Finding God's Greatness
Rev. Craig Vasek Specialist for the National Eucharist Revival, Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Father Chase Hilgenbrinck, retired professional soccer player and current Vocations Director for the Diocese of Peoria, spoke with Father Craig Vasek, Athletics Chaplain of the University of Mary, on a video call on February 2, 2021, to discuss his experiences and insights concerning virtue and sport.
Fr. Craig Vasek (FVasek): Father, perhaps to start you could give us a brief sketch of your life and your experience of sport?
Fr. Chase Hilgenbrinck (FHilgenbrinck): I grew up like a lot of kids in the United States who play every sport – I wasn’t a one-sport athlete. My brother and I were athletic, and our parents were both athletes themselves, so we had great genes. We were a sports family. I didn’t grow up with Seinfeld, or The Simpsons, or Family Guy – I grew up with Sports Center and Chicago Bulls games. I grew up in Illinois in the 1990s, when Michael Jordan and the Bulls won six NBA championships! Michael Jordan was my idol and my reference for what it means to live greatness in this world.
I think back to junior high, being at the stage where everyone is hitting puberty and you’re becoming aware of yourself and the people around you. It’s around that point that you begin to think you need to be important in some way. Some of that might be unhealthy, but I think it’s part of a natural maturation process. Around that time I began to feel like I was called to something great. It wasn't out of arrogance, and I didn't tell anyone about it. But I experienced a greatness within myself that was based in this sense of “I’m made for something great, but I don’t know what it is yet.” So when I saw Michael Jordan, I thought, “Well that’s it, I’m going to play in the NBA. That’s the greatness I was made for.”
My brother, Blaise, and I were naturally athletic – not because we trained harder than everyone, but just due to natural ability. We were usually some of the better players for whatever teams we played on. But by our high school years we recognized that we weren’t going to play basketball beyond high school, and that if we wanted to continue playing sports beyond that point, we would have to choose another sport. We realized that we were both pretty good at soccer, so we focused our efforts there. We played on the under-17 National team with the likes of a kid named Landon Donovan, who no one knew at the time but now is probably one of the greatest players who has ever played for our country. Blaise and I both went on to play Division I soccer: he played at Butler University, and I played at Clemson University.
At Clemson, I played on great teams that were ranked in the top 10 in the nation. Scouts following those top teams recognized that some of us had the ability to play at the next level, which led to me having the opportunity to sign a contract to play professionally. A couple of my teammates went to Europe – which was probably the end goal for all of us – and some played in the United States. My first contract was with a team in Chile, and I played in Chile for four years. While I was there I had an incredible encounter with God. I came back to finish one season in Major League Soccer with the New England Revolution, where I promptly retired midseason a month before entering seminary at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, for my pre-theology studies.
FVasek: Let’s go back to the notion of greatness you had as a child, when you looked at Michael Jordan as your reference point. There aren’t many people out there who are greater than him. You said that within your experience of a call and desire for greatness there was a mixture in your heart: something noble was beginning to awaken in your heart, but there were also desires of this world. Could you take us through that experience a bit more? What did greatness mean to you at that young age?
FHilgenbrinck: I think that the core of what I was experiencing in my heart was pure – I was experiencing something of my humanity at a young age. I could probably describe what I was experiencing now in more theological terms, but I couldn’t describe it at the time, and maybe I didn’t want to. It was almost like my own little secret. It was almost like that desire was my experience of God at the time. I had faith in God and was in a practicing Catholic family, so I knew that this experience of greatness had something to do with my soul and something to do with God. But at that point I wasn’t really attentive to the greatness of what it is to be a Christian. I didn’t see living out the Catholic faith as something that would be great in my life – I believed in God but I wasn’t pious, so I didn’t make that connection.
In their natural immaturity, a young man or young woman isn’t able to separate that deeper call to greatness and worldly senses of greatness. That’s why young people need good mentors.
