An Athlete for Christ

Chase Hilgenbrinck on his decision to leave Major League Soccer and enter the seminary.

It isn’t often that a man’s entrance into the seminary makes the front page of Yet, on July 15, 2008, Chase Hilgenbrinck’s decision to retire from the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer and begin studies for the priesthood in the Diocese of Peoria made news at a number of national media outlets. The 26-year-old defender, who had previously starred at Clemson University and in the Chilean professional soccer leagues, began priestly formation at Mt. St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland in September. Mr. Hilgenbrinck discussed his decision with CWR.

Tell us about your family. Is the Catholic faith very important to your family? How did you learn to put your faith above your life in sports?

Chase Hilgenbrinck: The Catholic faith has always been the foundation of my family life due to my parents’ incredible devotion to the Church. My parents (Mike and Kim) always taught my brother Blaise and me about the will of God in our lives and how this will be more important and will sustain us much longer than any other activity or person in our lives.

Track for us your soccer career. Did you play sports other than soccer? Had you dreamed of being a professional soccer player?

Hilgenbrinck: I always dreamed of playing a professional sport. When I was selected to the Under-17 national team I realized that soccer was my best bet. So Blaise and I set goals to get college scholarships in order to play in Division I programs. We both were blessed with that opportunity, playing the same position, left fullback, he at Butler and me at Clemson.

When did you begin to take your faith life seriously? How did this affect your approach to life as a soccer player?

Hilgenbrinck: I began taking my faith eriously when I left home for college and began to make the faith my own. I no longer had obligations due to parental control, but at that time I decided that I wanted it for myself. I began to understand the Catholic faith much more and I developed a passion to learn more and dig deeper into the mysteries of Christ. This is when I began to realize that my parents were right about our faith being the most important aspect of our lives. I realized that while soccer was temporary, Jesus was eternal.

Tell us about your experience playing soccer in Chile.

Hilgenbrinck: After leaving Clemson, I was signed to Huachipato of the Chilean first division. I went on to play for Naval and two years with Nublense. Playing overseas certainly is a different experience than playing in the states. The stakes are much higher and therefore the passion is multiplied. People live soccer…at the stadium, in their homes, on the streets…you cannot escape the hype. I wanted to live that. And I lived that to its fullest when we won the league title in 2006, taking Nublense to the first division for the fi rst time in 25 years. The reward for that triumph was playing with the team the following year in the first division, and our fans couldn’t be more proud.

What was the effect of Chile’s Catholic culture on your faith life?

Hilgenbrinck: The best thing about the Catholic culture in Chile was that there are churches on every corner and therefore a lot of opportunities to celebrate the Holy Mass and to go to reconciliation. There really was no excuse for why you couldn’t make it to Mass.

Did your faith deepen in any way during your time there?

Hilgenbrinck: My faith was taken to a whole new level, which started with strengthening my personal relationship with Christ. I spent a lot of time in prayer and felt clarity in my discernment process as I more frequently celebrated the sacraments.

Tell us about how you went from playing in Chile to playing MajorLeague Soccer (MLS) in the United States.

Hilgenbrinck: Truth be told, when I decided to enter the seminary, I decided I would leave Chile and come back to the states. Apart from the logical
administrative things I had to do in preparation for seminary, I wanted the chance to play professionally in front of my friends and family before I retired… even if it was only for six months. God gave me that opportunity.

Was there much of a Catholic culture in the MLS? Were there other Catholic players who supported you? How were you able to live your life of faith in the day-to-day grind of professional soccer?

Hilgenbrinck: There is no Catholic culture in the MLS, although there is a small Christian culture. Nearly every team has a Christian chaplain and a group that meets once a week. Being that there are few Catholics, I normally practiced my faith privately, although meeting with other Christians was a great exercise for group prayer and holding each other accountable for our actions.

When, where, and how did you receive your calling to the priesthood?

Was it something you had discerned in your life for a long period of time, or did God spring it upon you at a given moment?

Hilgenbrinck: Arriving in Chile without the support base of my family and friends was certainly a difficult transition for me. I was alone in a new culture, with a new language and new customs. It was in those rough times that I turned to the Catholic Church and specifically to my personal relationship with Christ for strength. That was a time that my faith deepened tremendously. In that deep, personal prayer, I felt God calling me to pursue a vocation in the priesthood. Then began a good two-year discernment process where I received signs and confirmation that this truly was my calling. A day came when I no longer had excuses why I couldn’t be the one that God was calling and I knew I had nothing left to do but accept.

Were you able to meet regularly with a spiritual director during your period of discernment?

Hilgenbrinck: No, but that is only because I didn’t seek that out. The discernment process was very personal to me. I wanted my final decision about my calling to be between God and me.

What is the relationship between the life of faith and life as an athlete? How does a career as an athlete fit into the Christian life?

Hilgenbrinck: No matter what our job or hobbies are, we should use those talents to glorify God. I certainly tried to do that through soccer. In fact, sports and faith have a lot in common. They both take perseverance, we must work hard at both if we truly want to succeed, and they both are very important to our respective spiritual and physical well-being. Aside from having things in common, both faith and sport complement each other when thinking about living a balanced lifestyle.

How difficult was it to walk away from a career in professional sports and to say “yes” to a life in the priesthood?

Hilgenbrinck: Early in my discernment the thought of leaving soccer was very difficult for me. Selfi shly, I didn’t want to give that up. The more I prayed about it, the more Jesus brought down that barrier, almost making it a nonfactor in my decision. I say that knowing that I potentially had a good seven years left in the professional game. I certainly wouldn’t have left soccer for any other job. There can be no greater satisfaction than doing the will of God.

Are there any particular saints or theological/spiritual writers who have inspired you and helped you to make your decision to follow the Lord’s will?

Hilgenbrinck: My favorite writer is Scott Hahn. In fact I read several of his books during my discernment process. Hahn’s very in-depth writing style makes me passionate and motivated to truly know my faith.

What will you miss most about soccer and the life of a soccer player?

Hilgenbrinck: I will miss the competition, the passion of the game and the fans that make soccer unique, the team camaraderie and the locker room; although I feel as though I am just changing from one locker room to the next, because I now have a great fraternity of brothers as well.

What unique qualities and skills does a professional athlete bring to his ministry as a priest?

Hilgenbrinck: Leadership will be big, along with always knowing your role within a team or parish community. On a team, you always know that you are representing something bigger than yourself, much like the Church. Within a team you must be able to interact with and at times manage a wide variety of personalities, which is also true of a parish.

How can you use your background and skills in soccer as a tool for evangelization in the soccer world?

Hilgenbrinck: Soccer is the biggest sport in the world, and a passion in most countries of the world. So there are no boundaries to the opportunity to touch virtually everyone in the world. Hopefully I can use my unique toolset in both professions to bring others to God.

What do you hope will come from all this publicity you’re getting?

Hilgenbrinck: I know that I have been given a tremendous platform to be a witness for God. I speak the words that God has given me to say and he will do the rest.

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