Claretian Father Darrin Merlino has launched Catholic Media Missionaries (CMM), an apostolate to evangelize the culture through media, utilizing the creation of faith-friendly movies, television programs, videos, books and more. Its initial offerings include Hound of Heaven, a program in which Father interviews celebrities about their Catholic faith, and 30 Days Unplugged, his 2020 book detailing his powerful experience going on a 30-day silent Ignatian retreat without his iPhone or access to the internet and social media. With his partner and ministry co-founder, veteran Hollywood producer Joseph Cinemato, Fr. Merlino has aspirations to grow CMM and make a major impact on culture, and ultimately hopes to lead many souls to Christ.
Fr. Merlino has aspirations to grow CMM and make a major impact on culture, and ultimately hopes to lead many souls to Christ.
Fr. Merlino was born and raised in Southern California. His father, Leonard, was a CPA who suffered from poor health, including diabetes, and died at age 40, when Fr. Merlino was only eleven. He discerned a vocation to the priesthood and entered religious life, ultimately deciding on the Claretian community through the influence of a spiritual director. He was ordained a priest in 2000. He has worked as a high school teacher and youth minister, and has served in a variety of parishes. For five years, he was pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Prescott, Arizona before returning to Southern California to care for his ailing mother; he plans to live in a Claretian house in Los Angeles.
CWR: Did you grow up in a practicing Catholic family?
Fr. Darrin Merlino: I rarely went to Mass as a young boy. My biological father, Leonard, was interested in Christian Science. My brother and I would go to Sunday school meetings with them. When my father died, my mother decided we’d go back to the Catholic Church.
CWR: How did it affect your family when Leonard died?
Fr. Merlino: He had been sickly as far back as I can remember, and was in and out of the hospital. I don’t ever remember him being healthy. It was actually stressful when he was alive, and we had a feeling of peace after he died, as his suffering had ended.
CWR: Why did you opt for religious life?
Fr. Merlino: I was drawn to the priesthood, but I thought community life was a better fit for me than being a diocesan priest. I entered one religious community for 2½ years, and then I left and studied philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. My spiritual director, Claretian Father Robert Bishop, suggested I consider his community. I entered the Claretians in 1993.
CWR: Why did the Claretians appeal to you?
Fr. Merlino: The community’s founder, St. Anthony Mary Claret, was Eucharistic, Marian and creative in his evangelization. He always thought outside the box. If you want to evangelize the family, he said, do it through the children. He would start Catholic associations, and write books. If he were going to preach a mission at a parish, he’d drop off copies of the sermons he’d planned to preach. That way, long after he had gone, people could go back and read and remember what he said. I consider him to be one of the first media priests, using the limited media he had available to him at the time.
CWR: What is the order like now?
Fr. Merlino: We have about 4,000 members worldwide, and serve in 63 countries. We are involved in many areas: we work in parishes and schools, we engage in prison ministries, hospital ministries and ministries to gang members. We work with immigrants and the poor. We are an NGO at the UN. Some of us are active in the media; in fact, we have a film that will come out soon on the life of St. Anthony Mary Claret. It’s hard for me to think of anything we don’t do.
There are about 120 of us in the province that includes the United States and Canada. We’re not getting too many American vocations, but we do get vocations from other countries, who want to come and work in the U.S. and learn English.
CWR: You like to stress that your ordination by Claretian Bishop Placido Rodriguez in 2000 was the first in U.S. history to be broadcast live via the internet. Did you set that up yourself?
Fr. Merlino: Yes. I think it is something St. Anthony Mary Claret would do; no one was doing it in 2000. I was ordained at Mission San Gabriel in Southern California; we had to put in a phone line and set up a computer to do it. Two hundred fifty watched it throughout the world.
CWR: After doing parish work, you decided you wanted to work in media, and you discerned the founding of the Catholic Media Missionaries in 2018.
