Whether he’s navigating a harrowing obstacle course in front of the camera or doing behind-the-scenes content editing for an evangelization website, Sean Bryan wants people to know that he is proud to be Catholic. Also known as the “Papal Ninja,” Bryan competed for a second time this season on NBC’s obstacle course competition show, America Ninja Warrior. “I hope (the audience) can see that the faith is not something extra-ordinary, but rather, something that is meant to be extraordinarily ordinary,” Bryan told CNA.
When he’s not training for daredevil feats of strength and agility, Bryan is working for Lay Mission Project, a website dedicated to equipping lay people with the tools to live their faith within the secular culture. Through coursework and small groups, the project’s mission is “to form laypeople to delve deeply into the mysteries of the faith, to come to know Jesus at an intimate level, and to be lit on fire to act in his place in the secular realm.”
Bryan first garnered national attention in the eighth season of American Ninja Warrior, when he wore a bright yellow shirt with the words “Papal Ninja” written across the front. This year, he sported a papal flag emblem, and was one of three finalists, becoming the first contestant to defeat an obstacle known as “Wingnut Alley.” No champion took home the $1 million prize this year, but Bryan said that he is grateful for his own personal improvement from last season, and for the ability to glorify God through his talents.
“These abilities truly are God-given, for his glory, and are part of his plan for me in some way — no matter what the performance-specific result may be.” Bryan also thanked God that he was able to be a witness to his Catholic faith on the show and that the producers were willing to portray it.
Part of the Papal Ninja’s goal in competing on the show is to portray the Church in a positive light, and to offer courage to young people as they encounter secular society. “The negative publicity the Church has received in the past two decades has been overwhelming, as we all have experienced,” he said. “I knew from the beginning of my Ninja Warrior endeavors that this would — in some way — not only shine a good light on the Church, but also help the youth open their hearts to our Lord in spite of the threat of potential persecution.”
While Bryan hopes to use his role on American Ninja Warrior as an evangelization opportunity, he is also involved another apostolate — the Lay Mission Project. Bryan serves as Animating Director for the group, a position that includes website development, networking, program facilitation and other tasks. The goal, he said, is to form Catholics at the local parish level to better know and share their faith.
“Participants are brought to a profound awareness of their role as apostles to the world and are given the tools they need to respond to their calling and live out their vocations,” Bryan said. Most of the course material is provided online, and participants are guided in spiritual exercises which coincide with each lesson.
“In addition to the coursework, participants also meet regularly in small discipleship groups, where they discuss what they’ve learned, share how have integrated the material, and talk through the struggles they’ve encountered along the way,” said Bryan, noting the project is currently being tested in the Diocese of Sacramento.
Although the project is still in initial development, Bryan said he is encouraged by how the program has already equipped parishioners with tools to be a witness of Christ at home, work, and in their communities. Bryan is eager to expand the project, but he emphasized the importance of in-person collaboration to form disciples within a parish at a local level.
“We find it important to stick with the diocesan cohort approach, so that the formation lives in the diocese, revitalizes the local Church, and helps develop a network of disciples in a given geographic area, so that the Church is present and operative in ways in which it can be only through the laity.”