I met Chris Stefanick in 2008 in Folsom, CA, when he was the speaker at a church conference for teens on purity, a conference that just happened to be my kids' singing group's first gig as a real band. His message had a very powerful impact on my kids and really helped shape their views on life and relationships. I remember when we left that day, one of my girls said to me, “Mom, I really get it now!” Chris hit them at just the right moment, when they were just starting out, and his message really helped solidify the values I had been trying to teach them.
Then last year, when I enrolled my youngest boys in the Confirmation program at our church, I noticed that one of the main books they were using was written by Chris Stefanick. As I googled his name to see what else he had been up to, I saw that he was now speaking to groups of thousands of people, had expanded from youth into family ministry, had written several books, and that he had been invited to be the emcee at the 2016 World Youth Day in Poland, which drew about 3 million teens from around the world. He also recently started a TV show called Real Life Catholic. I caught up with Chris recently (which was no easy feat!), and learned more about how this ordinary kid from New Jersey had shaped an extraordinary life for himself and his family, while changing hearts and lives around the world.
You have a new TV show on EWTN called Real Life Catholic. What’s the show about?
I’m so excited about this show! In a world that would associate the average Catholic as someone who is driven by a blind sense of tradition, burdened by rules, filled with guilt, we know that the average devout Catholic is filled with life and joy and purpose. I want to give voice to that, and that’s what the show does to the lives of average Catholics in the ways of their work, in the ways of their culture, and in the ways of their family life. We show the stunning beauty of faith in everyday life, find the intersection of people’s lives and the grace of God, and put a camera on it. It’s absolutely a blast to film! We do everything from harvesting cranberries to harvesting crawfish to riding a hot air balloon to visiting pilgrimage sites around the country (some that I’d never heard of before), to talking to a dear friend of mine whose wife left behind four children. Just seeing how God is present in all of these things, making life more beautiful.
I find myself presenting the show to people while I’m on the road. We don’t start with, “Well, this is true, and this is why you should believe it…” Instead, I think it starts by saying, “This is a better way to live, this is a more effective life, and you might want to look into it for yourself.”
DVD for episodes of "Real Life Catholic" TV show
Tell me about where you grew up, what your family was like, your early influences.
I grew up in a small town in NJ, about 40 min from Manhattan, so it’s really pretty, woodsy, lots of lakes and places to go fishing, but real close to a mega-city. It was a great combo. I’m a middle kid, with an older sister, a younger sister and great parents. My dad was a computer programmer. We were practicing Catholics, but I wasn’t super into it until my parents dragged me to a retreat when I was going into 8th grade.
In middle school, I was drinking after school regularly, and my goal in life was to be a rock star. The thing that changed my life at this retreat was the people in the room. Even though the music and the talks were great, when I walked in the room I realized that the people in the room were alive, and I was dead inside. I still remember particular people’s faces who would never know that they are part of the reason that I’m talking you to right now. It’s a good lesson in the power of everyday people of faith who are just being who they are and not being afraid to let their light shine. We often underestimate the impact we have just by being ourselves.
Unfortunately, after the retreat, I went back to my same bad habits. Year after year I went to the same retreat, and it was always the highlight of my year, but it took awhile for the message to really kick in. The sacrament of Confirmation really helped; I noticed a before and after difference in my boldness of living out the faith, and that’s when I got into praying daily, especially the rosary.
Prayer doesn’t just help our relationship with God; prayer is our relationship with God. Even all these years later, as a 41 year old, I can say that it takes work, like any relationship. It’s very easy to get lazy and default back to not praying and not doing the most important things in life. It always takes a lot of intentional effort to keep first things first in life.
At what point did you decide to get into a ministry-type role?
After that retreat, I just had no other interests. I knew then that I would do something serving God. After high school, I went to Franciscan University in Steubenville, studied theology, and met my wife there. You know, it’s funny how we have our ideas of what we want to do, but it’s not until we try things out that we realize where our gifts and the world’s needs intersect. In that place is where God is calling us.
I thought that I wanted to be a theologian and be the next Scott Hahn or something. I thought, you know, anything but youth ministry. However, I was encouraged to volunteer and try it out, and I was like, wow, this is where I’m called.
