Fr Stephen Gadberry has always kept in good shape. Being a priest in the diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas hasn’t stopped him. Recently, he competed in American Ninja Warrior with his performance airing tomorrow (May 30) evening at 8 (7 central). If you haven’t seen it, American Ninja Warrior is an extreme obstacle course that requires a combination of strength, speed, and flexibility. (This video of the Papal Ninja last year explains it better than any words I can give.) I got a chance to talk to Fr Stephen about what it was like being on American Ninja Warrior and the spirituality of priestly fitness.
Me: How did you get on American Ninja Warrior and what was your routine to prepare for the competition?
Fr Stephen: I was invited to participate in the American Ninja Warrior competition after submitting an application which consisted of a 10 page series of questions and a video application. The questions ranged from questions about my upbringing, my daily duties, how being a “ninja” applies to my daily life and what I hope to achieve through participating in the American Ninja Warrior competition. The video was not only to demonstrate physical abilities but more so, to show more of my personality and to share more of my story.
Sean Bryan, aka “The Papal Ninja,” is a ninja hero who uses the ANW (American Ninja Warrior) platform to proclaim the Gospel. He suggested that I apply. He said he talked about it with Bishop Robert Barron and Fr. Steve Grunow from Word on Fire, and they suggested I apply. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying to “preach the Gospel always and use words when necessary.” Well, you could also derive from that the call to “preach the Gospel always and use social media and modern communication when necessary.”
I try to stay active and fit. Daily exercise is part of my routine, along with prayer, Mass, and ministry. I follow the CrossFit exercise regimen and continued to follow that methodology leading up to the competition. That being said, I programmed more grip-taxing workouts and more gymnastics movements. Sean Bryan also helped me in preparing for ninja specific moves.
When and where did you compete? And what was the experience like doing athletic challenges in front of a crowd?
Ironically enough, I competed Palm Sunday evening, March 25th-26th. As a priest, I am always in front of people and live as a public person. I was not too stressed to compete in front of a crowd. Rather, the stress came from staying up all night, as the filming began at 10:30 p.m. and continued until about 7:00 a.m. Also, I did not want to let all of my family and friends down who made the long trip to support me.
How do you match the spirituality of being a priest with being a Ninja Warrior? How do your exercise and prayer affect each other?
Although the comparison seems a bit extreme at first, the parallels abound. Both require discipline, virtue, patience and a dream for something bigger than one’s own self. Just as holiness requires a daily commitment, so does one’s fitness and health. When we fall into sin, we rely on God’s grace, rise and learn from our mistakes. When I fail at an obstacle, I rise, learn from my mistake and keep moving forward. On the ninja course, I must tackle one obstacle at a time. If I am too concerned and too focused on a future obstacle, I will surely fail on the one I am currently trying to conquer.
The same is true spiritually. We ALL have obstacles… struggles, concerns, sins, anxieties, doubts, whatever you want to call them… and we have a lot of them. We must face them one at a time. If we concern ourselves too much with a “potential future obstacle,” we will surely trip on the one we are currently facing. We must face each challenge as it arises before moving to the next. If we fall, oh well. No big deal. Get up and try again. As we pray in the Stations of the Cross, Christ fell three times on the way to his crucifixion. Who are we to give up if we fall once or twice or twenty times? Have faith! Verso l’alto, or “to the top,” as Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati said.
What does your parish think of being so athletic you are on a national TV athletic competition?
Bishop Anthony Taylor, bishop of Little Rock, has been very supportive of me, as have been my parishioners, past and present. Christ took on flesh in the Incarnation. To degrade the body is the same heresy of the Manichaeans and is a rejection of the Incarnation. The flesh is NOT evil. Sin is evil. The beatitudes are manifest in the flesh, in our interactions with one another. Baring any medical anomaly, the healthier we are, the longer we live. The longer we live, the longer we can proclaim the Gospel.
Practically speaking, having a regular exercise routine helps me to stay sane and balanced, mentally and emotionally. Priestly ministry is quite taxing in a unique way that only a priest can know. Having that physical outlet is essential for maintaining a spiritual-emotional-psychological-physical equilibrium. Ministry is not neglected because I exercise. Rather, it is enhanced. That is a time for me to relax and recharge.
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Do you have any plans for the future?
I pray I can do the Lord’s will in the future, just as much as I hope to do so in the present! Please pray for me in that regard. That being said, I will continue to use that gift of my physical fitness and hard work ethic to proclaim the Gospel. Some of my brother priests have immense intellectual gifts. They proclaim the Gospel in teaching. Some of my brothers have an amazing gift for preaching. They proclaim the Gospel in preaching. I have a gift of being able to work hard. I learned this growing up on our family farm and had it further instilled in me in the military. I glorify the Lord and proclaim the Gospel through my hard work.
What would you recommend to a Catholic who wants to get fit? Whether it’s just getting off the couch or challenging you on American Ninja Warrior?
I would encourage them to take it one day at a time and to begin with their weaknesses. I would also encourage them to set realistic goals. Every year in seminary, we had to prayerfully make out our goals and objectives for the year. The goals were what we sought and the objectives were the way we were going to get there.
For example, a goal for the reader of this article may be to get in better shape or to lose 20 pounds or two get stronger. Great. That’s a good goal, but what will you do to achieve it? Set realistic, measurable points for you to achieve. For example: “I will walk for 15 minutes at least 4 days a week.” Also, “I will eliminate all sodas from my diet,” or “I will drink one soda daily instead of three.” And, “I will go to bed by 10:30 p.m. every night and will not use social media after 9:30 p.m.”
Also, it is very important to surround yourself with people you want to be like. It is said that you are the total of the 5 people who you are closest to. Who do you mimic? Who do you try to be like? Find good people and try to be like them. Talk to them. Learn their secrets. Don’t be afraid of asking questions. Don’t be afraid of failure.
Given what you have acheived, what would you say to encourage others?
We all have obstacles and challenges in life. You are not a bad person because you have challenges and you are not the only person who struggles. That is the human endeavor because of sin. Luckily, we have Christ and his Church along with the angels and saints to give us grace and examples of how to keep moving forward. You have an obstacle in front of you. Don’t hold back. Go for it! Conquer it!