New goal: Pro soccer player to study for priesthood here

Photo Caption: Chase Hilgenbrinck, right, greets other first-year seminarians and Father Brian Brownsey, vocations director, left.

By: By Tom Dermody

BLOOMINGTON — Professional soccer player Chase Hilgenbrinck is changing fields to pursue greater goals.

The Bloomington native on Monday announced his retirement from the New England Revolution team of Major League Soccer to begin studies for the priesthood as a seminarian of the Diocese of Peoria.

“More than anything, I am excited to administer the sacraments, and to be with people at the most important times of their lives like baptism, marriage, and death,” Hilgenbrinck, 26, told The Catholic Post on Tuesday from the Bloomington home of his parents, Mike and Kim Hilgenbrinck, members of Holy Trinity Parish.

Among those getting a kick out of this soccer-to-seminary story are members of the diocesan Office of Vocations — already grateful to the Holy Spirit for a banner year of 16 other first-year seminarians — and the national media.

Shortly after the Revolution announced Hilgenbrinck’s release, and the reason for it, he was interviewed July 14 by writers from the Associated Press and USA Today. When those stories appeared in print and online, interest in the story then went international, with Hilgenbrinck fielding calls on Tuesday from England, Switzerland, and Lithuania.

On Thursday, he was to be interviewed live on Ave Maria Radio.

“It’s been amazing,” said Hilgenbrinck, who happily shares his story of faith not for personal recognition, but “to give glory to Christ.”

“I feel like God is blessing me, being able to witness to so many people,” said the brown-haired athlete who began playing soccer at age 5. He honed his skills at Holy Trinity Grade School, Bloomington, and University High School in Normal before playing college soccer at Clemson University in South Carolina.

While his former pro team is in first place — fresh from a Fourth of July win over a Los Angeles Galaxy team featuring world soccer celebrity David Beckham — Hilgenbrinck is now content for the spotlight to shine elsewhere.

“I want to be a light for Christ,” he says. “It’s about Him, not about me.”

Hilgenbrinck has considered this decision for years — “It was on my mind every single day,” he said — but God’s calling intensified while he was out of the country for three years playing professional soccer in Chile after graduating from Clemson in 2004.

“Being alone in another country, with a new culture and language, I did a lot of soul searching,” said Hilgenbrinck. Through prayer and frequent reception of the sacraments, including the sacrament of reconciliation, he strengthened his personal relationship with Christ and the fears and “barriers” surrounding his decision began to melt away.

Late last summer, while still in Chile, he made his first contact with Father Brian Brownsey, diocesan director of vocations. The application process was begun via e-mail, and preliminary testing was done last December when Hilgenbrinck came to the U.S. He began mingling with diocesan seminarians at various events.

And then Major League Soccer came calling.

Hilgenbrinck played briefly with the Colorado Rapids in early 2008 but was cut because of salary cap issues. The day of his release the acceptance letter from Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, arrived in the mail.

His agent, however, negotiated another MLS contract with New England. When Hilgenbrinck learned the contract had an option for him to be released on July 1 — about the time new seminarians needed to be in Peoria — he considered it yet another sign.

While his journey to the seminary was perhaps more solitary than many, Hilgenbrinck is quick to credit his parents for a strong upbringing in the Catholic faith. After Masses at Holy Trinity Church they would bring Chase and his brother, Blaise, to the statue of the Blessed Virgin and pray for their future spouses.

When Chase told his parents of his decision in December, it was at that statue. “I thought it only right to tell you in her presence my life is going to change,” he said to them.

Their reaction? “They’ve been nothing but supportive and very loving and accepting.”

Now he hopes to bring the same passion with which he competed on the soccer field to serving God as a seminarian and, hopefully in six years after philosophy and theology studies, as a priest.

“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 will have many such opportunities at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., where he begins studies late next month. On Wednesday, he took part in a seminary golf outing in Peoria.

And his soccer days are likely not over. Mount St. Mary’s fields a team that competes with area seminaries in an annual tournament called “The Rector’s Cup.”

The rector is Msgr. Steven P. Rohlfs, a priest and former vocations director of the Diocese of Peoria.

“Msgr. Rohlfs liked the prospect of having me on his team,” said Hilgenbrinck.

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