Faith-Based Initiative

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chase Hilgenbrinck sat in his apartment in Chile, clutching the phone, full of nervous energy. He was about to make a call that would change his life forever. After spending more than two years agonizing over his decision in solitude, Hilgenbrinck finally decided he was ready to tell someone of his intention to become a priest.

That September 2007 day, the first person he called was not his mother, father, brother or girlfriend, but the vocations director of the Peoria, Ill., diocese, a man he had never met.

"I was nervous on the phone," Hilgenbrinck said. "I couldn't believe the words that were coming out of my mouth."

Father Brian Brownsey was thrilled to receive the call. It's not every day a professional soccer player phones to say he wants to join the priesthood.

Though many professional athletes have gone into ministry, usually with Protestant churches, most do so after their careers have ended. Few leave during their prime. Hilgenbrinck, a 26-year-old defender, had signed his first MLS contract earlier this year after four years of playing professionally in Chile. He had made it, achieving a dream he'd had since childhood. And now he was leaving it all behind to serve God.

Starting with his seventh-grade teacher, people had been telling Hilgenbrinck that he should become a priest. He was flattered, of course, but he really didn't think priesthood was for him. He wanted to play soccer.

Hilgenbrinck was raised in a devout Roman Catholic family in Bloomington, Ill. He and his brother Blaise were altar servers at Holy Trinity Church and attended Catholic schools through junior high. When it came time for high school, they had a decision to make: attend the Catholic high school with their friends or go to the public high school where they could continue their budding soccer careers.

With his family's support, Hilgenbrinck chose soccer over his religious education, a decision that contrasted with the one he would make more than a decade later. He believed the public high school provided him with the best opportunity to earn an athletic scholarship to college.

"That's what my future was at that time," Hilgenbrinck said.

Clemson offered him a scholarship and Hilgenbrinck picked the Tigers mostly because he felt their program would prepare him for a professional career. The ACC is widely considered the best soccer conference in the country, and Clemson is usually one of the stronger teams.

It wasn't only his soccer career that took off at Clemson. Being on his own for the first time, Hilgenbrinck discovered new depths to his Catholicism. He became actively involved in the Catholic student organization. As a freshman, Hilgenbrinck volunteered to lead his teammates in a prayer before each game.

"I grew up Catholic, but it was an inherited faith," he said. "I believed because my parents believed. . . . It was [at Clemson] that I didn't have to be there [at church]. I didn't have to believe anything. It was then that I really made the faith my own. I would say that's the first step toward what I am doing today, although at that time I still didn't feel that I was called [to be a priest], nor did I want to be."

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