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Athlete Heads Toward New Goal
BY Eddie O’Neill
Chase Hilgenbrinck had it made — at least
in the eyes of the world.
a high school All-American in 2000 and having played professionally both for
Major League Soccer here in the United States and on the international level in
Chile, the 26-year-old certainly had a promising future ahead of him.
the fame and prestige of a professional sports career wasn’t enough. Something
was still missing. After playing left fullback for the New England Revolution
this past spring, Hilgenbrinck announced his retirement from soccer in July to
pursue a call to the priesthood.
Aug. 19, he entered Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg,
Md., to begin his studies for the Diocese of Peoria, Ill. He spoke with
Register correspondent Eddie O’Neill from his parents’ home in Bloomington,
Ill., about his journey from the soccer field to the seminary.
Did you grow up Catholic?
Catholic faith has always been the foundation of my family life due to my
parents’ — Mike and Kim — incredible devotion to the Church. My parents brought
my brother and me up in the Catholic Church. They always taught my older
brother, Blaise, and me about the will of God in our life and how our personal
relationship with Christ would be more important and would sustain us much
longer than any other activity or person in our lives.
When did you
start playing soccer? When did you realize that you could play
and I started playing soccer when we were 5 years old. We played several sports
when we were young, as most kids growing up in America do. I always dreamed of
playing a professional sport and that became my passion.
when I was selected to the under-17 U.S. National Team and became a high
school All-American, I realized that soccer was my best bet. Blaise and I
set goals to get college scholarships through soccer, playing at the division
one level. We both were blessed with that opportunity, playing the same
position, left fullback. Blaise played at Butler and I played at
After college you went on to
play professional soccer at the highest level in Chile. What was that
After leaving Clemson in 2004, I
was signed to the team of Huachipato of the Chilean first division. I went on to play for the soccer
clubs of Naval and then Ñublense, in the first and second
divisions. 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 in South America at the stadium, in their home,
on the streets. You cannot escape the hype.
This passion on the field helped me
to realize that I could, and should, be this passionate off the field with my
faith. In fact, I felt that I should use the podium of soccer to evangelize. In
’07, as my team captivated national attention, becoming the “Cinderella” in
first division, I had shirts made that read: “I can do all things through
Christ who strengthens me.” I wore these shirts under my jerseys and then
tossed them to fans after the games.
When did you first hear the call
toward the priesthood? How would you describe the call?
In 2004, I arrived in
Chile without the support base of my family and friends, which was a
difficult transition for me. I was alone in a new culture, a new language
and new customs. It was in those difficult times that I turned to the
Catholic Church, and specifically, to my personal relationship with Christ
for strength. In doing so, my faith deepened tremendously.
During deep, personal
prayer, I felt God calling me to pursue a vocation in the
priesthood. Then began a two-year discernment process
where I received signs and confirmation that this truly was my
calling. The call was persistent in my thought process and progressively
got stronger until it consumed my daily thoughts. A day came when I no
longer had excuses or barriers to put up of why I couldn’t
be fulfilled in that role. I knew that I had nothing left to do but
Tell me about the moment when
you needed to respond concretely to this call.
One day I went to confession in
Chile to a priest and a church that I had never been to. After confessing my
sins, I was surprised at his reaction. He was surprisingly hard on me, saying
that at 25 years old I was committing juvenile sins, and it was time for me to
decide if I was going to get serious about my Catholic faith. He told me to
make a decision, to quit messing around and get serious, or to just leave the
Church for a while until I decided I was going to be serious.
I walked out of that confessional
stunned. It was a confession like none other. I realized that it was truly a
sign from God and that I needed to make the call to Father Brownsey of the
Peoria Diocese as soon as possible.
What has been the reaction from
the soccer world, your teammates and coaches?
Surprisingly, the soccer world has
become very interested. When I told my coaches and teammates about my plans,
everyone was very supportive, surprised and interested in what this call means.
Interestingly, several people whom I haven’t been especially close to have
opened up to me about their own faith. Their interest and openness has shown me
how hungry people are to learn about God and how suppressed religion has become
in society. Unless we open the door for discussion, no one will talk about it.
What is your message to those
young men and women who are discerning a call to priesthood or religious life?
The first thing that I would tell
them is that it will never be wrong to say Yes to God. Even if at some
point they decide that the call is not for them, they will be a better
person for having tried. I would also tell them to be silent and listen to God.
Go to church, sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament and ask God if this is what
he wants for you. Close your eyes and then be silent. He will talk to you.
Having reached my goals and
fulfilled my dream of playing professional soccer, I realized that God was
calling me to something greater. The best that we can give in this lifetime is
to do the will of God. If we don’t do that, we will not be happy. I feel at
peace in my heart, like I never felt in soccer, because I know that this is
what God wants for me. “Lord, help me to want only what you want for me!”
you enter the seminary and begin your studies, what are your worries or fears?
Thankfully, I don’t have any fear or
worries. I am unbelievably excited to get started. I know that it will not be
easy and that there will be difficult times. I know that if God brought me to
this, he will give me the tools to excel.
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.