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."
With no offers from the MLS after college, Hilgenbrinck headed to Chile on a one-way plane ticket, hoping to catch on with a team there. At first, he was miserable. Homesick and lonely, he turned to the one constant in his life outside of soccer, his faith.
"That was really when I saw Christ as a friend more than this godly figure that I can't touch," he said. "My faith now became not just something that I should do and what I started to enjoy, but it was now my rock."
With more free time on his hands than he knew what to do with, Hilgenbrinck set a goal of reading the entire Bible. He read books on Catholicism, particularly those by Scott Hahn and Karl Keating that his parents gave him. He also prayed regularly.
"It started out a lot with me doing all the talking and me trying to say everything that I needed to get out," he said. "But it was in the silent times of prayer, whenever I shut up, it was like, 'Okay, now feel this.' . . . This idea of the priesthood kept permeating my heart. It was just there all the time."
The way he describes it, Hilgenbrinck's call to the priesthood came gradually. It is not like he woke up one day and God told him to become a priest.
"No miracles happened here," he said. "It was just I felt that way, and it progressively got stronger every single day for two years."
At first he resisted. He did not want to be a priest. All he could think of were the negatives. To begin with, he'd have to give up soccer. But that wasn't even the biggest obstacle for him.
"I can't be married," he said. "I can't have kids, and that was scary because I'd always envisioned myself as a married man."
Besides, he loved playing soccer. He was doing well with his team in Chile, Nublense. He figured he could just wait until his career was over before he had to make a decision. Then he read Hahn's book, "Rome Sweet Home" and came across the line, "delayed obedience is disobedience."
"That just spoke to me so clearly," he said. "Not only as just something I was reading that helped me along, but I took that as a sign because I was really struggling with that at the time. . . . That definitely gave me the strength to say, 'Okay, I'm not going to wait until my career is over.' "
In time, all the barriers he put up fell away, and Hilgenbrinck realized he was destined to become a priest. But before he told his family and friends, he wanted to make sure the church would accept him. He called Brownsey and began the extensive application process, which included written exams, essays, background checks, fingerprinting and evaluations by three psychologists.
"They do want to make sure they're making the right decision," he said. "Obviously, with the scandal that we've had in the Catholic church in the past few years, that mistake doesn't want to be repeated. So there's going to be a rigorous screening process for anybody who really feels called to this."
When he finally broke the news to his parents -- he had not wanted to get their hopes up until he was sure the church would accept him -- they were shocked.
"It probably took me, it seems like a long time, but probably 20 seconds before I even said anything," Mike Hilgenbrinck said. "I think [his first words were] probably 'Oh my gosh, Chase, I'm so proud of you.' We're so supportive of that decision. It's just an honor that one of our sons was chosen by God to become a priest."
Even as he was pursuing the priesthood, Hilgenbrinck had not given up on his dream of playing on an MLS team. He signed a contract with the Colorado Rapids in January, but was cut for salary cap reasons. Then in March, the New England Revolution brought him in for a tryout. The team offered him a short-term contract, one that lasted only until midseason.
Hilgenbrinck had been wrestling with whether he should tell the team of his intentions or keep quiet. When the Revolution made its offer, he saw it as another sign. He appeared in four games, starting one, before telling the team in early July he was leaving for the seminary.
"I will say it's a bit unusual to hear that from a player," said Mike Burns, the Revolution's vice president of player personnel. "It's not the norm, that's for sure."
Burns said the Revolution would have happily kept around the left-footed left back.
"He was just a guy you could depend on," Burns said. "He was a consummate professional both on and off the field. He came to play every day and gave you everything he had."
Snuggled into the Catoctin Mountains near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg is a quiet, contemplative place. The 200-year-old school, the second-oldest Catholic university in the country, educates lay students as well as future priests. Hilgenbrinck will spend the next six years studying philosophy and theology with the other 22 first-year seminarians.
His arrival created a bit of a fuss around the usually staid seminary. Though he has received more media attention than any of his classmates, Hilgenbrinck has been welcomed by them unconditionally, according to Monsignor Steven Rohlfs, the seminary's rector.
"He's very popular with the men, and they consider him just one of the guys," Rohlfs said.
"It's too early to tell [if Hilgenbrinck will make a good priest], but he has all the external signs of it. He has a desire to want to do what God wants him to do. He's prayerful. He's energetic, and he has a pleasant personality and is a hard worker."
Hilgenbrinck's days are too hectic to allow him time to lament the void left by soccer. When his schedule allows it, he trains with the Mount St. Mary's team. He competed in the Rector's Cup, a soccer competition among the seminaries. But it's not the same as being on the field with an MLS team.
"Yes, of course" he misses soccer, he said, wistfully. "I definitely do, and getting to the point that I was at, playing professionally, that was always the dream, where I wanted to be."
Nonetheless, Hilgenbrinck appears content and at peace with his decision. He says he has no regrets about becoming a priest. Nor would he have wished his journey to this point would have gone differently.
"I feel very blessed to have lived the life that I have leading up to this point, and in no way would I trade it to do even what I am doing now," he said. "I feel blessed that the Lord allowed me to fulfill my dreams before pulling me into His plans for me. Not only is His will perfect, but His time is perfect as well. The timing of my call was meant to be exactly when it happened."