Some of this blog's readers regurarly object to sports stories that deal with religion, particularly when they deal with professional athletes who are paid millions of dollars to play a game. I generally hold that regardless of salaries, the religious angles in athletes' lives are generally relevant since they are part of the make-up of a person who has a faith.
I'm hoping this next story that interweaves religion and sports makes us all happy because for once the athlete is not leaving the sport claiming that he wants to spend more time with his immediate family. This time the athlete is leaving the sport to spend more time with his religious family.
The article from The Washington Post is unique and well reported. It is about a major league soccer player who left his sport in the prime of his career. The author Kathy Orton takes time to allow the voices in the story to speak their hearts. It's one of those stories that could take up twice the space that the newspaper editors provide:
Chase Hilgenbrinck sat in his apartment in Chile, clutching the phone, full of nervous energy. He was about to make a call that would change his life forever. After spending more than two years agonizing over his decision in solitude, Hilgenbrinck finally decided he was ready to tell someone of his intention to become a priest.
That September 2007 day, the first person he called was not his mother, father, brother or girlfriend, but the vocations director of the Peoria, Ill., diocese, a man he had never met.
"I was nervous on the phone," Hilgenbrinck said. "I couldn't believe the words that were coming out of my mouth."
The bit about Hilgenbrinck having a girlfriend made me wonder whether she would make an appearance later in the story. Unfortunately she does not. But the subject of the priesthood and marriage does come up later on in the article:
At first he resisted. He did not want to be a priest. All he could think of were the negatives. To begin with, he'd have to give up soccer. But that wasn't even the biggest obstacle for him.
"I can't be married," he said. "I can't have kids, and that was scary because I'd always envisioned myself as a married man."
Besides, he loved playing soccer. He was doing well with his team in Chile, Nublense. He figured he could just wait until his career was over before he had to make a decision. Then he read Hahn's book, "Rome Sweet Home" and came across the line, "delayed obedience is disobedience."
The article's headline "Faith-Based Initiative" is an interesting play on words that implies that Hilgenbrinck's initiative to become a priest was initiated by his faith. That certainly seems accurate, but a quote from Hilgenbrinck's father brings up a tricky theological issue that really is not explored in the article although it drifts in and out of the narrative:
"It probably took me, it seems like a long time, but probably 20 seconds before I even said anything," Mike Hilgenbrinck said. "I think [his first words were] probably 'Oh my gosh, Chase, I'm so proud of you.' We're so supportive of that decision. It's just an honor that one of our sons was chosen by God to become a priest."
The father's words "chosen by God to become a priest" contrast interestingly with the theme of the story that it was Hilgenbrinck who was making a difficult decision to leave soccer. Just until the end of the story this theme of Hilgenbrinck's tough decision plays out. Then there is this final quote:
"I feel very blessed to have lived the life that I have leading up to this point, and in no way would I trade it to do even what I am doing now," he said. "I feel blessed that the Lord allowed me to fulfill my dreams before pulling me into His plans for me. Not only is His will perfect, but His time is perfect as well. The timing of my call was meant to be exactly when it happened."
It's interesting to analyze Hilgenbrinck's decision and belief that God's timing for him to join the priesthood is in control partially since it seems to many that he is abandoning his life dream. However, as the quote makes clear, Hilgenbrinck believes that the path he has taken from public school to play soccer (instead of Catholic School), to Peru (instead of Major League Soccer) and now the priesthood are all part of the path that has been laid out for him.
What is it about Hilgenbrinck's prior profession that makes his story so compelling? Would not any other person leaving a career, whether it be in law, journalism, medicine or manufacturing, have a story that is just as compelling? Perhaps we should see more stories such as this that aren't necessarily on the sports pages.