Imanol Atxalandabaso: "The Lord scored a goal in the last minute".

A long inner process led Imanol Atxalandabaso, 46 years old and with a life linked to professional soccer, to hang up his shirt and whistle and enter the Bilbao seminary.

Maria José Atienza-July 26, 2021-Reading time: 6 minutes
Imanol atxa

Photo: Ordination of Imanol. ©Diocese of Bilbao

Although the vocation "was always there", the life of Imanol Atxalandabaso was not always the same in his closeness to the Church, this party had an extension and arrived until he was well past forty years old. But the restlessness continued and Imanol decided to enter the seminary so as not to die without the certainty that this was what God was calling him to. And God won the game, or rather, both won, because not only did he give him the desired goal, but he also signed him "sine die". Ordained a priest in 2021, he spoke with Omnes about this call, the reaction of his family and colleagues and the game he now plays in the "best team".

What is the process by which a person whose life is "more than done" decides to take a turn and enter the seminary at the age of 46? What was his life before?

-Indeed, it is a process. It is not a turn from one day to the next. Let's say that there are a series of issues in my life over which I did not have the slightest possibility of control and that favored: first, a recovery of the explicit sacramental life and second, based on that deepening, to consider vocation as a life option.

I asked for help and advice from people around me and finally I was referred to the rector of the diocesan seminary, who accompanied me for more than a year in the discernment process until I decided to take the step and check whether what I felt was from God or not. I understood that the only way to know was to enter the Seminary and that with time things would become clearer.

I understood then that the Seminary, besides being a space for formation and prayer, is also a space for discernment. With the logical cautions and fears, because it was at stake a life made and channeled and that could become indistinctly both the success and the error of my life.

I remember that I told the rector: "I cannot die without knowing it" and we got down to work knowing that it was going to be a process in which I was going to have ups and downs, as in any other; but knowing that I was not alone in this process. I had the best Master and a great team at my disposal.

I underline the process and I think it is of no interest what my life was like before. To simply say that I was working in something that I like, because I still like it, I felt privileged to work in something that I liked and on top of that I was paid. In a job that also has a service dimension.

Was the vocation latent from before or had you just not thought of it as a possibility... in soccer terms: Did God score a Brazilian goal or did you see it coming, like a penalty kick?

-The vocation has always been latent, regardless of my degree of adherence to the Lord at any given moment or, in other words, my distance from the Church and from God.

As has already been said, it was a process, so we can not speak of a goal of the Lord with filigree, but rather of a long, disputed, difficult match, with muddy field, in adverse weather conditions, equal, very tactical and with a goal of the Lord in the last minute.

Until the referee blows the final whistle, the match continues.

It was a long, disputed, difficult match, with a muddy pitch, in adverse weather conditions, evenly matched, very tactical and with a last minute goal from the Lord.

Imanol Atxalandabaso

How does your life of prayer and dedication to others change your perspectives once you decide to become a priest?

-The life of prayer, of course. I have always lived it to a greater or lesser extent wherever I have been and wherever I am. It can happen in many ways, the difference lies in the fact that as a priest the life of prayer and service become a life option.

It is the fulfillment of the double commandment of love, to love God above all things and to love one's neighbor as oneself.

How did friends, family, at work, do you think they would have reacted the same way 20 or 30 years ago?

-The reaction of the family was quite normal, regardless of the degree of closeness to the Church at present, we have all received a Christian education and Christian values are present within us, so the reaction was one of acceptance and in many cases of explicit joy.

Among friends the question has been above all one of respect, from joy and there were even those who told me that on the one hand I missed him, but on the other hand I did not. But the reaction that struck me the most was that of some of my friends, openly distant from the Church, who told me that they were very happy for me and that I should go ahead, that everything would be fine, and they did not hide a certain degree of joy and satisfaction.

I was working in the Vizcaya Football Federation and I had been there for fifteen years; specifically, I was part of the management team of the referees' college and I also ran the office. Once I had made the decision to join the Seminary, I called the President of the Federation and asked him in good time to find me a replacement because I was going to leave the organization. The President's reaction was of acceptance and he told me to be calm that we were going to prepare the papers for a leave of absence and that as long as he was President I would always have a job in the Federation. I thanked him, but I did not tell him where I was going.

At work, on the other hand, some of the closest people I worked with are people of faith and collaborators in various functions. I can tell the anecdote that on my work computer the accounts of a parish were kept by means of an accounting program, since the bursar was an officer and volunteer of the Federation.

The course at the Seminary began at the beginning of September and at the end of July of that year a prominent soccer leader of Bizkaia told me that he was inviting me to lunch and that he wanted to be with me. Of course I accepted, because he was one of those people you meet along the way and with whom it is very easy to become friends. He asked me what I had in mind and I put it together because he was worried. He thought he was leaving the Federation because he was unhappy or something and felt guilty. I reassured him and he thanked me. He told me he was sick and the disease was progressing day by day. He died in December of that same year.

I think the reaction 20 or 30 years ago would have been the same, of joy and acceptance, on the one hand; although secularization was not so present. However, I believe that among my friends, the passage of age plays in favor; now all of them are more mature and perfectly settled in their lives and with a more enriched vital perspective.

"Returning to the classroom, even if it's from a seminary, with trainers younger than yourself, can't be easy, can it?

-Indeed, the return to the classroom was difficult for me, but not because of the return itself. But because the university system had undergone a reform of such magnitude that it had nothing to do with the previous one. The Bologna system based on work and continuous assessment does not allow to reconcile work and study at the same time. To which we must add the technological evolution, the implementation of intranet systems, etc... But the current university system has an advantage and that is that you do not play the course in the two hours that lasts a final exam.

In addition, the age difference with the seminarians has been uneven, since nowadays the average age seems to be higher. There are seminarians of 18 years of age, but also of 30 years and older. I have to thank God that communion has always reigned in our Seminary and when there has been a problem I have talked about it up front to prevent it from festering and this method has always worked well.

Interestingly, the age of the formators was more similar to mine than that of the other seminarians and this undoubtedly gave me the possibility of connecting well with them and having a close personal relationship due to generational affinity.

Although the real difficulty was in adapting to the rhythm of life in the Seminary; it is a very demanding rhythm in order to fulfill its function of being a house of formation, prayer and discernment.

What is your life like now? What makes you happiest?  

-Right now I have just finished the last academic matters: the Pastoral Course at the Diocesan Institute of Theology and Pastoral Care and a postgraduate course in health at the University of Deusto. A demanding course with many hours of classroom and of course individual work. I would have liked to spend more hours dedicated to pastoral work, but it was not possible because of the COVID and the academic activity. Now with the change of course this new life begins or if you prefer I have been entering gradually and the full incorporation will be with the change of course, although the sacramental grace is always present.

What makes me happy is being with people.

Imanol Atxalandabaso

I must explicitly thank the people with whom I have teamed up in the pastoral activity, because they have always been respectful and considerate, aware of the responsibilities assigned to me in the academic order and for the facilities for my gradual incorporation into the ministerial activity.

What makes me happy is being with people. An example, a few days ago I had just come from being at the hospital all day, I was tired and it had been a hot day; as I left the parking lot I sat down on a bench in the shade leaving the bag with all the harnesses on one side. It wasn't five minutes later and two elderly ladies approached me and greeted me. We talked for quite a while, but it passed quickly. I realized that they were two women who live alone and needed to talk. Well, nothing, to serve. I was there with them and happy to see them happy.

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