The Real Revolution, The Anchor, August 29, 2008

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
August 29, 2008

The second half of August is a time when students begin returning to college. It’s also a time when those preparing to be priests head to seminary. Most years this exodus of seminarians from their dioceses to houses of priestly formation goes unheralded. Not this year, thanks to a seminarian with a local connection.

On August 19, Chase Hilgenbrinck entered Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. In the days before he drove to the quaint Maryland town made famous by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Hilgenbrinck, a 26 year-old seminarian for the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, had more to deal with than merely obtaining clerical apparel and breviary volumes. He also needed to respond to a lengthy list of interview requests, including from the Fox News Channel, USA Today, and the Associated Press as well as from media outlets in England, Switzerland and Lithuania. The reason for the attention was partially because of where he was going but mostly because of what he was leaving behind.

Chase Hilgenbrinck was a standout soccer player for the New England Revolution with looks that got women blushingly to admit on television and in the blogosphere that they would start to take a whole new interest in religion. After graduating as a superstar from Clemson, he played professionally in Chile for four years before signing with the Revolution last winter. He played in several games for the Revs as a defensemen and captained their reserved team before retiring from soccer in midseason in order to begin the seminary.

His decision, he said, was not an abrupt one, but the result of several years of discernment. “It was something very personal to me. I didn’t discuss it with anybody for a long time. I just discerned it through personal prayer for a long time, trying to come to a conclusion if this was really what the Lord was calling me to or not.”

That process of discernment became intense when he was playing professional futbol in Chile. “Being alone in another country, with a new culture and language, I did a lot of soul-searching” he said in an interview, mentioning how he began to look at prayer and frequent reception of the sacraments with renewed appreciation.  I fell back on what I knew, and that was the Catholic Church. I grew up as a Catholic. I was always involved in the church, went to Catholic schools. It was when I got out on my own that my faith really became mine. I really embraced it. … I looked to strengthen my personal relationship with Christ.”

The stronger his relationship with Christ became, the more deeply he felt the Lord’s love and the more he sensed the beginning of a call to spread that love. “God has loved us so much and I’ve felt this love and felt him call me to this. I feel blessed that he has called me to administer the sacraments to his holy, faithful people.”

Even though he was fulfilling a life-long dream of playing professional soccer, the call to something with higher goals was irresistible. “I felt called to something greater,” he said in an interview. “At one time I thought that call might be professional soccer. In the past few years, I found my soul is hungry for something else.”

For a while he tried to negotiate with God, saying that he could respond to that vocational hunger after his professional soccer career was over. He also questioned whether he was ready or fit to be a seminarian. “I was putting up a bunch of barriers, saying I’m not worthy to be called to something like that,” he said. “But, one by one, the barriers started to come down.” He came to the conclusion that he could not allow himself to wait. Much like Peter, Andrew, James and John who left their fishing nets behind “immediately” to follow the Lord when he called them (Lk 5:11), Hilgenbrinck left behind the soccer nets. “Delayed obedience is disobedience,” he said.

He admitted that that he still has a “great passion” for the game of soccer, but he was willing to give it up in order to obtain the “pearl of great price” (Mt 13:46): “I wouldn’t leave the game for just any other job. I’m moving on for the Lord. I want to do the will of the Lord, I want to do what he wants for me, not what I want to do for myself.”

 “My passion now,” he said in a press statement released by the Revolution, “is to do the will of God, which is wanting only what He wants for me. Though I will miss the game of soccer, I know that I am moving on to something much greater.”

Hilgenbrinck hopes to bring the same passion he had for soccer to the service of God and others. “When you play soccer you have to continue getting better every day,” he said. “It’s the same with faith. You have to improve every single day, search for opportunities to deepen your relationship with Christ.”

He began the formal process of applying to be a seminarian last summer. He interviewed with his diocesan vocation director and then began a rigorous process that included lengthy written questionnaires, psychological evaluations, interviews with vocations boards, and background checks. Once he was accepted, he informed his parents, Mike and Kim, who he said, though surprised, wholeheartedly supported his decision.

He also told his fellow players who he says curiously were less surprised. “As teammates, many of us shared our faith together each week. It was interesting to see how hungry people are for their faith and to know about God. When I told them, everyone was interested. There was no negative reaction. Everyone wanted to know more about it.”

His coaches and the Revolution front office were disappointed to be losing a great player, but they had nothing but admiration for him. Coach Steve Nicol said, “There’s always something that surprises you. On this occasion, it’s a good surprise. Chase is going to go and do something that he really wants to go and do. There’s not many of us that can say we’re able to do something we really want to do, so that’s great for him.”

Vice-president of player personnel Michael Burns added, “Purely from a Revs standpoint, it’s too bad. But a lot of players leave the game not on their own terms. He’s clearly left on his own terms, which is great for him.”

Hilgenbrinck has been shocked by the amount of attention his decision to enter the seminary has generated, but he has taken it in stride. He sees his vocational path as an opportunity to “give glory to Christ. … It’s about him, not me. I feel like God is blessing me, being able to witness to so many people.”

As he heads to seminary, he enters a training camp to play on a much larger team seeking a greater revolution and perduring victory. In an encouraging challenge to young people at the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, Pope Benedict described in what this revolution consists:

“Only from the saints, only from God does true revolution come, the definitive way to change the world. … True revolution consists in simply turning to God who is the measure of what is right and who at the same time is everlasting love.”

That revolution has already begun in the heart of Chase Hilgenbrinck. Let’s pray for him and for all seminarians that they might bring that revolution to us and to the world.