At the same time, the fact that I wanted everything that Michael Jordan had wasn’t as healthy. I didn’t just want to be great like him, I wanted what he had: a big house, a big car, a beautiful woman, great parties, and popularity. I wanted people to notice me: I wanted people to ask for my autograph when I walked across the street or got off the bus. So there was a desire for worldly greatness within me. I don’t think that those things are completely impure, to be honest: when a kid is desiring greatness, there is an inability to acknowledge what that really means. In their natural immaturity, a young man or young woman isn’t able to separate that deeper call to greatness and worldly senses of greatness. That’s why young people need good mentors. That’s why it’s so important that we do interviews like this and talk about true virtue, about what is of God and what is of the world, and about how we can continue to seek greatness in the truest sense.
FVasek: I think your point that those worldly senses of greatness aren’t completely impure is important. Without that vision or fantasy or idea of having everything that comes with success or greatness, so many young people wouldn’t begin to pursue greatness. Idealism is one of the great benefits of youth, and even though it will take us some time and maturation before we arrive at a true understanding of greatness, that idealism can get us started in the right direction.
In your own life, what was that process of purification like? I’m thinking specifically of you recognizing that your future and your greatness weren’t going to be in basketball. You had to make a shift in your life and confront the fact that you didn’t have unrestricted, unlimited talent, right? You had to confront reality and recognize that your greatness wasn’t going to be found in your original dream of playing in the NBA. Take us through some of that experience.
FHilgenbrinck: I think a lot of that shift came along with natural maturity. There is a growth in natural maturity that comes along with the shift from being in junior high to high school, especially when you’re being taught virtue at home and trying to live it out. The recognition that my future wasn’t going to be in the NBA that came along with that natural maturation was my first notion that I’m not completely in control of my life and what my greatness will look like.
I probably wouldn’t have admitted it in my playing days, but soccer was not my first option. It was second best, almost like a consolation prize. But as I played the game more, I started to fall in love with it. By the time I was playing at the highest level, especially with the national team, I recognized the greatness of the game. Through that shift from basketball to soccer, I had to recognize that greatness is not necessarily what I defined it to be or wanted it to be. I’m saying a lot this in hindsight, of course – I wasn’t thinking of it in these clear terms at the time, but there was something happening consciously inside me.
I’m grateful to have had people guiding me. I wasn’t my own best mentor. My dad’s voice has been prominent throughout my life, and I remember him guiding me towards soccer, saying that we needed to focus there. I wanted to continue playing baseball, but that would have been a true waste of my time – no offense to the sport! But it was my dad who made me realize that I needed to focus on soccer because I had a future there. My dad’s natural mentorship helped me to recognize that I needed other people to help me make good decisions about the greatness I was to live. I needed that guidance to see that it wasn’t God’s plan for me to do just whatever I wanted with my life. That paid dividends when it came to finding out who I truly am in God’s sight and what he was calling me to.
FVasek: We’re not the sole architects of our futures. There’s a limit we experience in ourselves, but there’s also something outside of ourselves we have to be in touch with, which is why having good mentors – virtuous coaches, chaplains, and ultimately God – is so important.
It doesn’t seem like this was your experience, but I’m wondering if you could speak to what happens when people fail to recognize that their greatness won’t be found within their original plan? In some student-athletes I’ve seen a certain blindness to self: they’re convinced that they’re the best at something when in reality they’re not. And they could be the best at something else, but they’ve gotten attached to a particular idea of greatness and they never accept reality or listen to a mentor, so they just bulldoze forward. As you said, you came to recognize that your greatness wasn’t going to be found in basketball, so you were able to make the change to soccer. But I’m sure you’ve seen – as I have – many people who never listen, who never accept reality.
It takes humility to recognize that my idea of how I’m going to be great might not be the reality.
