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Catholic Priest, Crossfitter, Ninja: An Interview with Fr. Stephen Gadberry

April 11, 2018


Fr. Stephen Gadberry is a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas. He is also an avid fitness practitioner, and just recently was able to compete in the hit show, American Ninja Warrior! Today, Jared Zimmerer and Fr. Stephen discuss faith, fitness, and evangelization, and the ways in which the intertwining of all three help proclaim Christ in the culture. 

To start, tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been a priest? When did you initially hear the call to serve God as a priest of the Church? 

I was born and raised in the Arkansas Delta and grew up on our family farm in Wynne, Arkansas where we grew rice and soybeans. I graduated high school in 2004 and went to a small community college for a year. In 2005, I enlisted in the US Air Force and was stationed in Texas, Germany, and Iraq. I am the second oldest of five children. My father and older sister passed away in a vehicle accident in 1994. The Catholic faith has always been very important to my family and I; we never missed Sunday Mass, a day of obligation, or parish event. That being said, we were certainly not “fanatics” or overly pious in an outward way. Although I grew up Catholic and was always active in the Church, it was not until my time in the military that the faith became a personal thing. I fell in love with the Church, sought to learn as much as I could and most importantly, came to know Christ in a personal and intimate way. A consequence of this personal embracing of the faith was an increased spiritual awareness, through which I heard the small, persistent invitation from Christ to follow him and to surrender my life to him as a priest.

I was ordained a Catholic priest on May 28, 2016, which culminated ten years of priestly formation and prayerful discernment. This process began in late autumn of 2005, shortly after I enlisted in the military. You could say that was when I first heard “the call.” With increased Mass attendance with active participation, and more personal personal prayer and silence, I began having “random thoughts” of priesthood. These would come about while I was at work, at the grocery store, and even at the gym. I became more and more aware of them and started paying more attention to them. Before long, these “random thoughts” seemed to manifest themselves as “ironic coincidences,” and before long, I realized that they were clear invitations from Christ to drop my nets and follow Him. These thoughts, coincidences, and invitations came in prayer, through various Scripture readings, little affirmations by way of “signs,” and even from comments from complete strangers about priesthood. It did not take long to recognize and embrace this invitation.  

You are also an avid Crossfitter. What piqued your interest in working out and how has Crossfit affected your role as a priest? 

I have always been an active individual with a lot of energy…My mother and school teachers can attest to that. Growing up on a farm, I learned to appreciate the value and dignity of work and physical labor. Active participation in organized sports as a child gave me an appreciation for teamwork, commitment, and competition. I was always physically small as a child. What I lacked in stature though, was made up for in my heart, dedication, and grit. I was small but scrappy. I love being underestimated. I love being the underdog. My military enlistment helped to sharpen and clarify my internal drive for excellence; I find great satisfaction in identifying weaknesses and working on them until they become strengths. This is hard and can be tiresome, but I always enjoy the challenge. Although I establish particular goals, I enjoy the process of working towards that goal as much as I enjoy reaching said goal. 

My love for physical work, sport, and exercise has been expressed in many ways: lifting weights, running 5k, 10k, and marathon races, participation in group exercise classes, and completing a number of triathlons. All of these were fun in their own way, but they all became monotonous. I first stumbled across Crossfit in 2007 while in the military but didn’t truly fall in love with it until June 2016. It had what I needed. It consists of a combination of weightlifting, gymnastics, calisthenics, cardio, and sport, but it is always changing. I may go for a 8-mile on Monday and do heavy deadlifts on Tuesday, while Wednesday may consist of a combination of gymnastics movements and barbell work. The only prescription is that it be constantly varying so as to better prepare me for the unknown and unknowable. I am a Crossfit Level 1 Trainer and enjoy using what I have learned to help others become more healthy. As a priest, I enjoy helping others to become physically and spiritually fit and find great joy in showing how comparable and interconnected the two are. There are countless spiritual parallels, but I won’t go into those here. 

In terms of evangelization, what would you say that living a fit lifestyle has helped you in? 

