Acrobatic Apostles: From St. John Bosco to the Papal Ninja

When St. John Bosco was a boy, he spent every possible minute watching acrobats and jugglers at country markets and fairs. These performers captivated their audiences in a time when entertainment was a rare treat, and young John wanted to learn their tricks.

He wanted to become a master entertainer — and his motives ran deeper than filling his pockets with change. He wanted to attract an audience so that, having won their attention, he could preach to them about the thing that filled his heart the most.

“To gather the children together and teach them catechism appealed to me even at the age of five,” he said, as told in Peter Lappin’s book Stories of Don Bosco. “That was my greatest wish. That seemed to be the only thing I had to do in life.”

Bosco practiced until he was able to perform an impressive show of handsprings, somersaults, walking on his hands, and walking the tightrope. During the show, while he held the audience in the palm of his hand, he preached a sermon. His God-given athletic talents became a springboard for sharing God’s love with the world.

St. John Bosco has long been one of my heroes. Recently, I’ve been reminded of him after watching a television show called American Ninja Warrior.

The Papal Ninja

Normally, I don’t watch much television, and I know very little about popular shows. I have a flip phone, I don’t text, and I still listen to cassette tapes, so it often feels like I’m a fish out of water in today’s world. I also generally don’t watch sports. Against the odds, though, I’ve become a fan of this modern athletic-competition show.

Some time ago, my husband showed an episode of American Ninja Warrior to our children after a friend recommended it. The children loved the show, and my husband began watching it with them more often.

I was glad they had something fun to bond over, but I didn’t pay much attention while they watched.

During one episode last season, though, I sat down to watch with them. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s basically a big and extremely difficult obstacle course, where each competitor tries, one at a time, to make it to the end.

As we watched, an athlete named Sean Bryan conquered each obstacle with amazing skill, becoming one of the only competitors during that show to complete the course. I sat there with my family, awestruck. Sean Bryan’s talent was astonishing, but what surprised me even more was his platform: He wanted the world to know he was Catholic.

Most of the top competitors in the sport have nicknames—“ninja names.” For his moniker, Sean Bryan chose the “Papal Ninja.”

“Papal means of or related to the pope,” Sean told Word on Fire in an interview last year. “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 of the One who does the sending.”

A Witness of Dynamic Faith

When he competes, Sean sports a custom-made shirt inspired by the Vatican flag. In the audience, his parents, friends, and fans cheer for him. Some wear his Papal Ninja shirt. Others wear clerical robes.

Before competing on American Ninja Warrior, Sean spent four years discerning with the Salesians of (guess who?) Don Bosco. After that, he earned a Master of Arts in Theology with a Salesians Studies Concentration from a Dominican school and entered full-time lay work in an apostolate he’s still involved in, called the Lay Mission Project.

Each time Sean competes, his priest friends root for him from the sidelines.

Watching all of this unfold, I had chills as I sat on the couch with my family. It felt like we were receiving a priceless gift.

As a mother, I was deeply grateful that my children were seeing this powerful witness in a realm outside of church. My children could see how Sean’s faith animated his hard work. They were inspired by the connection between his physical feats and his spiritual devotion. They saw those wonderful priests cheering in the street, reminding us that Catholicism can be dynamic and fully alive in the midst of the secular world.

Drawing Hearts to Christ

That was the first time I watched American Ninja Warrior, but it wasn’t the last. Since then, I’ve made especially sure to sit down and watch with my family whenever Sean Bryan competes. Last season, he was one of the top three competitors in the country, making it farther in the finals than almost anyone else. Now, the new season has just begun, and he is off to a strong start.

My children are competing, too—at home. My husband has been building obstacles in our house and yard so that they can train. One of my sons has been trying to decide what his ninja name might be. He would like to choose the “Paraclete Ninja”—to honor the Holy Spirit. He wants to be like Sean Bryan, to show people that he’s proud to be Catholic.

Like St. John Bosco before him, Sean Bryan uses his acrobatic talents to draw hearts to Christ and His Church. Sean might not preach a sermon mid-show like St. John Bosco did, but his message still comes through loud and clear.

It’s a message that St. Paul wrote about in Colossians 3:17: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

At his first competition this season, when Sean prepared to tackle the final obstacle, he turned to the announcers, made the Sign of the Cross, and mouthed a question to them: “Will you pray for me?”

“Will we pray for you?” the announcer shouted back with enthusiasm. “Yes!”

Let’s all pray for him, so that he can continue to shine—as Matthew 5:15 says, as a lamp placed on a stand—in a world that needs all the light we can get.

You can watch Sean Bryan in action here:

image: By Nheyob [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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Maura Roan McKeegan is an award-winning author of twelve Catholic children’s books. Her most recent titles include Julia Greeley, Secret Angel to the Poor (Magnificat-Ignatius Press), In This Catholic Church (OSV), Peter and Jesus by a Charcoal Fire (Emmaus Road), and Seven Clues: A Catholic Treasure Hunt (Loyola Press), co-authored with Scott Hahn. She is also a contributor for various magazines. She has a special interest in Servant of God Don Dolindo Ruotolo and writes about him at her new Substack site, Stories of Don Dolindo ( can contact her at Maura.Roan.McKeegan(at)gmail(dot)com.

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