ST. CHARLES—Chase Hilgenbrinck was 25-years-old when he reached what he saw as the Michael Jordan pinnacle of success. His Chilean soccer team had won the national championship.
Chile takes soccer seriously, he told a good-sized crowd of parents and sports-loving students on March 5. It was the final event of the annual “Here I Am Lord” vocations conference at St. Patrick Parish in St. Charles.
The entire city, he said, was given a day off of work as part of the weeklong celebration filled with parties, parades and all the elements befitting national champions.
“All my life, I felt called to greatness,” he said. “The problem was, I didn’t know how to pursue greatness.”
That unknowing came to a critical point during that week, he recalled. He “realized it was the happiest I’d ever been — I was living my dream!”
But then he found himself asking, “This is it? I’m 25 years old — this is it?”
Now back home and a priest of the Peoria Diocese, Father Chase testified that his peak sports moment “didn’t fulfill me (and) I recognized I had nothing else planned.”
He and Sister Miriam James Heidland, a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), were the keynote speakers at the first “IMPACT: Where Faith and Sports Come Together” talk.
IMPACT “has been created to address the needs of parents, coaches and athletes in grades five through 12,” said a flyer.
Both speakers talked about how their Catholic faith intersected with their chosen sports.
Sister Miriam, a volleyball player, focused her talk on the gift of sports, calling them “an instrument (and a way) to praise God with our whole body. … Those talents you’ve been given, you offer them to God (to) be fully excellent in the image and likeness of God.”
Her talk drew on several quotes from St. John Paul II and featured a couple of videos. One showed how well the sports industry advertises excellence, and the other was about a 10-year-old girl with a webcam on her helmet talking herself into her first ever ski jump.
“I’ll be fine. I’ll do it. I’m gonna jump,” she said as she panicked, recovered, breathed loudly, procrastinated, then finally went.
“YEAH!” she yelled at the bottom of the hill a few seconds later. “It was just the suspense at the top. … It’s so fun!”
In her newfound confidence, the little girl concluded with great nonchalance, “Seems like nothing now.”
Noting that sports “makes us vibrantly alive,” Sister Miriam said the goal of sports “is to lead to the full development of the human person.”
Both speakers spoke about faith with enthusiasm also. Both had parents who refused to give permission for sports to supersede their children’s attendance at Mass.
“Our faith is not something to fit in,” Sister Miriam said, describing being dressed in her uniform for Mass, coming late to games and being benched by her coach.
“As an adult,” she said, “I know that coach had his own story.” Her family’s making Mass a priority “triggered his stuff too. … But nobody died. Nothing happened.
“I am empowering parents,” Sister Miriam added. “Your coaches do not have the power to make you miss Mass!”
Father Chase’s parents, whom he described as “faithful but not on fire” when he was young, laid down a few rules for him and his older brother regarding soccer and tournaments. First, the family would not be separated with the two going in different directions. So the brothers played on the same team, and Father Chase learned a lot while playing on his older brother’s team.
The second rule was: “we’re never going to miss Mass,” he said. He couldn’t go out after games because of evening Mass, or he would come running onto the field after Mass, 5-10 minutes after the game had started.
“I hated it at the time, but that example never left me,” Father Chase said. “It came back when I decided who I would be.”
Later in response to a question, Father Chase recommended that parents “take the pressure off” and go first thing to tell the coaches that their son or daughter will not miss Mass, period. “Take care of it at the front end,” he said. Both he and Sister Miriam testified that coaches will be uncomfortable, but they won’t say ‘no’ in high school, college or even professional athletic teams.
Father Chase’s path to the priesthood took time. But after reaching his sports dream he had to ask “who are you when the jersey comes off,” and he eventually realized that “delayed obedience is disobedience.”
He’s been a priest for two and a half years, and says it is “calling me to greatness in a different way.”
“I love sports,” he concluded, “but it is nothing compared” to his vocation. “Greatness is responding to the Lord with not what we do, but who we are.”
Michael Zak, director of youth ministry at St. Patrick’s, said that he plans to continue offering IMPACT events. The goal of that as well as the HIAL conference, he added, is to “show our kids the joy of being Catholic.”