Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

The scriptural instruction is, “Knock and it will be opened to you” (Lk 11:9).  Students at Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School, Virginia Beach, adapted it to the technological age: Tweet and you may receive a response.

Each year, Bishop Sullivan students produce videos on various aspects of the Catholic faith for their senior theology class. Last year’s videos so impressed theology teacher John Goerke that he thought this year’s students deserved the chance to compete for an award.

Goerke hoped to name the award after the “bishop of the internet,” Bishop Robert E. Barron, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who is well-known for his “Word on Fire” programs and for his 10-part documentary, “Catholicism.”

But first the class needed a way to ask the bishop for permission to name the award in his honor.

If he did give his consent, the class would still need someone to judge the videos. And who better to declare the winner of the first Bishop Barron Video Award than Bishop Barron himself?

There must be a way to ask that, too.

“Our original thought was to write him a letter,” Goerke said, “but then, how can you ask someone who makes videos to look at a sad, trifold letter lost with all of the fan mail?”

In the end, members of the class of 2018 settled on two decidedly 21st century methods of communication to send their message to Bishop Barron: a video letter and a Twitter campaign.

Dear Bishop Barron, 

Goerke and three student directors — Jonathan Gandara, Carlos Cabral and Sam Musselman — along with about 40 other members of the senior class put 300 hours of work into creating a video letter addressed to Bishop Barron.

The video begins with the plea: “The following is a video letter for Bishop Robert Barron. If you are Bishop Robert Barron, please continue watching to the end of the video, as we have a request for you. If you are not Bishop Robert Barron, please continue watching to the end of the video, as we have a request for you. Also.”

Then, the students introduce themselves by explaining a bit about what they have been reading in theology class throughout the year: works by G.K. Chesterton, Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman and Pope St. John Paul II.

Goerke explained, “We wanted to let the bishop know what we had been studying, hoping that he’d take us seriously.”

The letter ends with a request that all those who see the video retweet it, in the hope of catching the bishop’s attention. Once the letter was completed, it was posted to the high school’s Twitter page.

“My mom made a Twitter account just so she could retweet it,” said Gandara.

“So did mine,” Mary O’Flaherty chimed in. “Now my mom has a Twitter account, but I don’t.”

In less than 24 hours, Bishop Barron tweeted: “This morning I woke up to dozens of tweets encouraging me to watch this video. The students are impressive — smart, articulate, joyful — and I’m deeply encouraged by their work. God bless @JohnTGoerke and his @BpSullivanCHS students!  (Of course I accepted.)”

“I could hear cheering all down the hall,” student Peyton Berning said.

This is Bishop Robert E. Barron’s response to students at Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School after they invited him to watch and judge the videos senior theology students produced.


The perfect Catholic medium 

Goerke explained that he chose the assignment because he felt video is the perfect medium through which the students could explore and express aspects of the Catholic faith.

“The Incarnation is central to Catholicism. God comes to us in human flesh; so much of the Catholic faith can only be taught and understood through stone and marble, smoke, oil and water,” he said. “These things are simpler to describe in video than through prose.”

He continued, “We didn’t make videos because videos are inherently cool, but because they can take us into the heart of Catholicism — the visual medium can better convey what makes Catholicism distinct.”

Through video, the students were free to capture the sights and sounds of their topics, to present interviews with Catholics from different walks of life, and to take the viewer to places he or she may not have been — be it a naval base or a cathedral — in order to better illustrate the richness of their subjects and of Catholic life.

For the project, students divided into groups of three or four, and each group chose a different topic to present.

O’Flaherty explained that her group made a video on Catholic chaplains in the military.

“I pitched the idea to the group because I’m going to the Naval Academy next year, and that’s going to be the means through which I experience my faith,” she said.

Gandara, who plays piano, proposed to his group that they explore the role of organ music in the Church.

Berning said, “Our group had lots of ideas we were bouncing around. One girl really liked fashion, and from that we came up with the idea of making a video on the way nuns’ habits have changed over the years, and how they vary from order to order.”

The class produced 34 videos. To save the bishop time, Goerke reviewed all of them and chose five to be sent to Bishop Barron for his consideration.

Life lessons from behind the lens

­­From researching their topics to completing their first scripts, from shooting rough cuts to completing their final edit, the students learned many lessons about filmmaking: How to hold a camera steady, how to follow the composition rule of thirds, and how to get the crispest, clearest audio clips.

The year-long projects presented the students with the opportunity to learn other life lessons as well, e.g., how to trust your brother to help you, and how to trust him not to help you too much.

“I edited my video on my brother’s computer when he came home from college in December,” Gandara said. “Yes, you know where this is going.”

Gandara’s brother returned to college, taking the computer with him. Gandara had to call his brother and ask him to follow his editing instructions over the phone.

“He’s a film minor, so he knew what he was doing. But then he wanted to do things his way. I had to keep saying, ‘But this is my video.’”

During the course of the year, through all the projects’ ups and downs, the students learned the pinnacle of all life lessons: resiliency.

O’Flaherty explained that her group had stored much of their footage on an old, cracked iPhone — one that certainly wouldn’t attract anyone’s attention. Until, that is, it was accidentally wiped clean, in one swoop.

O’Flaherty’s group bounced back, however, and her group’s video was one of the five chosen to be reviewed by the bishop.

“It was all a very intensive process — a lot of trial and error,” she said. “But we found a way to make it work.”

The five videos submitted to Bishop Barron are:

“Catholic Chaplains in the Military,” by O’Flaherty, Julia Tracy and Claire Driscoll;  “The Bleeding Host of Argentina,” by Grayson Beemus, Casey Cummings, Izzy Talicurran and Maggie Moran; “Fast and Feast,” by Cecelia Zhao, Nathaniel Gardner and Athena Zhang;  “A Catholic’s Guide to Christmas,” by Brittany Irizarry, Madeleine Penree and Ursula Turner; and “Nuns’ Habits and the Significance of Religious Clothing” by Berning, Mikela Dettinger, Emerie Edwards and Reilly Schindler.

The winner of the Bishop Barron Video Award will be announced at the Baccalaureate Mass, Sunday, June 3.

“Bishop Barron is going to email the winner to me directly, so there can’t be any confusion,” Goerke said with a laugh. “There won’t be any mix-ups like what happened at the Oscars (in 2017).”