About 800 young adults helped kick off Theology on Tap’s 2018 summer season June 25 at the Fremont, a nightclub at 15 W. Illinois St. The crowd, which stretched down the block as people waited to be admitted, was treated to a conversation between Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, founder of Canada’s Salt and Light TV, and Father Rob Galea, known as Australia’s “X Factor Priest.” Galea, 36, shared his story of encountering the love of Jesus as a teenager in his home country of Malta, his journey to both Australia and the priesthood, and his decision to compete on — and eventually walk away from — the Australian version of “The X Factor” in 2015. The talk, peppered with songs ranging from pop standards to Galea’s own liturgical music, went over well with the audience. “He was really relatable,” said Blythe Gilio, 25, a member of St. Alphonsus Parish. “This is a priest who can relate to everyone. I sing too, so I really liked that.” In the interview portion of the event, Rosica asked Galea about some of the incidents Galea relates in his book, “Breakthrough: A Journey from Desperation to Hope” (Ave Maria Press, 2018). Galea speaks openly about growing up in a strict Catholic family on Malta, an island country that he said is famous for its Catholicity and its partying. “My parents had faith, but I didn’t,” Galea said. “I had religion, but not faith.” He started to rebel as a young teenager, drinking and using drugs, stealing and even beating people up. After a time, his old friends wouldn’t hang out with him anymore, he said, because he always got them in trouble. “The only people who would hang out with me were the ones selling weed,” Galea said. “And they were a pretty violent group.” Galea said he knew it was wrong, knew he should behave differently, but he liked the feeling of power he had when he was with them. Until he crossed the leader — “I told a lie about him and he found out about it” — and ended up hiding in his room for six weeks, hearing about how the gang leader had cracked a hotel door by smashing Galea’s best friend’s head into it, and banging his own head against the wall. His suicidal thoughts were becoming increasingly real, he said. He was 16. Then his grandmother called to invite his sister to a church youth group. He overheard the call, and was offended that he hadn’t been invited too. “I know why she didn’t invite me,” he said. “She never thought I’d say yes. But when I said I wanted to go, my mother about fainted.” For a few weeks he stood at the back of the room where the youth group met, wanting to share in their joy but not in their nerdiness, he said, until a man got up and gave a talk in which he made it sound like he’d just had a conversation with Jesus, and told the teenagers to pray. Galea spent a few more days in his bedroom, talking to an empty chair. Raging to an empty chair at times, he said. Until he one day felt that the chair was wasn’t empty, and that the person in the chair was crying with him. “When I was writing my book, I was giving my mother chapters to read so she wouldn’t be shocked by anything when it came out,” Galea told the audience. When she read about him locking himself in his room and falling to his knees in desperation, she told him that when he would do that, she would fall to her knees outside the room and pray for him. “She told God she would not get off her knees until he saved her little angel,” Galea said. “That’s me.” Now, in addition to his duties as a priest in the Sandhurst Diocese of Australia, Galea runs a ministry reaching out to teenagers and young people, especially those who feel disconnected. It’s funded through sales of his CDs and book. “Sometimes, God takes a mess and makes a message out of it,” he said. Galea took his talent and auditioned for Australia’s “The X Factor” in 2015, figuring that just standing in front of the judges in a Roman collar and sneakers and singing Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child” would be message enough. To his surprise, he was approved by all four judges and entered the competition. After a time, though, he walked away. “I love being a priest,” he said. “If I had a thousand lifetimes, I would choose to be a priest in each one. And this seemed like something that could distract me from what is most important, which is my relationship with Jesus.” Galea was impressed by the response to Theology on Tap in Chicago, even getting up to take a picture of the line outside before the presentation started. It’s important, he said, for Catholics to live their faith in community, inside and outside churches. “Jesus is everywhere and the church is everywhere,” he said. “Even in this club.” Rosica, who also participated in the 2017 Theology on Tap kickoff, said he enjoyed coming to the archdiocese where Theology on Tap began, and seeing the way it brings people together. Chase Rich agreed. He is in Chicago working for the summer, although he has coordinated Theology on Tap events at his university in Carbondale. “There we get 20 or 30 people,” he said. “Nothing like this.” He registered as soon as he heard about the event from an email to young adults at St. Peter’s in the Loop, his church home for the summer. He was sharing a table with Jazmin Rangel, a parishioner at St. Francis Borgia, who had the event on her calendar ever since missing last year’s kickoff. “It’s already bringing people together,” she said. Social media is valuable to get the word out, Rosica said, but it can never replace meeting people face to face, he said. “One or two good friends you make at an event like this is better than 840 Facebook friends,” he said.