An HBO documentary airing this week explores an intense and controversial Catholic youth minister whose impassioned testimonials include drill instructor-like hectoring and simulated crucifixions.
Justin Fatica, a muscular 29-year-old resident of Syracuse, New York, heads the Hard as Nails Ministry he founded in 2002.
His program is now being revealed to the nation in the HBO documentary "Hard as Nails." In the documentary, Fatica is shown being beaten with a steel folding chair as he says "He [Jesus] loves you" to a young man in front of an audience of teenagers. Elsewhere, again before an audience, he loudly berates a young woman: “If you sin, you better have the courage to bash Jesus’ face in!”
Members of Fatica's movement are blindfolded and must carry a large wooden cross while facing insults and mockery from others, apparently in imitation of Christ.
Fatica believes the techniques are a good way to depict to troubled young people both the sufferings of Christ as the expression of God's love and the effects of sin in their lives.
But his ministry has faced criticism. The Diocese of Burlington, Vermont asked Fatica's organization not to return "for a while" after a presentation at a school took place amid communication and preparation problems. According to the New York Times, the school said it did not have enough guidance counselors to respond to the effects of his visit.
In an interview posted on the Hard as Nails Ministry’s website, Fatica explains why his tactics are so harsh:
"Well considering how extreme the culture is, what we are doing is matching that intensity with a message of hope. The culture of young people today is extreme. We live in a real difficult world full of challenges and the youth need to know that they have a God that loves them always, no matter what!"
Fatica compares his personality to that of a coach or a football player whose intensity is a response to their violent environment. "These kids are struggling. Rape, gangs, drugs, violence, abuse, the list goes on. I believe that they need to understand that they can make a difference in the world. We can help them understand by showing them that God has a plan for them – to love."
He explained his violent use of the steel chair by comparing the practice to the corporal mortifications practiced by many Christians, such as St. Francis of Assisi. He confessed he had gone "a little overboard" when in front of an audience he told the young woman that a sinner should have the courage "to bash Jesus' face in."
"I sometimes get too in your face and that is one time I did so. I apologize to that girl if I hurt her. The point I was trying to make was 'Don't sin because it hurts all of us!'" Fatica said.
At the same time, Fatica said the HBO documentary had misrepresented some of his practices. Speaking of the times when he was repeatedly struck by a steel chair, he said, "they filmed me at over 20 events all over the world and I only did that at two events. The two events that I did this at were both in the movie."
Fatica also claims the documentary overstates the Vermont diocese's treatment of his ministry. "Of course HBO blew this situation out of proportion to create dramatic effect, and in doing so they have tried to make it seem as though the Catholic Church is against us." According to Fatica, many bishops and priests support Hard as Nails Ministry.
He hopes the “Hard as Nails” documentary will encourage young people who are hurting because there are not enough adults living the message "Love all people no matter what! Love until it hurts. Love until death. Love until you have nothing left."
Editor’s Note: Potential viewers should be warned that the HBO documentary contains obscenities and a frank discussion of sexual topics.