FHilgenbrinck: I think one of the best images for what you are describing is the parent on the sidelines who is crazy about their kid having more playing time, or they’re yelling at the referees or getting into fights with other parents, all because they’re too blinded to recognize that maybe their kid isn’t as good as they think he is. That parent is desiring their kid’s greatness more than anything else in life, and it blinds them. Let’s remember that this comes from a good spot. Jesus is able to be merciful because he steps into our chaos and understands from our perspective. So when I see people who are struggling with that blindness, I try to enter into that same mercy and think, “This is me back in the day when I understood that I was made for something great but still didn’t quite know what that would look like. This is someone who hasn’t been guided, or hasn’t been able to break through and see the truth about themselves, who struggles with the humility to accept that maybe this just isn’t their spot in life.” I think of the people who audition on American Idol who can’t sing but are really convinced that they can, and they try to convince the judges that they’re the next big thing. And everyone else knows they can’t sing. That can be so tough. The same thing happens in sports – it’s sort of like a misguided sense of greatness. People have the desire to be great, but sometimes we encounter people who haven’t figured out that their greatness isn’t in the particular thing they’re focused on. It takes humility to recognize that my idea of how I’m going to be great might not be the reality. So the goal is to help those people to recognize that God has given them other gifts and that they are truly made for greatness – it just may not be in soccer or in basketball or in becoming the next American idol.
FVasek: Let’s transition, then, to the idea of striving for greatness in the right way. At the University of Mary, we constantly speak to our athletes about the essential role of magnanimity and humility in sport. Magnanimity is striving for greatness: not just striving for average, not just “I guess I’ll give it a college try” or something like that, but “I’m really going to strive for the heights and make use of everything that I have.” Could you speak to the role of that healthy, magnanimous striving in your journey? What are the benefits that you derived from it and what are potential threats that have come against it?
FHilgenbrinck: Throughout my soccer career, I could never get enough of the call to greatness I felt within myself. It seemed like as soon as I put one jersey on, I was looking for the next jersey. In junior high, all I wanted was to wear a high school jersey and be one of those kids I had watched growing up. Then in high school I thought that the opportunity to play in college was the ultimate goal. And then when I got to college, I began to realize that it might be realistic that I would be able to play professionally. Even as a professional, there was always another jersey: I was always wondering if I would ever get to play in Europe or get back to the United States to play in front of friends and family. There was always a next best thing, so there was always striving. I think there’s a healthiness behind that, because it means you’re never becoming complacent and you’re never saying, “I’ve arrived.” Complacency is the death of anybody involved in sport, or business, or a Catholic university. Complacency leaves you dead in the water because while everyone around you is striving and advancing and improving, you’re not. And so naturally the competitive nature of an athlete spurs us on to the next level.
The virtue of magnanimity is the key to this healthy striving. Magnanimity is the virtue by which we strive to the fullest of our ability. We speak of magnanimity as being between two vices: megalomania and pusillanimity.
When we go beyond that and strive beyond our true ability, we become like the blind athlete or singer who think they deserve something, and they become bitter and entitled when they don’t receive it. That striving for power and control beyond what I could actually have is called ‘megalomania.’ There becomes this sense that everybody else is the problem. When we strive beyond our true abilities, we end up turning back in on ourselves. So we have to be honest with ourselves. Honesty and humility go together. Truth and humility have to be one.
On the other hand, if I don’t strive according to my ability but instead say “I’ll never play a college sport” or “we’ll never win the championship” or “I’ll never be a starter on this team,” when I actually have the ability to do those things and others have prepared me to do those things, I sell myself short. That’s not magnanimous. It’s the vice of pusillanimity. Stopping too soon will probably lead to a false humility, which at its root is pride. Good and virtuous people who are simply led the wrong way can fall into this.
Magnanimity means striving according to my ability. Remember that Aristotle says that virtue is always in the middle between two extremes. So we want to strive without striving arrogantly beyond our ability but also without selling ourselves short. If I do that, I’ll become the person I’ve been called to be.
FVasek: To continue this idea of always striving, always looking for something more and never being satisfied, always knowing there’s a potential for me to pursue, perhaps we could speak about the object and purpose of sport. That sort of hunger and drive can be good, but it can also get warped and become strange and vicious.
At the University of Mary, we speak to our athletes frequently about the distinction between the object of sport and the purpose of sport. The object of sport is, of course, to win: we’re not just playing around on the playground, but we have a real objective. But the purpose of sport is the grander context, it answers the question of why sport exists in the first place. It requires us to ask the question of why humanity exists in the first place, and who we are and why we are here. So while the object of sport is to win, the purpose of sport taps into the deeper question of the purpose of life, the question of what it is that makes my existence matter. The purpose of sport involves harnessing the potential for greatness within me.
