Father Stephen Gadberry, pastor of St. Mary Church in Batesville and St. Cecilia Church in Newport, Arkansas, will appear as a contestant on the new season of the popular NBC reality show “American Ninja Warrior,” to compete for the $1 million grand prize when it kicks off on Wednesday night and he’s also hoping to share his faith while he’s at it.
Gadberry, 32, in addition to being a priest, is a physical trainer who previously served in the U.S. Air Force.
He told the Catholic News Agency that he was inspired to apply to compete on the show by Sean Bryan, another proud Catholic contestant who competed on the show twice and was known for wearing a shirt reflecting the colors of the papal flag and words “Papal Ninja.”
And while the competition comes with the $1 million grand prize, Gadberry told the publication that his main motivation to compete is to evangelize.
“[Evangelizing] is the primary reason for me doing this. The Lord tells us to go out and make disciples of all nations,” he said. “As this platform has stumbled into my lap … I can further deliver the message of the Gospel that I am supposed to as a priest.”
In an interview with Word on Fire last month, he said he was ordained as a Catholic priest two years ago on May 28, 2016. The ordination, he said, was a culmination of 10 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 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,” he said.
Gadberry, who lost his father and older sister in a motor vehicle accident in 1994, told Catholic News Service his parishioners are happy that he is competing on the show because he’s “sharing the joy of being Catholic.”
“What they’re excited about is that the church that they’re a part of is doing things that people usually wouldn’t imagine. So their church is going to the peripheries is what Pope Francis says,” he told CNS.
“They’re telling all these other people of different faiths and denominations that ‘my church is not one that is stuck in a box. My church is one that can go and do crazy stuff. Come check it out,'” he said.
He has become known among confirmation students at St. Mary Church as “Father Flex” and he likes it because it goes well with the “jesusismyhomie” hashtag he regularly uses on Instagram.
“‘Father Flex’ is not just muscles. … With all this stuff I want to invite people to take it to the next level, go to the spiritual level,” he said.
“We can flex our spiritual muscle too whenever you really got to lift some heavy spiritual weights and love somebody that you don’t want to love or forgive somebody you don’t want to forgive,” he explained.
In addition to spreading the Gospel, Gadberry noted that he’s hoping his appearance on the show will help break the stereotypical image people have of priests.
“So many of my brother priests have amazing talents,” from music to athleticism, “so anyone reading this, their pastor has an amazing talent or two or three. Ask them about it, because it reveals the human side of us,” he told CNS.
“We are really the image of Christ in the church and it’s easy to think of God as this being who is way out there,” he added, “but Jesus came to be like one of us, so hopefully the priest can be somebody at the altar who people look up to, but at the same time be one of the people, and that’s what it means to be Christ as a priest.”