Sunday, August 03, 2008

Chase Hilgenbrinck and Priestly Ministry

Chase Hilgenbrinck in his Revolution uniform

(Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 3, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 55: 1-3; Romans 8: 35, 37-39; Matthew 14: 13-21.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Eighteenth Sunday 2008]

It was a big story—but relatively few people heard about it.

I have my own theories as to why, one of which is that it made the Catholic Church look really good; and, sadly, there are many in the secular press who would rather not publish any news story that paints the Catholic Church in a positive light.

But if you didn’t hear it before, you’ll hear it today, at this Mass.

It concerned a professional soccer player for the New England Revolution named Chase Hilgenbrinck, who shocked his teammates and most followers of pro soccer in early July, when he suddenly announced his retirement.

It was shocking first of all because he’s only 26-years-old and at the height of his physical abilities.

But it was also shocking to a lot of people because of why he’s leaving: he wants to be (of all things) a Catholic priest!

This fall he’ll begin 6 years of study at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmittsburg, Maryland (where Fr. Mike Sisco and Fr. Greg Stowe both studied; and where Frank Francese from our parish will be a student for the next 4 years). When he’s ordained, Chase Hilgenbrinck will go back to the Diocese of Peoria in Illinois to serve in a parish there.

Here are a few of the things Chase said when he announced his retirement:

  • “After years of discernment, I feel strongly that the Lord has called me to become a priest in the Catholic Church. Playing professional soccer has been my passion for a long time, and I feel blessed to have successfully lived out this dream. My passion now is to do the will of God, which is wanting only what he wants for me. Though I will miss the game of soccer, I know that I am moving on to something much greater.”
  • “I grew up as a Catholic. I was always involved in the Church, went to Catholic schools. It was when I got out on my own that my faith really became mine. I really embraced it.”
  • “I looked to strengthen my personal relationship with Christ. And when my personal life started to flourish, I couldn’t turn my back on that relationship.”
  • “It’s not that I’m ready to leave soccer. I still have a great passion for the game. I wouldn’t leave the game for just any other job. I’m moving on for the Lord. I want to do the will of the Lord. I want to do what he wants for me, not what I want to do for myself.”
  • “Delayed obedience is disobedience. We are all called to do something. I feel like my specific call is to the priesthood. So no, it was not possible to continue with soccer. It’s absolutely inevitable.”

It was nice to see that one person who reacted very positively to this news was Michael Burns, the New England Revolution’s vice president of player personnel. He was quoted as saying, “Chase said it was time for him, that he had been thinking long and hard. Purely from the Revs standpoint, it’s too bad. But a lot of players leave the game not on their own terms. He’s clearly left on his own terms, which is great for him.

“We understand Chase’s decision to retire from soccer and pursue his mission of helping others, and we support his desire to make this change in his life. We wish Chase the best and thank him for the service and leadership he provided in his brief tenure with us.”

In today’s gospel reading from Matthew 14, Jesus says to his 12 future priests, “Give them some food yourselves.” Why did he say that to them, when he knew he would feed the crowd himself in a few minutes by working this tremendous miracle?

I think it was to prepare them in a remote way for their future ministry. Within 3 years, they would be called upon to help people spiritually, emotionally—and even physically—as priests, and this gave them an opportunity to think about how they would do that. And, of course, this event also gave Jesus the opportunity to teach his future priests that God could and would do extraordinary things through them, if they simply trusted and prayed and stepped out in faith.

Our 3 readings today are not specifically about priestly ministry. But I prepared this homily shortly after reading Chase Hilgenbrinck’s story, so the priesthood was definitely on my mind as I reflected on these 3 passages. I just mentioned the gospel. In the first reading, the Lord tells us to come to him in our spiritual thirst. He says, “All you who are thirsty, come to the water. . . . Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.”

The role of a priest is to bring people into a close relationship with God through word and sacrament: the God who quenches their spiritual thirst and who gives them what they need (which is not necessarily what they want!).

And then, in our second reading, St. Paul speaks of all the things that we usually think of as separating us from God: anguish, distress, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword—in other words, our sufferings and trials. How often have you said, “God, why are you allowing me to go through this? Don’t you care? Don’t you love me anymore?”

I confess—I’ve had that thought many times!

In part, the ministry of a priest is to help people to understand that God never, ever abandons them—even in their darkest moments—and that the only thing that can possibly separate them from the Lord is their sin.

And the easy cure for that is repentance in the confessional!

Chase Hilgenbrinck believes all these things. He believes the truths contained in these 3 important passages from the Bible. He also believes that acting on these truths and spreading them to the world full time as a Catholic priest is more important than a career in pro sports.

Do you believe that?

If you do, and you’re a single man, you’ll at least consider the possibility that God might be calling you to serve him as a priest.

If you do, and you’re not eligible to serve yourself, you’ll at least pray for vocations every day.

And if you’re married with a son you’ll also encourage that son of yours to be open to a vocation—and then support him if he’s called.