The virtue of magnanimity is the key to this healthy striving. Magnanimity is the virtue by which we strive to the fullest of our ability.
Could you speak, then, to the place of winning within sport? There are healthy and unhealthy ideas of winning and success, and they shape how we approach sport as a whole.
FHilgenbrinck: If winning is the only thing that matters – if being the best is the only thing that matters – then my career was a failure. Imagine all those teams that don’t win the championship each year: does that mean their season was a failure? In my own career, even when I had a great year and was recognized for my accomplishments, I knew Lionel Messi was a far better soccer player than me, so I knew I wasn’t the best. Does that mean my experience wasn’t worth anything? When you really think about it, then, it just doesn’t make sense to think that winning is the only thing that matters.
My coach at Clemson, Trevor Adair, would make us write out our team goals at the beginning of each season. I remember that one year our goals were all about winning: “We want to win the ACC championship. We want to win the national championship,” that sort of thing. Coach Adair wanted to win a national championship even more than his players did – it was really obvious at every moment that he wanted to win a national championship. But when he saw our goals that year, he looked back at the team and asked, “If we don’t achieve these goals, does that mean we had no success this year? Go write them again.” So as a team we started over. That really opened my eyes. Coach Adair, who wanted to win more than we did, understood that there is something more to success than winning itself.
I only came full circle to understanding sport after I retired. After I had retired, I started reading the works of St. John Paul II. He was lauded as a great lover of sport and a great athlete – I never saw him playing sports so I can’t vouch for the second claim, but I can say that his vision of sport sticks with me to this day: sport is the school of moral virtue. When I encountered that claim, it challenged me: if sport was a school, what had I taken away? I am the man I am today because of the way I engaged in sport. Now I look at all these young athletes and realize that no matter what club or school they play for, they’re being formed in virtue. Every time an athlete goes to practice, he or she is being trained in discipline, is being trained in the reality that there is something bigger than himself or herself, is being trained in sacrifice, is being trained to lose with class and win with humility. Athletes even learn how to sleep and eat properly to maximize their potential. For athletes, there is a daily growth in discipline. This means that we need interpreters who are able to guide those experiences into growth in magnanimity of life. This means we need people to step in and ask, “Do you understand that the things you did to grow in your sport will impact your life as a Catholic in this world? Do you know how to take this growth you’ve experienced and use it outside the sport?”
I have five former teammates who work for the same company all across the United States. It’s a medical sales company named 'Stryker,' and they headhunt former athletes. Why? Because they know that athletes are competitive, that they’re willing to sacrifice, that they recognize that the company is larger than their own sales, that they’re willing to go out and be winners but that they don’t put their heads down and quit when they lose. And Stryker is killing it because they hire athletes who have been trained every day in the school of moral virtue.
FVasek: I’m glad you brought up that idea from St. John Paul II. Sport is a school of moral virtue – the perfection of human powers of the soul, we could say – but it also leads to the perfection of our physical powers. And that’s why we’re so focused on helping our student-athletes at the University of Mary to translate the growth and virtue that come from sport into the rest of their lives.
In the past, you’ve spoken to the idea of hope, and I was wondering if you could speak to that a bit today. What does hope have to do with sport?
[W]e want to strive without striving arrogantly beyond our ability but also without selling ourselves short. If I do that, I’ll become the person I’ve been called to be.
FHilgenbrinck: I think my answer to that question will summarize a lot of what we’ve already talked about. I actually just spoke about hope in sport a week ago: the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University have good FOCUS missionaries in their Varsity Catholic programs there, and I spoke with student-athletes at those universities on Zoom.
When I think about all the athletes I come across on a regular basis, we all have some experience of hope. I remember hoping my entire career: hoping I would make the team, hoping we would win, hoping I could get another shot, hoping I would get recognized. When I was an athlete, I never hoped for God’s will to be done. I always hoped for my own will to be done, and I wanted God to confirm that. So it was never the virtue of hope, which desires God and the kingdom of heaven and for God’s will to be done in my life. That’s not what I wanted – I wanted my own will to be done. Athletes live on what we call ‘hope,’ but it’s not exactly the virtue of hope.