Fr. Merlino: Yes. I wanted to find out how God wanted me to do media ministry, so I went on a silent, 30-day Ignatian retreat with a well-trained Jesuit retreat master. It was then I had the idea of founding CMM. I am still benefitting from that retreat three years later. I have flashbacks to great meditations and consolations from that time; 10 meditations really stick out. It was a life-changing experience for me, and changed the way I see the Lord, myself, the Church, and my love for Christ. I write about this in depth in my 2020 book 30 Days Unplugged.
CWR: What was it like, being away from media for 30 days?
Fr. Merlino: Overall, I’d say it was great. I loved not knowing what is going on in the world.
CWR: What did you resolve to do?
Fr. Merlino: I felt the Lord wanted me to live in the Los Angeles area, where I could have access to a very talented group of writers, producers, artists and media people with whom I could collaborate on various media projects. These could be movies, miniseries, books or speakers that would evangelize the culture. I want to do good Bible-based stories, with lessons to be learned, promoting Christian values, perhaps subtly, perhaps more blatantly.
CWR: Whose work do you especially like in Hollywood?
Fr. Merlino: Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, who wrote and directed the 2019 film Unplanned, do excellent work. Family Theater Productions also does great work, and can trace its founding back to the great Fr. Patrick Peyton. Fr. Peyton was great at getting top Hollywood stars to help with evangelization. I’d love to get to the point where CMM can get the Mark Wahlberg-types to help as well.
CWR: Besides your book 30 Days Unplugged, CMM has created its first television show, Hound of Heaven.
Fr. Merlino: Yes. In fact, for our pilot episode, I interview Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman. Other interviews I’ve done include former Ducks hockey player Joe DiPenta, chef Bruno Serato, former Kansas City Royals baseball player Mike Sweeney, Cubs pitcher Trevor Williams and baseball star and manager Mike Scioscia. The show features a Catholic priest, me, interviewing notable Catholics about their faith. We talk about their struggles, their life experiences and their conversion or “reversion” story, if they have one. I ask them about how God works in their lives, and how they discern His will.
In addition, we asked each one of these men we interviewed to narrate a short, five-minute video on some aspect of the faith. Mike Scioscia, who was the long-time manager of the Angels, for example, narrated a video on angels for which Joseph wrote the script.
We’re currently trying to raise the funds we need for post-production of the initial six episodes of Hound of Heaven, and our goal is to release the series on a major streaming service.
CWR: What is Joseph Cinemato’s role in CMM?
Fr. Merlino: We’re partners, of course, which encompasses the whole ministry. But a major role of his is to serve as director, organizing crews and doing production and post-production for CMM projects. He’s a very experienced, award winning Hollywood television and film producer who I met in 2018 when I was looking for someone to film Hound of Heaven. I met him for a coffee, expecting to talk about an hour, and we wound up talking for four or five hours. I felt the Lord was calling us to work together. About eight months later, Joseph came to the same conclusion. It is scary how much we think alike, and like the same things. And, his birthday is October 24, the feast day of St. Anthony Mary Claret.
CWR: What type of Christian media do you find effect in evangelizing, and what type do you think is not?
Fr. Merlino: What is effective are stories about real people’s lives. What is not is when we have a film in which we have a problem, Jesus is the solution, and it’s all tied up in a neat little bow. You see a lot of this in evangelization efforts led by Evangelicals.
CWR: What are some of your other ideas you plan to develop?
Fr. Merlino: One is a film about a former Mafia hitman who undergoes a conversion experience and becomes a priest. I’ve written the outline for it. Another has a working title of “Seven Sacraments for Seven Sicilian Brothers” which teaches about the seven sacraments. Our goal is to create media that is supportive of Christian views, that is entertaining, and high quality.
CWR: How can people support you?
Fr. Merlino: We want their prayers, and we need their financial support. To make a gift, there’s a donation tab on the CMM website. Additionally, if people want to send their email, we’ll be putting out a regular newsletter on our upcoming events.
(Editor’s note: This article has been updated since being posted.)
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