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The Papal Ninja: An Interview with Sean Bryan

June 5, 2017


Sean Bryan is an all-around impressive guy. He graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Physics. While attending Berkeley, he competed as a gymnast for the Berkeley gymnastics team. After college he turned ninja and began competing in the hit television competition American Ninja Warrior. He also has an MA in Theology. Through his continuing performances on Ninja Warrior and the use of social media, Sean aptly uses these platforms to proclaim what it means to be fully alive. As he notes, he “works to animate the sleeping giant of Catholic laity.”

Today, Jared Zimmerer chats with Sean about his faith, his fitness, and the ways he hopes to connect his audience to the amazing life that Christ has to offer. 

Sean, you’ve got a vertitable superhero quality amount of talents, can you tell us about your fitness and faith background?

My brother, Kevin, and I were a bit adventurous as toddlers and children, so our parents had us try all sorts of sports. Kevin is a year older than me, but I always wanted to do things at the same time as he did, so many of my “firsts” were at quite a young age; for example, I began skateboarding and riding a bike without training wheels at age three. I also began gymnastics classes around that time, and I stuck with it throughout College, where I competed for UC Berkeley at the NCAA Championships. Throughout my childhood, I was into all sorts of sports: soccer, baseball, wrestling, skateboarding, pole-vault, and others. At that time, it wasn’t really about physical fitness, and it was more about competition and play; I saw fitness as a nice side benefit, but it wasn’t until more recently that I started to appreciate the understanding of fitness as something more than physical exercise. Fitness really is both a matter of the mind and body, and they cannot be separated from one another. Physical fitness affects the mind, and fitness of the mind, including spiritual wellness, affects the physical. Little did I see that fitness was really at the heart of what I was doing as a child.

When I went to college, a teammate of mine asked if I wanted to go with him to Mass. I was intrigued by the thought that a college aged guy would decide to go to mass on his own, away from his family. I started to attend mass that year, which was a threshold-moment on my way to intentional discipleship. I started to discern my vocation in my third year of college, and by the time I graduated (after 5 years), I decided to discern further with the Salesians of Don Bosco. Their mission to educate and evangelize the young and to accompany youth and young adults resonated with me. After four years, I ended up leaving the program of formation for religious life, but stayed with the Salesians in another capacity. The Salesians offer a graduate-level program of studies through the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology (DSPT), so I ended up completing a Masters of Arts degree in Theology with a Salesians Studies Concentration.

While there, I met many devoted people on fire with their faith: priests and brothers from various orders and societies, as well as lay people, both young and old. I also connected with various people in the diocese, and became a master of ceremonies for the Bishop of Oakland. Because of this, I came to a greater appreciation for the Liturgy, and began to study the history and development of Christian liturgy. As I neared the end of my program of studies, I decided on a thesis topic that would set me in the direction of what I do now as a layperson. The title of my thesis was “The Scriptural Notion of Liturgy as a Hermeneutic for Liturgical Participation: Toward the Animation of the Faithful in the Life & Mission of the Church.” Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP, who was the president of the school at that time, was on my thesis committee, and we had many a conversation about the animation of the laity.

As providence would have it, after I graduated, Fr. Michael was re-assigned to focus on the animation of the laity as his full-time focus, and he asked me to collaborate with him in this endeavor. We put together a three-year lay formation curriculum called the “Lay Mission Project,” which exists to animate the lay apostolate in the Church by preparing laypeople for the sake of their fundamental calling: to transform secular society through living the faith in all aspects of life – in the family, socially, in one’s occupation, etc. While developing this curriculum, I began to have an itch that I needed to scratch: American Ninja Warrior. It looked quite fun, but at the time, my shoulder was still giving me problems. It took about 8 months of rest and rehab to get to the point where I can comfortably do a pull up again. Meanwhile, I found Apex Movement NorCal, a parkour and ninja gym that was only 30 minutes away. What providence! I was accepted as a contestant my first year applying, which was quite unexpected: they have nearly 80,000 applications per year, and accept around 600 of them. Yet another affirmation of the providence of God.

It’s amazing how you’ve been able to use so many different platforms to reach out! In terms of the Papal Ninja, what do you hope to accomplish through your witness? 

One way of understanding Christian hope is “confident expectation.” As Christians, we confidently await the fulfillment that is already ours in Jesus. We believe in a providential Father who cares for us, his beloved children, in such a way that foresees our needs and provides for us. One way in which he provides is through his People. It is in this light that I can respond to the question of what I hope to accomplish. I hope to be in some way leaven for the world: to bring hope to others through my person – through my witness to the One who sent me.

Now this may seem a bit abstract, so I’ll try to be more concrete by explaining the moniker “Papal Ninja.” Papal means of or related to the pope. And a ninja is a skilled warrior who uses his gifts to help accomplish the mission of the one who sent him. So “papal ninja” is simply a fun way to speak of an apostle: one who is “sent” on mission into the world to participate in the mission on the One who does the sending.

