Melinda Collins and George Simon were just two of the tens of thousands of young Americans at World Youth Day in Madrid. Like youth from all over the world, they’ll surely have many precious memories of the youth event with Pope Benedict XVI.

For Collins and Simon, the road to World Youth Day was an unexpected one.

They are budding filmmakers and students at John Paul the Great University in San Diego, a new institution dedicated to training young Catholics in new media. Their video, Get Clean, swept past all other entries to win the grand prize in a national contest for a YouTube video on confession. It garnered them large monetary prizes, kept one of them in school, and prompted a working trip to Spain.

The contest was a collaborative effort of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Archdiocese of New York and Diocese of Rockville Centre to promote Reconciliation Monday last April 18, when every parish in New York would open for confession from 3 to 9pm.

“The way we wanted to draw attention to that was to engage young people in the media they are most comfortable with, like YouTube,” explained Msgr. Kieran Harrington, vicar of communications for the Brooklyn Diocese.

Rules called for one-minute, high-quality videos by students. All videos would post on the YouTube contest site. Whichever garnered the most views and “like” votes would be the grand-prize winner. First prize was a $25,000 scholarship to the student filmmaker and a matching amount to his school.

As a sophomore video-journalism major, Collins had been thinking of a class project in which she would represent what Christ does for our souls when we have sins and fears.

“George [Simon] is a great cinematographer and was going to help me out,” she said.

But nothing materialized.

Then came an email about the contest. “I was about to delete it,” she said, “then realized I have this idea that might work.”

On break in Nebraska, she called Simon, who told her it was perfect to demonstrate the power of the sacrament of confession. Still, with many school commitments, she felt she had no time to make the video.

Simon, who planned to leave the university before his senior year because of financial difficulties, kept urging her to participate. He wanted to see his friend win the single big scholarship.

There was one week left to submit entries.

Collins agreed, saying, “We’ll put it in God’s hands.” That evening she received an email announcing that her three-hour class the next morning was cancelled. It was, recalled Simon, a “providential” chance to film Get Clean.

Roll ’Em — Action

Both students brainstormed that evening about how to visually communicate the mind and heart of the character yet not lose the profound impact and message of confession.

In that three-hour window the next day, they managed over 98 separate shots, including scenes at a nearby church confessional.

“We had to really condense the whole process of story development, pre-production and production of the film into a very small window of time,” explained Simon, “and, from there, go through the post-production process to polish it to make it as good as possible.”

In one minute, they depict a young woman, played by Collins herself, becoming increasingly at odds with herself as her sins appear written on her face one by one. Trying to wash them off at home or cover them only leads to more distress and vanity, until she realizes the only way to really clean herself is through confession. She hurries to a church, blesses herself with holy water and enters the confessional.

By the time Collins submitted the video, several of the 190-plus entries already chalked up thousands of views.

“Neither of us expected to get anything out of it,” Collins said. “We were just super passionate about doing the project.”

Then came the surprise. Get Clean came from nowhere to pass previous leading videos and end the voting period with more than 25,000 views and 700 “likes.” Collins got the scholarship, and the university got the matching prize. A Golden Age Hollywood finish? Not quite.

Derry Connolly, president of John Paul the Great, called Collins and Simon into his office to congratulate them. Then Simon remembers hearing him say, “I’d like to give you the full $25,000 grant to make sure you can come back and finish school.”

“I was completely flabbergasted,” said Simon, calling the offer “a huge blessing.”

Simon, who returns this fall as a communications major with a focus on new media, actually started media studies at another college but was dissatisfied with the program. His mother, Sarah Simon, suggested John Paul the Great. His father, Edward Simon III, a deacon in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Mich., wanted to do everything possible to help his son finish college.

“He was happy I found this Catholic university that helped me grow in my faith so much and develop these skills to help me make the Get Clean video,” the budding filmmaker said. “But “I was not willing to put that huge financial strain on Dad and our family.” There are eight Simon children.

“But looking back, I see the providential hand of God and the Holy Spirit guiding the whole thing.”

Collins couldn’t agree more. Connolly’s gesture “showed me the paternal nature of God, how he took care of George. He had a plan for George. Through the exciting adventure we were on, he brought George back to school. Everything about this experience has been providential.”

Keep the Camera Rolling

God’s providence didn’t stop with this scene or the scholarship offer. Msgr. Harrington extended an offer of his own to both filmmakers. He invited them to accompany his group of pilgrims to World Youth Day to film events and send footage back daily for broadcast on Currents, Brooklyn’s Catholic NET-NY TV’s daily news show.

“It was the biggest blessing I could imagine,” said Collins. “I had actually wanted to go to World Youth Day so much but didn’t have the money. And to be working over there is extraordinary also.”

“To share that experience with other Catholics on fire with their faith — this was just gifted to us by the Holy Spirit,” added Simon.

They left Aug. 5 because Msgr. Harrington wanted them to hike the last 70 miles of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela with him and 12 pilgrims, film the journey, then edit it for a five-part online Lenten retreat for 2012.

Cut to New York

Others benefited, too, thanks to Get Clean and i-Confess entries. Noted Msgr. Harrington: “The priests all seemed very happy about the turnout and the publicity surrounding Reconciliation Monday.” Many parishes reported many more people coming to confession this year.

For Connolly, the benefits went behind a grand prize for the students. “The fact they won a competition that had something to do with driving people to confession was icing on the cake,” he explained. “It was hugely successful in doing that. So, for students to win something that had such an impact on people going to the sacrament was huge.”

He noted both Simon and Collins are very talented, on fire for the Lord, and want to make a difference.

Simon pointed back to his parents, who gave him and his brother Joseph a video camera when they were 7 and 8 years old.

“That started our journey as filmmakers,” he said. “Their guiding and shepherding me throughout my life put me in the perfect place to be shepherded by God to have all these amazing profound graces come into my life.” Joseph recently graduated from John Paul the Great.

“I really see God’s wisdom prevailing over my dissatisfaction when I had to leave school. It’s been a powerful experience for me: learning to put my trust in God and to know, no matter what, following God’s will will never lead you astray,” George said. “My brother and I are now starting to fulfill the mission John Paul Catholic has charged us with — impacting and changing culture for Christ. I see the Holy Spirit coordinating it all.”

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.