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A mission to transform Hollywood

Legate Derry Connolly leads a university bringing Christ to the world of entertainment . . .

People of faith often complain that Hollywood runs roughshod over Christians. For some, the answer is to avoid mainstream entertainment altogether. But John Paul the Great Catholic University — aka JP Catholic — has a different solution.

Students at the country’s only Catholic film and business school are taught to impact Hollywood by transforming themselves through Jesus Christ — and by excelling at making quality movies and entertainment.

Solid foundation

Derry Connolly

Derry Connolly

Derry Connolly, founder and president of the San Diego-based university — and member of Legatus’ San Diego Chapter — says he never set out to found a university.

In 2000, he visited Franciscan University of Steubenville with his daughter. At the time, Connolly was teaching entrepreneurship at the University of California San Diego. Steubenville’s dynamic spirituality caught him by surprise. During the next three years, Connolly felt God calling him to found a university with Steubenville’s spirituality — but focused on the media.

“I spent three years telling God, ‘No,’ but He put it in my heart and it kept coming back,” said Connolly. “I couldn’t get rid of it.”

With the help of generous donors and a team of Christians working in Hollywood, JP Catholic opened its doors in 2006 in San Diego’s Mira Mesa neighborhood.  In the fall of 2013, JP Catholic moved to a new campus in Escondido, 30 miles north of San Diego. The new campus has more building space and is only five minutes away from a train station that takes students directly to Los Angeles.

The budding university offers two Bachelor of Science degrees: one in communications media and another in business. Within the communications media degree, students can specialize in directing films, producing, screenwriting, acting, animation, video game production and the New Evangelization. The school also offers two master’s degrees: one in business administration and another in biblical theology. The university’s MBA is specifically focused on film production.

JP Catholic’s 170 students live on campus, with 90 other students taking its online theology degree.

“The theology department is led by Dr. Michael Barber, who studied under Scott Hahn,” said Tiffany Hall, a senior at JP Catholic. “He’s been really great. We do a scripture class that takes us through all the covenants in the Bible.”

Faithful storytelling

The Catholic faith permeates every aspect of the school. All professors sign an agreement that they will not teach anything contrary to the Catholic faith, and every theology professor has a mandatum — an acknowledgement by the local bishop that the professor is teaching in full communion with the Church.

Dorms are housed in apartment complexes with a strict no-visiting policy between male and female students.

“In our common room, we pray a rosary every night at 9 p.m.,” said Hall. “I love that! We have daily Mass and our chapel is always open for daily Confession.”

“Responding to the crisis in the world of Catholic higher education, JP Catholic is part of a group of faithful universities founded over the past several years,” said Adam Wilson, communications director for the Cardinal Newman Society. “It was created with the renewed conviction that a Catholic university must be founded on the Church’s authentic vision for Catholic education.”

Chris Riley

Chris Riley

Chris Riley, a Protestant, heads the screenwriting department at JP Catholic. Before coming to the university, he worked for 14 years at Warner Brothers as the head of the script processing department. He is considered an authoritative figure in Hollywood when it comes to screenplays.

“There is a certain amount of theory for screenplay writing,” said Riley. “There is some science, a ton of art, and then wrestling with the story. The hardest thing to overcome is the discipline of writing.”

Students interested in screenwriting first take a class on theory. Then they take a class where they write an episode for a TV series. Finally, they take a feature-film writing class.

“Ultimately, screenwriting students must write a feature-length film,” said Riley. “By the time they graduate, they will have multiple scripts.”

One of JP Catholic’s strengths, he said, is the strong link between the faculty and the film industry.

“Students have gotten great internships,” said Riley. “We have great networking possibilities. Our faculty really understands the business.”

Transforming Hollywood

In terms of making it in Hollywood as a Christian, Connolly says things are changing for the better. “The Christian network in Hollywood is getting stronger,” he said.

Riley concurred.

“I haven’t experienced a ton of hostility to the faith,” he said. “Most people I work with want to do good work and are not specifically hostile to Christians.”

JP Catholic students made a full-length feature film last year called Redline, starring Nicole Gale Anderson. It’s available on DVD and streaming on Netflix. They’re working on a second feature film called Leap.

“Students who major in film produce their own short films,” Riley explained. “They raise the money themselves, create a schedule, get the equipment and crew, and shoot the film. Donations come from family and friends and crowd-funding sources.”

JPCatholic-1Students enter their work in film festivals, and some have won awards. Other students have earned cash by working on professional television commercials.

JP Catholic’s gaming and animation program is also growing in popularity. The program focuses on design, art and storytelling.

“I want to create my own video games, like interactive puzzles, adventure games and solving mysteries,” said Hall. “I want to start my own studio — called Guardian Studios — using Old Testament stories as a basis, so people can learn the faith and virtues.”

Students like Hall, however, are aware of gaming’s pitfalls, especially for younger players.

“What bothers me about violent video games is that sometimes you’re rewarded for violent behavior,” she said. “You need to be rewarded for right behavior. Children need limits with any kind of ‘screen time.’ I love the digital world, but it will never be God’s world.”

Connolly sees a bright future for JP Catholic, with a peak enrollment down the road of 1,200 students. The school is planning to launch an undergraduate degree in fashion design, as well as theology, in two or three years.

But the university’s mission is above and beyond fame and fortune.

“What I hope for all my students,” Riley said, “is that they are individually impacted and transformed by Christ. Some will go into mainstream Hollywood. Some will get married and have children.  I want them all to bring the flavor of Jesus wherever they go.”

SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.

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Impact culture for Christ

Connolly was inspired to found a new university dedicated to changing the culture . . .

If there’s one thing Dr. Derry Connolly can attest to, it’s that God works in mysterious ways. Connolly’s chance visit to Franciscan University of Steubenville 10 years ago led to what he believes was a divine challenge to found John Paul the Great Catholic University.

JP Catholic, as it’s commonly called, has a mission so singular that its student body is growing rapidly and the college expands its programs annually. That mission (in the words of its motto) is to “impact culture for Christ” by heeding Pope John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization and articulating the faith through modern media with a spotlight on transforming the entertainment industry in Hollywood — based 120 miles north of its San Diego campus.

Franciscan inspiration

Dr. Derry Connolly

Dr. Derry Connolly

The idea for JP Catholic came when Connolly took time off from his administrative duties at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and traveled to Steubenville, Ohio, to visit a prospective college that his high-school aged children wanted to see.

“I was at Franciscan with my kids, but very much against my will,” recalled Connolly. “But I was blown away by what I saw”— as was his daughter, who would enroll there and today is married to the son of a Franciscan philosophy professor.

Connolly saw a vibrantly Catholic campus, cheerful in the faith and serious about academics. He was also impressed by a book that he “randomly” picked up in the university library: The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University by Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the University of Notre Dame’s influential activist president who led a movement of Catholic schools away from ecclesiastical authority.

Their manifesto, the “Land O’ Lakes Statement” of 1967, demanded “autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical.” The realization of such autonomy has contributed to the mission drift and confused identity wracking Catholic higher education today.

Flipping through the book, Connolly was taken aback by the author’s contention that “a great Catholic university must begin by being a great university.” Are not being great and being Catholic simultaneously achievable, he wondered, not to mention doubly desirable? Indeed, are they not as complimentary as faith and reason?

Praying before the Blessed Sacrament the next night, Connolly had an inspiration: to replicate Franciscan’s fervent but reasonable faith on a new campus back in San Diego.

“‘God, no!’ I thought to myself,” the native Irishman said in his melodious brogue. He tried to trample the idea, which would alter his professional and personal life, but the seed was planted and continued to germinate. After three years, he decided it was time to take God’s challenge seriously. “I thought I had better give it a try, and if I failed I would tell God that I gave it my best shot.”

New university

Connolly, now 56, launched into the project with Irish passion, aided by a skill set atypical of college founders: a Ph.D. in applied mechanics from Cal-Tech, 15 years working for IBM and Kodak with eight patents to his name and over a decade as a professor and UCSD administrator. But this combination of technical expertise, entrepreneurship and administrative ability would serve him well.

Today, four years after JP Catholic opened its doors, with one graduating class already in the field (the second class graduates on Sept. 11) and a current enrollment of about 160 students, Connolly sees no imminent prospect of admitting defeat.

“John Paul II hit the nail on the head when he said that nothing impacts modern culture like the media,” he said. “And we’re showing we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Connolly’s enthusiasm for the school and its cause are contagious, perhaps all the more so because he tempers his enthusiasm with realism. He recognizes that it takes a new university up to 20 years to achieve significant size and status. (A 1,600 student body is JP Catholic’s enrollment goal.) Results to date, however, have already engendered the confidence of benefactors and industry professionals.

Steve McEveety

Steve McEveety

“They’re definitely fulfilling a need for the Church,” said Steve McEveety, a Hollywood producer with such movies to his credit as The Passion of the Christ and Braveheart. His production company, Mpower Pictures, has hosted JP Catholic interns.

“A powerful way to draw souls to Christ — or turn them away, unfortunately — is through the mass media,” he explained. JP Catholic “might be a baby now, but because it’s doing good work and continually getting better, I expect it to be around for a long time … working toward the long-term goal of bringing more light to the entertainment business.”

Cultural impact

Accordingly, JP Catholic has a practical approach geared toward teaching students the technical and artistic skills necessary to create media projects — and the entrepreneurial skills to market them. Additionally, whether undergraduates major in business or media (the two undergrad majors now offered, with another in technology being devised), they all take a liberal arts core of philosophy, theology, literature, art and music taught by faculty who affirm Catholic orthodoxy.

Before graduating, students work in teams to complete a Senior Business Plan, planning viable start-up companies that some graduates already have founded. A new MBA program will further hone skills in such areas as producing movies and budgeting, and a master’s program in biblical theology is intended to better prepare students to plant seeds of faith in a field that needs religious nourishment.

JP Catholic’s unique mission to impact culture for Christ through the intersection of business, media and technology is the primary motivating factor for students to attend, according to Matthew Salisbury, a member of the school’s inaugural class. The former seminarian graduated last year with extensive experience — including a web-based reality program (BUMP+) focusing on women facing crisis pregnancies. The program drew national media interest from The Washington Post and The Laura Ingraham Show.

Currently enrolled in the MBA program, Salisbury is also working on a screenplay about the Shroud of Turin that he and several colleagues — including JP Catholic students and faculty — will pitch to studios this fall.

“Our faith celebrates some of the most powerful stories ever told,” Salisbury said. “Building works of historical fiction around what we know of them in this medium seems to be a perfect fit. This is exactly why I was drawn to JP Catholic in the first place: to impact the culture, to witness to Christ through entertainment media.”

Matthew A. Rarey is Legatus Magazine’s editorial assistant.