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From the Field to the Altar

4/29/2011

Mike Latona

Chase Hilgenbrinck, a member of Mount St. Mary's Council 1965 in Emmitsburg, Md., was a defender for a Major League Soccer team when he decided to enter the seminary in 2008. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Grant Desme was a rising star in baseball's minor leagues. Chase Hilgenbrinck had reached the top rung of professional soccer. Peter Hannah was a highly skilled golfer with his mind set on a pro career. Yet, no longer do these men measure their life's work by pennants, penalty kicks or pars. The voices now guiding them don't come from coaches or crowds, but from deep within their souls, as they pursue studies for the Catholic priesthood.

In his message for this year's World Day of Prayer for Vocations, which will be observed May 15, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: "It is a challenging and uplifting invitation that Jesus addresses to those to whom he says: 'Follow me!'"

For Desme, Hilgenbrinck and Hannah, their challenge was to shed careers marked by superior athletic talent, public adulation and potentially big paychecks. Through their commitment, however, each has heard and responded to the "uplifting invitation" of Jesus.

ANSWERING THE CALL

In 2009, Desme was a star baseball player at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and he appeared to be on the fast track to a career in Major League Baseball. A second-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics that summer, he was the only player to record 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in the entire minor leagues, and he went on to earn Arizona Fall League MVP honors.

Shortly after the fall season ended, Desme visited St. Michael's Abbey of the Norbertine Fathers in Silverado, Calif., responding to a long-held desire to explore the priesthood. The Bakersfield, Calif., native then announced in January 2010 that he was retiring from baseball. Since entering the monastery last August, the 25-year-old novice is now known as Frater Matthew Desme.

"I just felt it was the right time. There has to be a point to actually make the step, to trust that the Lord is calling you," Frater Matthew said. He added that it was difficult to halt his athletic career while performing so well, but he believes that having it happen in such a fashion demonstrated how genuine his call to the priesthood was.

Likewise, Hilgenbrinck committed to entering the seminary during the peak of his soccer career. That happened in the summer of 2008, when he opted not to complete his first season as a defender with Major League Soccer's New England Revolution and instead began the process of becoming a seminarian.

A native of Bloomington, Ill., Hilgenbrinck built his soccer résumé by starting for three years at Clemson University and then playing four years professionally in Chile, competing before crowds of up to 50,000 people. But he felt out of place and homesick, and he coped by increasing his prayer time in South American churches and chapels.

"I fell back on the two things I knew: one of those was soccer, and the other was the Catholic Church. No matter where you go in the world, Jesus Christ is there in the tabernacle," Hilgenbrinck said.

Grant Desme, pictured here when he was an outfielder for California Polytechnic State University, was a top prospect for the Oakland Athletics. Now Frater Matthew, he is a novice at St. Michael's Abbey, home of the Norbertine Fathers in Silverado, Calif. (The Tribune/David Middlecamp)

From there he experienced anew thoughts of the priesthood that had first surfaced in college. Now 29, he is completing his third year at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.

Unlike Desme and Hilgenbrinck, Dominican Brother Peter Junipero Hannah, 33, bowed out of his athletic career before reaching the professional level. He won several junior golf tournaments growing up in Monterey, Calif., and then golfed for the University of California at San Diego. He was initially passionate about turning pro but had second thoughts by the time he began graduate school at St. John's College in Maryland in 2001. "I didn't want golf to become my idol," he said.

Influenced by the writings of G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Blessed John Henry Newman, the former Presbyterian was received into the Catholic Church in 2003 and began seminary in 2006 with the Order of Preachers.

A COUNTERCULTURAL DECISION

Any young man is to be admired when pursuing a vocation to the priesthood and committing to a life of celibacy, obedience and ministry. But it is especially shocking to mainstream society when the candidate has garnered considerable public praise for his athletic accomplishments.

Brother Peter, for one, is dismayed that athletics are etched so strongly into the national consciousness. "Sports are fun in a lot of ways, but our culture is kind of skewed in what they put into it," he said.