Even if the hope athletes often experience isn't the true virtue of hope, I think it’s something that can be harnessed. Faith, another of the theological virtues, is the virtue by which we assent with the intellect. The Scriptures say that faith comes through hearing: I hear something, then with my intellect I understand it and assent to believing it. In a profound way, hope actually accesses the will. So even when I don’t see something, even when I’m going through a dark night of the soul, even though our country doesn’t make sense to me right now, whatever the case may be, I don’t want to lose faith. And hope helps me to choose what is good, it allows me to choose my goal and continue seeking after it even when I can’t see it and struggle to believe it. When I’m behind two-to-nothing with 20 minutes left in the game, I need to believe that we can find a way to win even if I don’t see it yet. I have to find a way to continue the game. That’s what hope affords me.
The cool thing about hope, in my estimation, is that hope always seeks that level of greatness that we have within us, it always seeks happiness or the good. Whenever I speak to athletes – especially young athletes in high school – I say, “Are you dreaming about greatness? Do you have a goal? I bet you’re thinking I’m going to tell you to give all that up and become a priest or a religious sister. I’m not going to tell you that. I can tell you that your own idea of greatness will never be enough, and that the trappings of greatness will never fulfill you. I can say that with confidence. But strive after greatness, as long as you know and are open to the fact that God’s greatness is different than your idea of greatness, and he will redirect you when it’s time.” And I say that to them because it’s the story of my own life, of seeking greatness and doing things to the best of my ability, finally coming to know that my own definition of greatness would never be enough.
This all makes me think back to a definition of prayer that is given in the Catechism, which is based on St. Augustine: “prayer is the encounter of God's thirst with ours.” Prayer is where my thirst for God meets God’s thirst for me. In the same way, hope is where my desire for greatness in life meets God’s desire for greatness in me. Hope affords us the ability to choose what is great, and when we see greatness face to face in the person of Jesus Christ, we have the opportunity to choose something beyond our own limited idea of greatness. Jesus is coming for us.
FVasek: What’s the adage? “It’s easier to redirect a moving ball than to get a ball to move in the first place.” So we’re saying that it’s good to strive for greatness, as long as you are open to the redirection that’s going to come along the way. The Lord is coming for you and he’s insatiable. Healthy striving is a place where your thirst and his thirst can meet.
The connection you made between magnanimity and hope is so important. Both of those virtues recognize that there is a difficulty in front of us, but also that there is a good beyond that difficulty. Both recognize that the good beyond is greater than the difficulty before me, which means that I need to bring all my powers to bear and move through the difficulty.
It’s fitting that I see a picture of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati hanging on the wall behind you. (See image below.) What does he have to do with sport and magnanimity and hope?
FHilgenbrinck: I love this image of Bl. Pier Giorgio climbing a mountain free solo – he doesn’t have any equipment on. This image was taken by his friend a month before Bl. Pier Giorgio died. So he was sick when this image was taken. He signed the photograph for his friend, and he wrote “verso l’alto,” which means “to the heights.” To the very end, this man was striving, climbing the heights of that rock. At the end of his life he was still climbing, seeking excellence and greatness, living out magnanimity.
Bl. Pier Giorgio is an inspiring witness to me in the way he lived. In the very best sense, he was just a regular dude. I tell young men that I work with all the time, “Let’s just be normal, you know? We don’t need weirdness in the Church. That’s what drives people away. We need guys to be healthy, we need guys who strive for greatness.” Bl. Pier Giorgio reminds us to strive, to be normal, to be ourselves. We don’t have to put on anything false or do anything extra to impress people. Seek greatness, seek excellence, verso l’alto.
FVasek: A quote from Joseph Pieper comes to mind: we have a “never-ceasing necessity of a hope that is humble enough really to pray and, at the same time, magnanimous enough to wait cooperatively for the fulfillment of its prayer.” Father, thank you for your time.