Cover story -- Hard as Nails
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Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

Fatica finds champions, detractors in his home church

Fatica recognizes -- and sometimes relishes -- his role as an agitator. Yet he also wants to be viewed as an obedient, devoted Catholic. “I love my church,” he says emphatically.

But does his church love him? It depends on whom you ask -- many are divided, even within themselves. Some champion his approach, others are repulsed, and most fall in between. “To me,” says David Holbrooke, “the real tension of Justin’s career is between him and the Catholic church, which doesn’t really know what to make of him.”

In Syracuse, N.Y., where Fatica lives and runs the diocesan Mega Youth Ministry program, he has the backing of retired Bishop Thomas Costello, who contrasts Fatica’s work there with some of his antics in Holbrooke’s film.

“He doesn’t beat people over the back with chairs here,” Costello says. “[Mega Youth] is wildly successful, and young people turn out in good numbers.”

St. Joseph Sr. Eileen McCann, who works for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and formerly oversaw youth ministry in Costello’s diocese, approves of Fatica’s work in Syracuse, but worries about the name “Hard as Nails,” and that program’s emphasis on Christ’s pain. “You have to be careful about focusing too much on Good Friday instead of Easter Sunday,” McCann says. “Personal and social sin is part of who we are, but we’re also ‘alleluia people’ and there’s hope in that.”

Dr. Robert J. McCarty, director of the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministers, also finds Fatica’s work both encouraging and unsettling. He says today’s teens seem to judge the validity of experiences by the feelings they produce. The problem with programs like Fatica’s, McCarty claims, is that parts can seem scripted to elicit that emotional response. “At best,” McCarty says, “I thought he indeed was touching the real lives of many young people. He was speaking their language, talking to their concerns, and raising issues. At worst, it can appear manipulative.”

Fatica, for his part, says the moniker “Hard as Nails” is merely a tool for gaining youths’ attention in a loud, distracting culture, and suggests that following Christ is “the hardest life to live on this earth.” And he says his events aim for authentic feelings of joy as well. “Kids aren’t always sharing their pain,” he counters, “but also joy in their walk with the Lord.” In that walk, he says he tries to direct teens toward the church’s sacraments.

That’s a position that McCarty would likely support. “There’s a place for Justin,” he says. “I think he’s onto something when he can connect it back to the community of caring, faith-filled adults. That’s when this ministry’s most effective: as a starting point, not an endpoint.”

-- Greg Ruehlmann

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

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