In specific terms of evangelization, living a fit lifestyle has enabled me to take Christ to a large group of often non-evangelized individuals. When people think about proclaiming the Gospel, they think about going to poor countries, colleges and universities, schools, nursing homes, and hospitals. Preaching in a gym or evangelizing on a sporting field does not cross people’s minds very often. The Lord gives all of us unique gifts and we are able to proclaim his Name most perfectly when we embrace and use those gifts. Christ has blessed me with a love for sport and exercise and has given me the talents necessary to do them well. Through prayerful discernment and talking with my spiritual director, I have learned that God wants me to use those gifts to his glory. 

Fitness has given me a platform for evangelization and ministry. For example, it is easy to be embarrassed with life’s struggles and it can be a challenge to bring those problems up right away when we talk with our priests. Individuals have approached me before and said, “Hey, I’m trying to get better at my bench press. What should I do…By the way, my marriage is falling apart.” Or, “I want to start exercising but don’t know where to start….By the way, my son is on drugs. How can I help him?” The fitness platform gives people a way to begin hard conversations. This is just one way of many. It doesn’t take much to consider the countless spiritual parallels that we can draw from sport and exercise: determination, hard work, focus, attention, patience, respect, teamwork, vigilance, communication, etc.

Not only has it given me a platform. It also helps to truly serve the people. Although priestly ministry is very spiritually and emotionally taxing, it does require a certain amount of stamina and physical ability. If I get winded by simply walking across the parking lot, then I will likely be exhausted when celebrating Mass. While not the main thing, being physically fit is a key component in ministry.

You recently received the call from “American Ninja Warrior” to compete! Will you change your training regimen, or how do you see Crossfit helping your ninja abilities?

One of the great things about Crossfit training is how well it prepares individuals for the unknown and unknowable. The movements and exercises are always changing and incorporate countless human movements. My Crossfit training will mostly stay the same, although I will incorporate a few more grip-specific workouts to help me on the various hanging and swinging obstacles. 

Participation on “American Ninja Warrior” is another example of using the gifts that God has given me to proclaim the Gospel and give a positive presentation of the Catholic priesthood. American Ninja Warrior is a sort of obstacle course on steroids. With the American Ninja Warrior platform, I want to show others that they can conquer the obstacles of their life. All of us have obstacles. When we encounter them, we can give up and stop or we can face them, conquer them, and move on. Again, the parallels are countless.

One of the biggest questions regarding fitness and faith is diet, especially considering the average style of food found at most parishes. What advice might you offer to parishes as well as your brother priests in regard to their eating habits? 

Diet is essential for good health and does more for our overall health than exercise does. The problem is that we often overthink it or become too discouraged. The simplest prescription I have is to cut the sugars and get off the couch. Don’t drink sugary drinks or sodas and try to break a sweat every day. You can do that at a gym, walking around the block, or even by cleaning your house or doing yard work. Finally, concerning discouragement, one must know that it is possible and it is never to late to become healthier. We are only as healthy as the last meal we ate. Consider your last meal and prepare for your next. It is impossible to lose 100 pounds overnight. It is impossible to lose 10 pounds overnight. It was also impossible to gain those 10 or 100 pounds overnight. Take it one day at a time and one pound at a time. If you weigh 225 pounds and want to get down to 200, do not get discouraged. You weighed 200 pounds at one point. Therefore, you know that you can weigh 200 pounds. Set your goal. Eat better. Move more. Take it one pound at a time.

Holiness is no different. One cannot become a sinner or a saint overnight. The sum total of our actions in light of God’s grace determine our holiness or lack thereof. We become saints by loving one person at a time and doing one small act of charity at a time. If you sin, repent and move on. If you have a bad meal, recognize it and move on. The most important thing is that your overall progress and movement be in a positive direction. Two steps forward and one step back still constitutes forward progress, and consequently holiness and health.

Lastly, what’s your favorite lift? 

My most favorite lift is probably the squat clean. I enjoy this lift because of its complexity and the overall work that it requires. In one movement, I am able to exercise almost every major joint and muscle group. My current personal record is 275 pounds, but I hope to break that record soon…That is only possible though by getting stronger, one pound at a time.