Like many men, Justin Biance was a bit troubled after his faith was reignited by a community of Catholic men. “Why haven’t I met men like this before?” he asks. “I was in college being discipled by the Brotherhood of Hope at FSU, being mentored by Dr. Bob Schuchts of the John Paul II Healing Center, and living in a household for Catholic men. All of this was revealing to me, that the understanding of Catholic masculinity is deep, but I should have experienced this a long time ago.”
Justin grew up distant from his father, but participated in parish life regularly with his mother until high school. Not once before college did a Catholic man approach him as a mentor or teacher. “There was no normal, ordinary interaction with Catholic men. I basically just fell into the world’s pattern for masculinity, which led to all sorts of problems. It was only the extraordinary efforts of the brothers and some heroic laymen that helped me find the truth.”
The seed for Fraternus really began when a man from a Protestant community came to his Catholic men’s group to explain how they intentionally initiated their sons through a simple rites of passage program. They were mentoring their boys and telling them exactly who they were in God’s eyes, and the eyes of the community. “Catholic parishes have nothing close to this,” Justin remembers thinking.
Justin found himself working for the Boy Scouts of America in Jacksonville, FL, where he interacted regularly with Bishop Victor Galeone. Justin had some conversations with Bishop Galeone about mentoring. As he worked for the BSA he began to draft what Fraternus could look like and how the mission could grow. He knew the BSA was a scouting program, teaching great character and skill, but it was not really teaching virtue and the Catholic understanding of masculinity. At the time, Justin was getting a masters from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, and was amazed at the wisdom of living the good life through living the virtues. Bishop Galeone made it very clear to Justin that he thought he should start a Catholic program for boys.
After much prayer and reflection, Justin decided to start Fraternus. He knew he needed help so he went back to where it all started at his alma mater, Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL. There he presented the idea to a group of men and that is where he reconnected with Tommy Van Horn.
Tommy was immediately and intensely inspired to the idea. In high school Tommy had fallen away from Catholicism because his mentors and closest friends were devout protestant Christians and he recalls not coming in contact with many Catholic men who he could relate to and were faithfully living their faith. But thanks to the bold witness of the Brothers of Hope and other young men at FSU, Tommy was quite literally brought back home to the Catholic Church. His experience living in a Catholic household of men and being discipled by the Brotherhood of Hope cemented in his heart the need to communicate the truth of Catholic manhood. He, a very talented and hard-working athlete and an outdoors adventurer, naturally wanted to go “all in” for the mission. So, Tommy put his graduate degree and Meteorology career on hold, packed up and traveled the country raising awareness and funds to start Fraternus. Returning back to Florida several months later Tommy also oversaw the early development of the program structure, the summer Ranch program, and the vision for how Fraternus would reach more boys. Fraternus would not have been able to get off the ground without Tommy’s adventurous and “can-do” attitude. He worked in the main office, on the ground level of chapters, and went wherever there was a need.
Nine months prior to Tommy’s change in plans, he attended an 8-day silent retreat where he met Jimmy Mitchell afterwards. They stayed in touch through the year and Tommy decided to stop in Nashville, TN and spend time with Jimmy. During this time Jimmy caught the fuller vision of the Fraternus Brotherhood. Jimmy, a former seminarian for the diocese of Nashville, was and is an icon of what it means to be a Fraternus Brother. He is prayerful, zealous, and dedicated. Jimmy was ignited with the vision and was instrumental in getting early Chapters off the ground in Tennessee and surrounding areas. He is still growing the Chapters and brotherhood around Nashville, and even hosts the summer Ranch regularly.
The last member of the founding team was Jason Craig. Jason was a convert to the Catholic Faith and was working at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Augustine, FL, the Cathedral of Bishop Galeone, as the youth director. He had extensive experience in youth ministry from his days as a leader in the Protestant group Young Life. However, Young Life primarily went after the “farthest out” youth, visiting high school and any other places where teenagers congregated to build relationships and introduce young people to Christ.
“But work in the Catholic Church was very different,” Jason explains. “Most Catholic youth ministry begins with the premise that the youth they are working with don’t believe deeply in the Gospel. Most youth groups and events focus on initial evangelization. And no one seemed to want to ask the question – why are Catholic kids so ignorant of the Gospel even by high school and why are we ok with that?” Like many converts, Jason was very surprised at how confused many Catholics were about their own faith, how little they knew or understood. “We were bringing the most basic message of the Gospel to Catholic kids, because they did not actually believe in Jesus or the Church they were members of.”
As Jason studied he became increasingly aware of the role of the family. Jason had an awakening: “I was learning what the Church taught about how a strong family is essential for raising up the next generation of Christians, but I was also seeing it first hand. The kids that had strong families had stronger faith, but most importantly it was the kids that had faithful dads that were really growing in their faith.”
Jason and Justin then met at a retreat for youth. Tommy was there too, but this was before Tommy and Justin had fully launched Fraternus. “Jason was drilling me on the idea,” Justin remembers. “I thought he thought I was crazy.” In reality, Jason was having a paradigm shift in how he thought about youth ministry, and Justin’s idea of Fraternus seemed like it would actually work. After some future discussions, Jason was convinced. Despite overseeing a growing and thriving youth ministry, Jason quit his job at the parish to join the Fraternus team. Later Jason moved to Denver to pursue a degree from the Augustine Institute in Evangelization, and there focused on understanding the decline of Catholic masculinity in today’s culture and what can be done to recover it.
“Jason was able to take the vision and role with it,” Tommy explains. “We had some foundational ideas, but Jason had amazing experience working with young people and knew how to train the men to reach out to young men. I remember walking around with him and he would know the boys out on the streets and just know how to talk with them.” Jason’s role would merge from managing field operations, to focusing on developing the program materials, to his role now as Executive Director.
Justin, Tommy, and Jason all remain dedicated and involved with Fraternus, but more importantly they still live and model the type of brotherhood that Fraternus hopes to achieve in every member. “Tommy and Justin are some of my best friends,” Jason says. “We still talk weekly to check in, challenge each other to virtue, and hold each other accountable.” Jason continues to study, work, and write in the area of mentoring and masculinity, contributing to a variety of projects and publications. Tommy started a beekeeping farm in Pensacola, FL and remains a benefactor and volunteer for the Fraternus Support Center (main office). And Justin is the Chairman of the Board of Directors, and dedicates many hours to advancing the mission of Fraternus.