Observing that it would have taken years of intense commitment to hone his golf game to a professional level — with no guarantee of success — Brother Peter said he much prefers having devoted his life to service in the Lord. He is now completing a one-year parish assignment at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage, Alaska, as he prepares to be a priest. "I can't imagine a better life," he said.

Recognizing that many people place a high value on sports and that locker rooms are unlikely spots for discussing religion, Hilgenbrinck wasn't sure what kind of feedback he would get from his team when he announced his retirement from soccer.

"I was fearful because of how countercultural it was, especially in professional athletics," he said.

As it turned out, Hilgenbrinck's announcement was met by a lot of support from his teammates and many others.

"It was almost overwhelming to me, the goodness I experienced," he said, noting that some teammates who offered positive feedback were "guys I didn't even know had any faith or would even care one bit. It just showed me how hungry people are to practice their faith."

Like Hilgenbrinck, Frater Matthew prompted surprise, curiosity and good wishes from his baseball brethren.

Dominican Brother Peter Hannah's studies led him to join the Order of Preachers in 2006 rather than pursue a career in professional golf. (Photo by Mark Meyer)

"They were all really supportive, thanks be to God. I just had no idea how they were going to react, because I was playing well and this was out of the blue," he said.

One person who wished Frater Matthew well was Hilgenbrinck himself, who got in touch based on similarities that few others could share. Both young men received considerable national publicity in the wake of their athletic retirements, so Hilgenbrinck called to offer encouragement. "I was kind of telling him what to expect," he explained.

FINDING JOY IN SACRIFICE

Today, Frater Matthew is still very early in the 10-year process toward becoming a priest in the Norbertine order. He acknowledges that in some respects, the adjustment to monastic life is ongoing.

"Mopping and cleaning toilets three days a week is a lot different than playing in front of people watching a game every day," he said. Yet, he emphasized that he willingly embraces his new lifestyle, saying it is all a part of "trying to embrace the cross and live completely for Jesus."

Hilgenbrinck is due to be ordained in 2014 as a priest for the Diocese of Peoria, Ill. In addition to his seminary studies, he has taught high school theology, participated in confirmation preparation and Hispanic ministry, and has become an active member of the Knights of Columbus. Joining Mount St. Mary's University Council 1965, he said, was a decision influenced by the example of several family members who are long-time Knights.

"There's something special about these men, who wanted to do more than the ordinary, reaching out to the community," he added.

Brother Peter's responsibilities in Anchorage have included involvement with youth, young adult and catechetical programs at Holy Family Cathedral, as well as teaching church history at a local school. He will return this year for studies at St. Albert's Priory in Oakland, Calif., and, like Hilgenbrinck, anticipates being ordained in 2014.

Though their direction in life has changed, these men said they maintain a love for their respective sports. Brother Peter still plays golf occasionally, and Hilgenbrinck serves as chaplain — and joins an occasional scrimmage — with the Mount St. Mary's University men's soccer team.

Frater Matthew, on the other hand, can't easily play or follow baseball due to abbey regulations: television, the Internet and cell phones are not allowed. He willingly complies with these restrictions, though, saying he doesn't deserve any different treatment than his community members just because he was a star athlete.

"Everyone here is trying to give up their entire life for the Lord," Frater Matthew said. "My story is public because people enjoy baseball, but I didn't give up any more than they did."

These sacrifices are not without rewards. Frater Matthew describes his life as "very fulfilling," adding that in monastic life, as compared to baseball, "the joy goes a lot deeper."

Hilgenbrinck echoes these sentiments about his own vocational journey.

"This is the only thing that I want for myself," he said. "I can't believe how much peace I feel in my heart, that this is what the Lord has called me to do. I would never have imagined how much I would enjoy seminary and look forward to becoming a priest."

 

Mike Latona, a staff writer for the Catholic Courier in the Diocese of Rochester, is a member of Our Lady of the Cenacle Council 3892 in Greece, N.Y., and co-author of A Coach and a Miracle: Life Lessons from a Man Who Believed in an Autistic Boy (Beacon, 2011).