We see in the beautiful Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, that the lay apostolate is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself, and that – through baptism and confirmation – all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself (see LG 33). I take courage in the fact that I share in the mission of Jesus himself, and that it is He who has called and sent me into the the “world.” The Constitution continues by stating that every layperson, in virtue of the very gifts bestowed upon him, is at the same time a witness and a living instrument of the mission of the Church itself according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal. I am again encouraged by the fact that it is Christ who bestowed on me my gifts that are to be used for this apostolate, and that I need not worry about my effectiveness so long as I intend to allow myself to be his instrument.

Back to the question then: what do I hope to accomplish through my witness as Papal Ninja. I have pretty high hopes in what I am to accomplish. If I did not expect good things to come from this endeavor, it would reflect a rather poor faith in our Lord, who sends his Spirit to accomplish his work through me, through my gifts and my completely free cooperation with his grace. Specifically, I am not certain as to the extent of my accomplishments as Papal Ninja, as an apostle, but I have been blessed to see some of the fruits of my labor. Some of these include things as simple as bringing someone joy and hope, to something as profound as a person coming into right relationship with our Lord. Both of these examples bear fruit, which I have been privileged to see born of my participation in Jesus’ mission, that I believe are more significant than what I have been blessed to see. It is truly the Spirit who continues to act in them in ways that are hidden from me, and in that I take courage as well.

How do you see the association of fitness and Catholic spirituality? 

One thing that I love about “Catholic Spirituality” is that it is so diverse. Spirituality is simply a pathway of holiness: the manner of approach in which someone operates in order to live a life of love in communion with our Lord. That being said, there are as many “Catholic spiritualties” as there are devoted Catholics. Anyone who takes their spiritual life seriously ought to find a point of integration with all aspects of their person. As human persons, we all are corporeal beings with a rational nature who find their identity in relationship with other persons. Thus, in order to live a life of integration we ought to continually evaluate these components of our lives and bring them before our Lord for judgment: our minds, our bodies, and our relationships.

In terms of the association of “fitness” with one’s “Catholic spirituality,” I see it as everything! Let me explain: at it’s etymological root, fitness is related to proper conditioning or preparation for action. This extends into all aspects of our human person, not just our bodies, but our minds and relationships as well. Again, spirituality is the manner in which we live in right relationship with out Lord. In order to do that in a way that is “Catholic,” we must condition our mental actions, our physical actions, and our relational actions in a way that is fitting for our Lord. For example, studying is an act of forming our brains and minds. What we study can affect how we understand our Lord, and enable us to understand things of a divine nature. It can enable us to more clearly articulate the Truth of God and receive his self revelation in a way that brings us into fuller union with him. It’s important to note that it is not only the study of divine things such as revelation and doctrine that help accomplish this mental fitness, but also the study of secular things such as physics, literature, business, etc. It is through these things especially that the laity find mental fitness, and prepare themselves for full participation in Christ’s mission to the world. Likewise, we must work on our physical fitness, fitness of our bodies, in order to prepare ourselves for proper participation in this mission. In this case too, the kind of physical fitness to which we are all called is proper to our particular situation.

Obviously, someone like myself who is called to witness through athleticism is called to physical fitness in a way that is different than that of a contemplative nun. Her call to fitness is perhaps taking care of her body in a way that keeps her healthy: some exercise such as a daily walk may be proper, but there is no need for twenty-hour per week workout regimen. Her physical fitness is ordered toward sustaining her life that allows fruit to be borne of contemplative prayer, whereas mine is ordered toward climbing, jumping, and swinging in a way that bears similar fruit. Lastly, Catholic fitness is also about conditioning our relational actions for what is proper to our shared mission in Christ. We must relate to one another in a way consistent with revelation. This is perhaps one of the most difficult ways in which we are to realize our Catholic fitness-goals. We are called by our Father to be his People, to be the Body of his Son, to relate to the world and to one another in the same way that Jesus related to us, and revealed to us the Father. Thus, we are called, like Jesus, to be forgiving, and to an extent that knows no limits. We are called, by Jesus, to “turn the other cheek,” and “go the extra mile,” and “pray for our enemies.” We are called to be like the Good Shepherd who “lays down his life for his sheep,” and we are called to union with our God. All of these things are an expression of the relational fitness component of “Catholic spirituality.” 

You’ve been able to achieve so much, what do you consider your greatest physical accomplishment? 

My greatest physical accomplishment is not marked by one particular event, but by the significance of competing for UC Berkeley on the Men’s gymnastics team. What it signifies is twenty-plus years of hard work, and dedication. It signifies a dedication to an artistic aesthetic that is a trademark of the team. And it signifies a commitment to teamwork and competition: a working-together and “struggling with” as the etymology suggests.

If you could tell someone one thing about living the faith and one thing about embracing fitness, what would they be? 

If I could tell someone one thing about living the faith and one thing about embracing fitness, I would say the same thing for both: Be courageous in the Lord! Be full of heart, knowing that the Lord can and will accomplish wonderful things through your devotion. If we have low expectations of ourselves, we are essentially doubting the power of God. We need not have particular expectations as to what our Lord will accomplish with us, but if we seek to see through his eyes, and remain faithful, we will marvel at his works!


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