In the modern world, why would a young man choose to be a Catholic priest, and what sort of guy does that? The answers may not be what you expect.
On Tuesday, May 24, at 2 p.m. ET, Bishop Barron's Word on Fire Institute premieres the documentary The Making of a Catholic Priest, a profile of Father Stephen Gadberry, for free on its YouTube channel.
(UPDATE 5/26: The film is now embedded below.)
Ordained on May 28, 2016, Father Gadberry -- who's also a fellow at the Institute -- is the pastor of two parishes in Arkansas: St. Mary's Catholic Church in Batesville, and St. Cecilia's Catholic Church in Newport.
Father Gadberry has two dogs, Murphy and Shorty, and he has appeared a couple of times on NBC's American Ninja Warrior, at the behest of his pal, Sean Bryan, the Papal Ninja.
Here's how Father Gadberry described himself in a 2019 Instagram post:
I’m not normal. I’m ok with that. I am Fr. Stephen Gadberry, a Catholic priest in Arkansas. I was farm raised in the Arkansas delta and am a US Air Force veteran. I’m very introverted but do fine around people with the Holy Spirit’s help. My father and older sister died in a car wreck in 1994. I’m now the oldest of my 3 living siblings. Mom never remarried and gave her life to raising us. I am always moving. I hate sitting still. I hate being bored. I love exploration, discovery and learning. I love exercise and hunting. I love dogs and shooting bows and guns. Music is a passion of mine. So is Fitness. I love physical labor and sweating. I do not like being boxed in or labeled and do what I can to NOT fit a label or be shoved into a box. I love humanity and enjoy being with people... all sorts of people. I love helping people live better lives. Too many people are miserable. I want to help them change that. Life is good. God is good. I love Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the saints. In a nutshell, I love living. Keep smiling. Life is worth living.
Prior to the release of the documentary, Father Gadberry took time to answer a few questions.
What made you agree to be the subject of a documentary?
To be honest, it was kind of odd to think about doing a documentary about myself. I had to stop, though, step back and look at the bigger picture and consider the project at hand.
The goal of this documentary was not so much to tell the world about me as an individual, but to show the world how faithful the Lord is to all of us as individuals.
Through this documentary, we want the world to see that priests are regular human beings with special callings. We all have unique and personal stories. All of us have had blessings and curses in life. Through it all, the Lord is present, and the Lord is faithful.
As a priest, I’m called to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Story of Salvation. We must perfectly share that story when we more faithfully live the story that the Lord is writing for each one of us.
By sharing my story and how God is at work in it, hopefully others can better see how God is at work in their lives.
You’re known on social media for your love of the outdoors, including hunting, your dogs, and your dedication to physical fitness, along with your devotion to Christ as a priest. How do all these things come together in your life?
I speak about this very thing in the documentary. I am often challenged by individuals who say that I am wasting my time, and that I am not holy enough, because I pursue my hobbies. That could not be further from the truth.
Holiness comes through being the person that God has created you to be. It requires us to consider our upbringing, our history, our hopes and our dreams.
To be who God has created us to be requires us to fully live life. Priests are not robots. We are also not angels. We are human beings with a really cool and sacred calling.
So long as it is not sin, we are free to do it. God works through that.
As St. Catherine of Sienna said, “Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire.” Too often in life, we try to fit into a mold. We try to be the person that other people want us to be instead of being the person that God created us to be.
When God calls us, he tells us to drop our nets and follow Him. He doesn’t tell us to erase our identity as if we lived in some science-fiction story.
The world needs holy, happy and healthy priests. Too many of us have been hurt by priests who are not holy, happy and healthy. In seminary formation, we were taught to not only grow in holiness and intellect, but also in physical and psychological maturity.
Like every other human being, this is only possible with healthy amounts of discipline and leisure.
Today’s society does little to encourage a life of self-sacrifice, let alone the sacrifices necessary for the priesthood. How do you hope this documentary inspires young men?
