By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — Father Chase Hilgenbrinck spent a majority of his 39 years self-defined by the soccer jerseys he wore. They gave him a sense of purpose and identity, or so he thought. “You know that jersey you’ve been pulling on that says, ‘This is who I am?’ Well, that jersey will never be enough for you,” he said. “I know full well.”
During a presentation at Newman Catholic Student Center on the University of Iowa campus earlier this month, he urged the virtual and in-person audience members to consider the literal and figurative jerseys they wear. “What are your jerseys? Is it the boyfriend you have? Your work suit? Your friends? What if that jersey was gone tomorrow? That’s the real question.”
Father Hilgenbrinck is a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, who currently serves as assistant chaplain of St. John Catholic Newman Center on the University of Illinois campus. Prior to entering seminary, he played soccer professionally in Chile and the United States. He recalled the difficulties fellow athletes faced when their careers ended. “One day, I got a call from one of my friends in Chile. One of my ex-teammates had (ended his life) … he was a child phenom, pro at 17.”
Father Hilgenbrinck learned that his teammate struggled to adjust to life outside the soccer pitch. “Here’s this guy who thinks he has everything, is known and loved, then from one day to the next, no one knows his name. He doesn’t know who he is without that jersey. … it was enough that he didn’t want to know who he was without the jersey.”
In the U.S., as Father Hilgenbrinck was preparing to leave the league to enter seminary, some teammates commented about how lucky he was to be able to end his career voluntarily, with a clear vision of who he would be once the soccer jersey came off.
Father Hilgenbrinck admitted that the life of a star soccer player never satisfied him fully and as his success grew, he felt less fulfilled. “There was something more to be lived for.” Over time, and a lot of prayer, he began to discern a call to the priesthood.
While he misses playing professional soccer, he finds more joy in allowing his relationship with God to define him and living out what he believes is God’s plan for his life.
He urged the Newman Center audience members to reconsider the importance of the “jerseys we put on every day,” and instead choose faith to define themselves. Underneath everything, “we’re beloved sons and daughters of God,” he said. That reality does not change, even as fulfillment and secular identity come and go. “There is something more than that jersey we put on every day,” he said.
After his talk, Father Hilgenbrinck answered questions from audience members. One student asked how someone should balance sports and faith. The priest responded with an answer designed for everyone, athlete or not. “Spirituality is not cookie cutter, but there are four benchmarks” for which to strive: regular Mass attendance, daily prayer, confession and Catholic study. These benchmarks can help people stay focused on what matters most. “A spiritual plan of life is a good start for anybody!”