This year’s season of American Ninja Warrior has caught the eye of many for its intriguing array of competitors. Earlier this month Supergirl stuntwoman Jessie Graff conquered the course wearing a Wonder Woman costume and later an Orthodox rabbinical student wearing his yarmulke and tzizit made his attempt to become the next ninja.
However, one competitor this season has been making waves not only for his impressive display of human strength, but also for his outspoken Catholic faith. Sean Bryan calls himself the “Papal Ninja,” and was able to finish the course in two minutes and thirty seconds, qualifying for the next round.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it is described as an “action-packed series [that] follows competitors as they tackle a series of challenging obstacle courses in both city qualifying and city finals rounds across the country. Those that successfully complete the finals course in their designated region move on to the national finals round in Las Vegas, where they face a stunning four-stage course modeled after the famed Mt. Midoriyama course in Japan. The winner takes home a grand prize of $1 million.”
During the competition, Bryan wore a bright yellow t-shirt with a logo that says “Papal Ninja.” Yet his t-shirt is not some façade, but an exterior sign of a much deeper faith.
In the interview that aired during the show, it was revealed that “Bryan discerned the priesthood with the Salesians of Don Bosco in California. Though Bryan discerned out, the episode showed how he stayed with the Salesians to finish his Masters in Theology with a Salesian Studies Concentration at the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology.”
Bryan continues to live with the Salesians, helping them on special projects in addition to being the animating director and curriculum team member for the Lay Mission Project. The project is a “collaborative endeavor of the Western Dominican Province, Diocese of Sacramento, Catherine of Siena Institute, Institute of Salesian Studies, and Our Sunday Visitor, which offers an effective and comprehensive formation to lay Catholics for the sake of animating the mission of the Church to secular society.”
In an interview with CNA, Bryan said, “The producers really took a liking to my story and they wanted to focus on the Catholic aspect. I totally went along with it because I thought it would be a great idea, because that’s really who I am at heart.”
While being raised Catholic, Bryan wasn’t enthusiastic about his faith until college, when a local priest helped guided him and encouraged him to attend a retreat. He was reluctant at first but decided to start going to Mass more often. After becoming more active in his faith, Bryan eventually attended a retreat and discerned that God might be calling him to the priesthood. Even though he found God was calling him elsewhere, Bryan remained committed to his faith and sought to evangelize others as a lay person.
When asked about the name “Papal Ninja,” Bryan said he was inspired by “paragraph 33 of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [which in Bryan’s interpretation says] We’re all called to be papal ninjas to help accomplish the secular mission of the Church as a lay person.”
Bryan trains for the competition in a garage at the Salesian house, which he converted into a gym designed to help him prepare for the contest. While he is excited about the chance to further compete on the show, he doesn’t expect to win the million dollars. He just wants to have fun and, in the process, share his Catholic faith with the world.
You can follow the remainder of this season’s American Ninja Warrior and watch the “Papal Ninja,” Mondays at 8/7c on NBC.