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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.