In what has become a staple of summer television, scores of athletic folks run an obstacle course that looks like a cross between a playground on steroids and the inner workings of a pinball machine.
When he's not practicing climbing the warped wall famed in "American Ninja" competition, Sean Bryan is one of the masters of ceremonies for the bishop of Oakland.
He's also working with Father Michael Sweeney, OP, and the Western Dominicans on a program for the Diocese of Sacramento to develop lay leadership in the church.
Bryan, 31, who had been discerning the priesthood with the Salesians, heard a call to something else.
"In the Ninja community, there's a running joke: Everybody's biting their nails, waiting to get the call. It's from an 818 number, down in Los Angeles area," Bryan said.
"I did get the call."
His journey from seminarian to Ninja was eventful.
"I started watching the show three or four year ago," he said.
"I graduated from Cal in 2008," Bryan said. He majored in physics and was a member of the Cal gymnastics team, which finished fifth in the NCAA championships. "I had shoulder surgery the next year."
It was his third surgery on his shoulder. "I stopped working out much. Every once in a while I'd come into the gym and mess around," he said. "I never thought I'd be able to get fully back into it."
So other athletic pursuits, including biking, took center stage.
"When I was in formation with the Salesians, we played a lot of soccer with kids, volleyball and basketball," he said. He served as the computer teacher for fourth- through eighth-graders at a Southern California school, and as a youth minister in a parish and at a high school.
After he left the Salesians, "I was near my alma mater," he said. "I helped out with the gymnastics program at Cal."
His own return to the level of gymnastics he had reached in college proved too strenuous on his shoulder.
"I kept getting encouraged to look into this Ninja stuff," he said. "My mom's friend from the East Coast sent me a message on Facebook: You've really got to look into this."
The road to being a contestant on "American Ninja Warrior," it turned out, was a "long, rigorous process," Bryan said.
"I used that time as a reflection period in my life," he said. "They ask some detailed questions about your background. They want to know your story. That's what people really connect with."
Bryan also connected with Apex Movement in Concord, which he called "a pretty awesome Ninja gym."
"They have a lot of veterans on the show," he said. "There's so much wisdom, you have to pinch yourself.'
The application was literally 10 pages of writing. The video was another matter. Although he is comfortable behind the camera, Bryan said, "I don't like being in front of the camera. It's hard for me. I tried to figure out a creative way of telling my story."
A friend who is a director of photography interviewed people asking questions about Bryan, then laced those with images of Bryan doing acrobatics.
At the same time, Bryan was undertaking another challenging role, as animating director of the Lay Mission Project.
At the request of Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Bryan is working with Rev. Michael Sweeney, OP, on formation curriculum for lay people supported by the Institute for Salesian Studies, the St. Catherine of Siena Institute and Our Sunday Visitor.
"It's a hybrid, mostly online, quite rigorous," Bryan said, focused on animating the secular component of the church's mission, which is primarily the task of laity, as Lumen Gentium points out."
The concept of the Papal Ninja goes along with that.
"With all that happening at the same time — which is how God providentially works — I'm trying to be a Catholic ninja, and teaching people to be a Catholic ninja," he said.
Take out the conquering and violence aspects, and a ninja, at heart, Bryan said, "is a skilled person who helps to accomplish the mission of the one who sends them."
"For myself, I'm being sent by Christ, being sent by the church after every Mass, to go out and infiltrate the secular society in a way that helps order it to God," he said.
Adopting the yellow and white papal colors did not guarantee automatic recognition in the world, however.
He was asked at one point, "Papal? You mean PayPal?"
As Bryan moved through the obstacle course in the show's June 1 premiere, commentators were not at a loss for superlatives: "He's looking divine," at one point, and "Call the Vatican; the Papal Ninja is representing."
When a contestant on "American Ninja Warrior" reaches the end of the course, he or she hits a button and a puff of white smoke is released in the air.
A little inside joke for the Papal Ninja, who followed that with a back flip.
Since his first appearance on the television show, he and the friends who were featured in the segment have been reconnecting with friends.
Bryan's story has also resonated with strangers on social media. "I've been getting some feedback on how my story has inspired them," he said. "That's definitely motivating me."
The Papal Ninja hasn't heard from Pope Francis. "I don't expect it, either," he said. "It would certainly be energizing and motivating. Although it would be a once-in-a-lifetime moment I would always remember, it's nothing compared to the grace we receive in the sacraments."
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