One of Chris's books, Raising Pure Teens
But that’s grown through the years, too. Now my ministry is multi-generational, mostly families. I didn’t think that would be the case, but I tried it. I'm finding that kids respond more deeply when their parents are sitting next to them, and parents respond more deeply when their kids are sitting next to them. God’s call shifts in our lives as the years go by, but we don’t ever really know until we put our feet out on the water and see what it feels like to walk on it.
You can see more about Chris and what he's up to at reallifecatholic.com
I imagine that when you first started out in the ministry, those were probably some pretty lean years, just trying to pay the rent.
You know, I’ve always had this faith that if I stuck to the passion that God has placed in me that everything would be fine, and He would take care of me. I think I probably scared my parents, especially my dad, who was probably thinking, “How is this guy going to raise a family being in ministry?” But I just knew God was calling me to ministry, and I think my dad sensed that, too, and he thought, you know, I don’t want to put a block between my kid and God, and he just supported me, and I just went for it, and somehow by the grace of God, here I am with six kids (the oldest is headed off to college!), and we have food, and we have a roof over our heads. I’m doing well, and we’re comfortable.
One of Chris's books, Absolute Relativism: The New Dictatorship and What to Do about It
I know you travel a lot, and you’ve been to Europe recently. Do you notice anything different about people in different parts of the world?
Yes, but not only in different parts of the world, but even in different parts of our own country. For instance, Catholics in southern Louisiana, in northern Massachusetts, and central Wisconsin all have cultural and stylistic differences. It’s important to appreciate all those different cultures and to protect them. I think a culture is a shrine that protects the Body of Christ in a certain place and time, and I think that’s why the devil loves to attack culture, and he loves to try to destroy it. So yes, there are differences in different places, but once you crack through the surface, people are people no matter where you are. The same kinds of things tend to resonate everywhere. I think the greatest variance would be humor. What makes people laugh in England is not the same as what makes people laugh in America. What moves hearts are the same kinds of stories, the same kinds of invitations to Jesus; there’s a universality there.
You were the emcee for World Youth Day in Poland last year that had about 3 million people in attendance. What was that like?
That was one of the most mind-blowing things I’ve ever been able to do! As a kid, Pope John Paul II was a huge part of my own spiritual growth. I remember attending World Youth Day as a kid, and to go back to his home city for a World Youth Day, well, it’s hard to describe just how deeply that moved me. It was scary talking to that many people at one time, but that always calls me deeper and deeper to trust God and lean on the foundational identity that He has for me as His son. When I rest in that place, I can do things like go out on stage in front of 60,000 people over the course of three days and talk to them with the same relaxed, confident spirit that I would have when talking to one or two people, which is where the magic is as a speaker.
(You can watch Chris's episode of "Real Life Catholic" about Poland and his experience at World Youth Day on his Facebook page)
Chris speaking at World Youth Day 2016 in Poland
Has your ministry changed as you had children? Have they affected your thinking on things?
Well, my family is where my contemplation happens and where my material comes from. So there’s a unique perspective that you bring to ministry as a father and as a husband. A priest or a religious can bring a perspective that I can’t, obviously, but there’s something I can bring as a layman and a family man that I think is a unique blessing. We’re not called to give the gospel in a vacuum; He shines particularly through each of us, like light through a prism. That’s the prism of me, that’s who I am.
There are more broken families than ever out there. What do you say to help them?
It all comes right back to the heart of our Heavenly Father. Conversion of heart to the love that is God is the antidote to every illness in our society. It’s easy to talk about all these culture wars and sound like politicians, but we as Catholics need to do what we’ve always done and call people back to the Person who is Jesus Christ. When He is King in our hearts, everything else falls into the right order.
Is there anything else coming up for you that you’d like to share?
We’re hitting our Reboot Live events, which are parish family renewal events happening around the country that help bring families back to God (more info on Chris's speaking events at reallifecatholic.com under See Chris Live).
Watch some of Chris's talks at http://reallifecatholic.com/video/
Follow Chris on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/reallifecatholic/
If you'd like to see a clip of Cimorelli performing at that conference that Chris spoke at in Folsom, CA in 2008....
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