BOSTON — When he was playing professional soccer in Chile, Chase Hilgenbrinck would seek comfort in the churches to satisfy his spiritual needs and remind him of childhood Sundays spent at Holy Trinity in his hometown of Bloomington, Ill.
Even after moving back to the United States last Christmas to play Major League Soccer — a dream of his, but just one of them — Hilgenbrinck felt the pull of his religion.
"I felt called to something greater," said Hilgenbrinck, who played college soccer at Clemson. "At one time I thought that call might be professional soccer. In the past few years, I found my soul is hungry for something else.
"I discerned, through prayer, that it was calling me to the Catholic Church. I do not want this call to pass me by."
Hilgenbrinck accepted the calling on Monday when he left the New England Revolution and retired from professional soccer to enter a seminary, where he will spend the next six years studying theology and philosophy so he can be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest.
"It's not that I'm ready to leave soccer. I still have a great passion for the game," he said in a telephone interview. "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."
A 26-year-old defender who was the captain of the Revolution's reserve team, Hilgenbrinck will attend Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. After finishing his studies, he will report to his home parish in Peoria, Ill., for assignment.
"He said it was time for him, that he had been thinking long and hard," New England vice president of player personnel Michael Burns said. "Purely from a 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."
Raised in a Catholic family of regular churchgoers, Hilgenbrinck lettered at Clemson from 2000-03. He started 58 of the 74 games in which he played during his four years for the Tigers.
He hooked on with the Chilean first division after he went unpicked in the 2004 MLS draft.
Far from home, he began to seek out familiar surroundings.
"I fell back on what I knew, and that was the Catholic Church," he said. "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 didn't have to go to church any more, I was free to really believe what I wanted to believe.
"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."
Hilgenbrinck was signed and cut by the Colorado Rapids before he landed with the Revolution. He played in four MLS games for New England and started in both of the Revolution's U.S. Open Cup matches this month.
Although he has felt the calling for some time, Hilgenbrinck also knew it would be easier to continue playing soccer. He tried to convince himself that he was not ready, not deserving, or not in a hurry.
"I was putting up a bunch of barriers, saying I'm not worthy to be called to something like that," he said. "But, one by one, the barriers started to come down."
With a short window in which he will be able to play professional sports, he considered postponing the priesthood until after his career was over. But he decided with the same certainty that he could not allow himself to wait.
"Trust me, I thought of that," said Hilgenbrinck, who in his studies came across the saying, "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."
Hilgenbrinck had his initial interview for the seminary last July, followed by a rigorous application process. There were written tests, personality screenings, background checks, fingerprinting and meetings with three different psychiatrists to make sure he had the right temperament to be a priest.
At first, he told no one, lest they influence him one way or the other: "I really wanted it to be a decision between me and God," he said.
There were more tests in January, and in March Hilgenbrinck learned he had been accepted to the seminary. A few weeks ago, he met with Burns and Revolution coach Steve Nicol.
"We weren't exactly sure what he was going to say, because it's not what you usually hear," Burns said. "When he said it, I was glad. I was glad for him. This is something that he clearly wants to do, and we wish him all the best."