In a society that tells people constantly that they are unworthy and unloved, Justin Fatica has one mission: to tell the world that every person is amazing. Fatica has been traveling around the country for two decades helping people who struggle and suffer to discover the love of the Father. Fatica was the subject of an HBO documentary, which profiled his work with young people through the Hard as Nails ministry he founded in 2002.
With Father’s Day just around the corner, Our Sunday Visitor sat down with Fatica to talk about fatherhood and the state of Catholic men. On June 10, Justin will speak at the online (and free) event The Heroic Men Summit sponsored by the Catholic Men’s Leadership Alliance.
Our Sunday Visitor: It’s not uncommon in Catholic circles, in Christian circles, to hear people claim that there’s a crisis of masculinity today. Do you think that’s true? Do we have a masculinity problem today?
Justin Fatica: I think our challenge is knowing who we are as men, yes, and who we are as women, who we are as brothers and sisters in Christ. I think the crisis is in family life, and that crisis begins with throwing God out of everything.
I mean, that’s what the crisis is. If we know who our God is, God the Father, then we know who we are. And when people know God the Father, that speaks to hearts. You know, I coach basketball, and they’re doing actually a six-part docuseries on my basketball team right now. I’ve been doing that for the past two years. Anyway, I just had a kid on my team whose dad sat him down recently (he’s 16 years old). His dad told him, “Look, today will be the last day I’m on this earth.” My player went to school, and he came home, and he was the first person to find his dad dead at home.
God brought this player to me. In fact, one of my assistant coaches met the kid’s dad in a pizza shop. The dad asked if my assistant was still coaching. My buddy told him about our team, and the dad, he goes, “You know, well, my son’s 16 … he should play for you.” We took him because he was tall, but God wanted us to take him. His height helped, and it was exciting when he came to us. But the point, going back to your question, is that we have dads that want to give up.
That means these dads don’t know they are loved by God the Father. They think there’s something shameful they’ve done, something that is too much for God to handle. So, I think we’ve lost track of God and family. We have to do all that we can to get God and family back into our country.
Our Sunday Visitor: That being said, what do you think the number one thing that fathers can do for their families is? What’s the place to start to revive fatherhood?
Fatica: I think No. 1 is the gaze of Jesus. I really believe in looking your kids in the eyes and telling them what you see. Not the wrong they do, not the prayers they need to pray, which is important, of course. But that’s second, right? Those prayers depend on that relationship of love. They need you to gaze into their eyes and see something more. Then they see what God the Father sees.
My youngest, he’s a character. He’s like all youngest kids. I do the same “what do I see” thing with all my kids, starting when they’re little. I give them spiritual names like “hopeful encourager” and “thankful soul” and “beautiful strength” and “gentle warrior.” I give them these names when they’re in the womb. (When they come out, let’s hope that beautiful strength is a girl and not a boy, right?!) Anyway, I look into the eyes of my youngest and I ask him, “What do I see?” He says, “hopeful encourager.” I tell him that’s right. Even when he does something he shouldn’t do, I look into his eyes and ask him, “What do I see?” I tell him I see “hopeful encourager.” And I tell him that just because he’s done something wrong doesn’t mean that I don’t see who he is.
I think we need to have fathers that gaze at their children with love. For plenty of fathers, that would be awkward. Impurity makes it weird — that shame of “we’re not good enough” makes when we look people in the eyes weird. I know it sounds like it’s out of left field, but for me, that’s a huge thing for kids.
Our sons and daughters need our time, our presence. Guys, especially guys that would come to something like this, they’re spending time praying the Rosary, maybe taking time for adoration. But we need to do the same thing with our kids. Just me and my daughter, just me and my son.
And then the last thing I think our families need is that they need to see a heroic man. Read your kids all the saint books you want, but if they’re not living with a saint, then all those same books aren’t going to seem real. You have to be that saint for your kids.
Our Sunday Visitor: Justin, that might seem like a tall order to some people! What can we as a Church do, or parishes do, to support our fathers, to help them flourish?
Fatica: Well, one thing is that priests need to stop offering spiritual direction to women. Parish priests have to commit 90-95% of their energy to fathers. Priests have to do this, I’m just giving the diagnosis, like a doctor. I have tons of priest friends. But to have a priest that I know wants to be there for me, as a man, has to be encouraged.
The second thing is what our Hard as Nails missionaries do. We do best when we hang out in homes. Priests and parishioners need to start, two by two, being in the homes of these families. You can always tell who a father truly is when you go to his home. Stop inviting people to all these programs and, instead, let’s go and invite ourselves into their life — right to sharing life together.
I know it sounds simple, but “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
When my kids see I’m rejected by just telling somebody they’re amazing on a random street corner, it’s great. They see me living the beatitudes. I got threatened one day, two of my younger kids were there. When they saw I wasn’t afraid, those two little nuggets, they would have jumped in if that guy attacked me. I swear, they were at the time 8 and 10. They would have jumped in to try to save the day because I looked at them and they weren’t afraid. It was a weird situation, but I remember that they weren’t afraid, right? Because I wasn’t afraid. As parishioners, we need to take chances to love people and not be afraid to love them.
Our Sunday Visitor: What do you think can help men become more courageous? We can’t just tell people, “Be braver.” So what helps them to live the kind of fortitude for the Kingdom that you’re talking about?
Fatica: For me, it is the cross; it all goes back to the cross. Yes, it all goes back to looking at that and saying, “Oh man.” Just spending time looking at a crucifix. It’s his witness. But I think the mirror of the cross shows us who we are to be. We’re dedicated to the cross and the suffering.
That’s kind of our mantra here at Hard as Nails. I think when you spend time with people suffering, you can’t help but be great. What happens with most of us as Catholics is that we see suffering and we shrug. We’re uncomfortable with people who are suffering. We wanna run, but I think we need to cling to the cross, cling to young people and cling to the suffering. So we need to be in the presence of the cross, be with young people and be with those who are suffering. And guess what? You will be brave. I promise you, those three relationships.
‘Equipping Catholic men’
Our Sunday Visitor: Would you say you’re looking forward to most about the Heroic Men Summit?
Fatica: The message. We don’t deserve this gift. For men to know we have a God who’s our Father who loves us very much. Everybody deserves to have a relationship with Jesus Christ, his son. Everybody deserves to have that. Yeah, we have suffering. Yeah, we have challenges. Yeah, there’s a crisis in this country, but guess what? We have someone to help us through it. Everybody deserves to know that!
This conference is about equipping Catholic men. I’m excited to challenge them to go out. I’m doing this conference while I’m coaching a basketball tournament. I have scheduled like 30 minutes in between the conference and the game, because I want to leave that conference and go right into the gladiator stadium of our country. I want to be a witness to go out into the world, not being afraid and be a witness for Jesus Christ in everyday life.
I really hope these guys are ready to be challenged to be a heroic man, to be a witness, to be courageous in everyday things. I have three buddies of mine that own companies. I asked them, “Do you pray with your staff?” They told me: “We know you do that, but you have a ministry.” Nonsense, I said. You’re in charge. You can’t force anybody to come pray with you, but if the boss invites you to pray, you think you’re going to show up? You might get a raise!
All three of these men start praying with their businesses and guess what? They haven’t stopped. Now one of them goes to Mass and breakfast, and he treats everyone who comes. He’s got like 25 people every week that from his company come to Mass and go to breakfast! All of us can be heroic.