'm in your face with how proud I am," Fatica said. "You know, of the young people and how God, how proud God is of them."
Fatica's "rough and tough" style doesn't seem to come from his parents, who are gentle and fairly well off. However, Fatica scoffs at the notion that his style is anything but authentic.
"Whatever, people just call it a schtick," he said. "I call it, I spent 10 years in Jersey, you know, hanging out with a bunch of characters."
He is a true believer and he makes no excuses, and in spite of that, or perhaps because of it Fatica knows connects with people, particularly kids.The kids who come to his meetings often don't know what they are in for, but Fatica believes this works in his favor.
"I don't know if they are expecting old fuddy priests," Fatica said. "But what I do know is they don't expect me coming in there and shakin' it up."
Fatica shakes things up by going to extreme measures. For example, one of his signature moves in a sermon is having someone hit him in the back with a chair while he proclaims his love for Jesus. He believes that he has to "shock the world, one person at a time."
His tactics are also a type of social commentary. "Look at the culture we live in," Fatica said, explaining why he gets hit in the back with chairs. "You are asking me this question because I'm a religious guy. Why don't you go out and get WWE in the line and ask them every day?" Fatica shocks people in this way not only to grab young people's attention, but to demonstrate suffering and sin.
"It's really about love, St. Francis, to show people that he sinned," Fatica said. "Jesus went through it for us, that suffering. We should start caring about it. But when we sin, it hurts Christ, it hurts ourselves and it hurts others."
His message can seem to contradict his methods. He frequently points to overweight women in the crowd and tells them "you're fat," often resulting in the young women crying or getting upset. Again, Fatica says he's just trying to prove a point by demonstrating the "sins" he believes we all commit.
"What I'm trying to do is shake them up and help them realize that's how we do treat people," Fatica said. "We put them in a class, put them in categories: 'You're gay, you're fat, you're Catholic.' And we need to start respecting people for who they are, not about what we think they are, and why everybody is important. And that's why I do it."
Fatica, admits, however, that sometimes this point gets misinterpreted. "I might get some e-mails saying that, they say I'm a jerk for this."
Taking the Message Too Far?
It was these kinds of shocking methods that attracted the attention of journalist David Holbrooke, who has followed Fatica for years and made a documentary on him that aired on HBO. From the first moment he saw Fatica in action, Holbrooke said he was compelled.
"We found him at Soulfest, at a Christian rock festival in New Hampshire, and he jumped out," said Holbrooke. "He was so emotive, he was like … no filters, and right away I thought he was as compelling as anybody I'd ever met."
Holbrooke wasn't just captivated by his shocking methods but by his complexity -- he understands what Fatica is trying to do.
"He's got a real message of love," said Holbrooke. "I think in his heart he's really trying to do what he can do to move this ball forward, that there are kids in trouble, and they've largely been abandoned by society."
While Fatica acknowledges that this message of love and devotion could be taken to extremes, and possibly even be destructive, he believes it is a risk worth taking.
"No matter what experience we go to, somebody could passionately take a message, and go with it," Fatica said. "Whether with sports, no matter what we go through, people can engage a passion where they go to the extreme and it can hurt their life. And I do, of course worry about those things."
The documentary shows one instance in which a young man is so impassioned by Fatica's message that he reacts physically -- jumping up and down and dislocating his shoulder in the excitement.
Holbrooke said he was concerned that people might take Fatica's message or methods too far, which, he believed, was all the more reason to document it.
"They're going to get caught up in the fire and take this too far along," said Holbrooke. "And that made me nervous, and I wanted to be able to show that."
Despite varying opinion on Fatica's controversial tactics, it is clear that he aims to help people in his own, perhaps bizarre, way.
"Well, I know God's proud of me and that makes me know I'm proud of myself," he said. "I'm proud for every human that I've met because the humans I meet, no matter who they are, they always teach me something."
This piece originally aired on ABC's "Nightline" on Dec. 17, 2007.