Comfort has become the norm. Sacrifice and suffering in a holy way is often marked as a thing of the past. I believe that is one of the greatest elements of modern society. We have become too comfortable, and we have not learned how to work and suffer for the things that we love.
Love requires sacrifice. One of the greatest things that we need to sacrifice, is our desire to fit in. We exhaust ourselves trying to please other people, and we forget about pleasing our Lord. In this documentary, I share many moments of my life that truly affected me.
Many of those moments were truly terrible. By today’s societal standards, I could consider myself a “victim.” I don’t want that label. I am not a “victim.” I have been given opportunities.
Fortunately, I had many good examples on how to suffer with grace in class and how to learn from those moments and how to use those experiences as opportunities to grow, not to die.
I hope this documentary challenges individuals to embrace the hardships that come their way. With God‘s grace, those hardships become opportunities for tremendous growth.
One of the great graces in making this documentary was seeing God‘s hand at work throughout my life. So many things in my life were bad, sad, or unfortunate -- in the moment.
Looking back on them, I see God’s hand at work, the abundance of His grace, and His greater plan in my life.
Those brief moments of suffering have ended up being amazing channels of grace. Through this documentary, I hope that people see their life is worth living in that God’s hand is present in everything they do.
What’s been the most surprising thing to you about day-to-day life as a parish priest?
The most surprising thing in my day-to-day life as a parish priest is the fact that every single day is different. Every single day is a new adventure. Every single day is an opportunity to trust more in the Lord, to lean more on Him, into speak His truth more boldly and courageously in the world.
Another amazing aspect of being a priest, is the amount of trust that the people have in us. A total stranger will approach me and share their deepest, darkest moments.
There’s something about a priest that allows people to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is necessary for love. Love is necessary for salvation. Every single day as a priest, I see that people truly desire salvation.
Who are your spiritual heroes?
I speak about my greatest hero in the documentary, Blessed Stanley Rother. He is the first U.S.-born priest/martyr. He, too, was a hard-working farm boy, who sought to follow the Lord more faithfully, every day of his life.
My other heroes are Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati and the new St. Charles de Foucauld. Blessed Solanus Casey is another hero.
I have a great devotion to many “Blesseds.” I call them the “not-quites” because they are not quite yet saints. They remind me that I haven’t arrived and that, every day, I must work harder and rely more on God’s grace.
Several priests now promote fitness on social media. What’s the greatest benefit to evangelization from this?
There are several benefits to being physically healthy. Priestly ministry is emotionally, psychologically and spiritually exhausting, and physical strength helps to offset that exertion.
Physical exercise also gives me a healthy outlet for stress that is acquired though ministry.
This may be a stretch, but a healthy life, most of the time, leads to a longer life. The longer I live, the longer I can preach the Gospel and bring people to Jesus.
We know you continue with your love of CrossFit, but are we ever going to see you with pal Sean Bryan, the Papal Ninja, again on American Ninja Warrior?
Sean Bryan, the Papal Ninja, is a good friend of mine. He’s a fantastic example of faithful Christianity lived out in a joyful way. He has taught me so much about God’s grace and using our personal gifts and talents for the sake of building the Kingdom.
He is a real ninja, and I am just a rookie. I would love to go back on the show, but I think we need to begin a scouting process to the next priest ninja to represent the Church on American Ninja Warrior.
I also asked Bryan about what his advice to Father Gadberry might be about possible future ninja adventures. He said:
It’s always important to discern God’s calling in every situation. So if the Spirit is moving in your heart to delight in the competition and give Him glory through it, then by all means don’t hesitate to apply again … just don’t forget to make some time to come to California to train with me at my gym to prepare for it ;-)
UPDATE 5/26: Here's the whole film, which has garnered over 62K views in two days:
Reprinted with permission from Kate O'Hare's Pax Culturati blog at Patheos.com.
Image: Word on Fire Institute
Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Content Manager at Family Theater Productions.