Among the contestants on season 10 of NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, there’s one who stands out.
In addition to being a physical trainer, Father Stephen Gadberry is also a Catholic priest. He hopes that his participation in the upcoming season of American Ninja Warrior will make the clergy appear more human and available.
Physical activity can be a “simple way to start a conversation with a spiritual leader, with a pastor, where [people] may be too nervous or hesitant to start [deeper] conversations right off the bat,” he told CNA.
Contestants on the hit NBC show compete in obstacles courses of increasing difficulty, testing their strength, agility, and skill for a shot at $1 million and the title of “American Ninja Warrior.” The final round takes place on the Las Vegas strip, where participants must complete — among other obstacles — a 75-foot rope climb in under 30 seconds.
Fr. Gadberry was challenged to apply for the show by Sean Bryan, a two-time previous contestant who drew attention for donning a shirt bearing the colors of the papal flag and words “Papal Ninja.”
The Arkansas priest applied for the show in December and two months later received an invitation to participate in the preliminary round in Dallas. Fr. Gadberry said he “would be a bad steward of God’s gifts if [he] didn’t humbly and gratefully accept this opportunity as a moment” to proclaim the Gospel.
“[Evangelizing] is the primary reason for me doing this. The Lord tells us to go out and make disciples of all nations,” he said. “As this platform has stumbled into my lap…I can further deliver the message of the Gospel that I am supposed to as a priest.”
The priest serves as pastor for two parishes in the Arkansas Delta: St. Cecilia Church in Newport and St. Mary Church in Batesville. Having been raised on a farm, Gadberry said he grew up loving hard physical labor. Later in the military, he said he was introduced to the fitness regimen CrossFit.
Gadberry works out for 1-2 hours per day, but said that his workouts do not interfere with his priestly ministry, because he rarely watches television and schedules his exercise regime around his duties as a priest.
While he knows other priests who relax by watching television or building in their workshop, Father Gadberry said exercise has become for him a form of recreation that opens doors for spiritual conversations in the community.
“It has given people opportunities … to start conversations on faith, where before they may have been too intimidated to approach a priest or go to church.”
People periodically ask for his advice on lifting techniques, and once dialogue has been established, conversations sometimes turn toward spiritual and personal questions — ranging from struggles with adultery to trouble with teenagers at home.
Additionally, he said, physical activities take him to what Pope Francis has called “the peripheries.” Besides attending to sick and visiting patients in hospital, the priest is heavily involved with prison ministry. There, he has been able to exercise with inmates, building trust and initiating vulnerable conversations.
“The whole time, we are talking about life problems and struggles,” he said. “The guards loved it because they saw it was changing the guys I was working out with.”
The priest cautioned against judging people who exercise as prideful, stressing that taking care of the body is a form of stewardship.
“Often times, people will stereotype a priest or religious or someone who is devout in their faith as being uber spiritual,” to the point of neglecting the body, he said, warning that this not Catholic teaching.
He added that dietary and exercise disciplines have a correlation to the spiritual life “because virtues are developed through physical discipline.”
Whether they face physical or spiritual obstacles, Fr. Gadberry advised individuals to take challenges one step at a time, rather than stressing too much about the end goal.
“The whole mood of this ninja warrior thing is all about conquering obstacles. You’re not going to get the last obstacle, to hit the buzzer, until you get over the obstacle that is right in front of you,” he said.
“You have enough to worry about, so it doesn’t make sense to stress about the obstacles way off in the future. Just deal with the one you got right in front of you.”
The 10th season of NBC’s American Ninja Warrior will premiere on May 30.