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Letter To a Priest

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I was 23 years old on September 11, 1984, where along with 65,000 other young people, I attended Mass with John Paul II at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. You could hear a pin drop in that mammoth stadium as the Pope delivered his message.

"What claims to be a shortcut to happiness leads nowhere. It turns you away from that intelligent self-discipline which builds up the person. Have the courage not to take the easy path; have the courage to reverse directions if you have taken it. And know how to lend a helping hand to those who are haunted by despair."

The Holy Father was acknowledging the pressures popular culture imposed on young people as we were struggling to understand ourselves and the world around us. He appealed to our intrinsic idealism and called on us to put it into practice.

Today, I'm middle aged and the proud father of two teenagers. They are more sophisticated, discerning, and knowledgeable than my friends and I ever dream to be at that age. At the same time, unprecedented technological change and globalization have created even greater stress for this generation of young people. Their world is more complicated. Among other things, ambiguity and relativism is a consequence.

As I watched World Youth Day unfold in Rio last week I found myself riveted once again. The extraordinary wave of humanity on Copacabana Beach infused me with as much hope, optimism, and sense of possibility as it did 29 years before.

It wasn't only because of the 3-million people on the beach to attend Mass. It was also the hopeful and bold challenge from Pope Francis for young people to peacefully and respectfully stir things up for positive reform. Francis reminded his young audience that youth is no barrier to making vital contributions: "Be not afraid. Bringing the Gospel is bringing God's power to pluck up and break down evil and violence, to destroy and overthrow the barriers of selfishness, intolerance and hatred, so as to build a new world."

Theirs seems to be a search for a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. And while our digital society is a more complex one for the young to navigate, the tools available to them to learn and connect are far better, more powerful and sweeping. YouTube is just one example. In our digital world, telling stories and educating through film is now relatively inexpensive. The Internet now makes this accessible to untold millions.

Which brings me to Clayton Richard Long. Produced on a shoestring budget using students as actors, his newest short film, Letter to a Priest premiered at World Youth Day in Rio.

Long attended The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, worked at CBS studios in Los Angeles, and is a professional cameraman with 38 feature films to his credit. He is also a lifelong Catholic. This 41-year-old father of four has a congenital heart condition that has resulted in two heart attacks. He was forced to stop work as a professional cameraman.

His new calling is as a Catholic filmmaker, making the Church more accessible and demystifying it for the YouTube generation. He told me that he produced Letter to a Priest because he wanted to convey his understanding that the door to Christ's heart is always open. But the journey through it is not always easy.

"Everyone's journey is different, and for many it's not easy," Long told me. "Many people have bad experiences with the Church or are mistreated by Church members. Yet it is important to believe that God has a way of working through all of us."

That is what happens to Jenny, the main character in this short film. She initially refuses baptism. She stumbles upon Father Boniface, who asks her: "Why don't you see what's really here instead of what you want to see?"

Jenny opens her heart after being baptized and realizes she has to stop blaming others for her unhappiness, and let God work through her. And she realizes through the beauty of Benediction there is something else, something much deeper, something more to Christ's Church than just rules.

Like me, Clayton Long is part of the John Paul II generation. The late Pope so touched his life that in 2005 he and a couple of friends dropped what they were doing to fly to Rome to attend the Pope's funeral.

Long was back at work in Vancouver a few days later on the set of a major Hollywood production when he hears a booming voice directed at him say: "You! We're having lunch today. I want you to tell me everything you saw and experienced in Rome."

Harrison Ford, a lifelong learner, bought lunch. He wanted Clayton to share his insight and experience.

A Hollywood movie cameraman no more, Long now uses his gifts and tradecraft to lovingly educate people about the Catholic Church and spread the message of Jesus Christ. He barely earns a decent living doing it, but the positive impact he's having is huge. And the far more significant riches Clayton Richard Long derives from this service and example is, well, incalculable.