Sixteen-year-old Donald Hying was pulling the closing shift at Marc’s Big Boy on Highway 100 in West Allis in October 1979. Covered in grease after having fried chicken for several hours straight, the radio kept him company as he scrubbed fryers. A newscast reported on Pope John Paul II’s first trip to the United States and included an excerpt from the pope’s homily that day directed to young people.
God is calling all of you to a life of radical holiness and God is calling many of you to religious life or the priesthood, so when you hear the call, don’t be afraid of saying, “yes” to it, the teenage Hying heard the pope say.
He thought the pope was speaking directly to him.
When Bishop Hying, 47, looks back on his journey to the priesthood, that’s the defining moment.
“I go back often to that moment,” he said, describing it as a moment of grace and a turning point in his life.
Influenced by Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II’s election as pope a year earlier had already made a profound impact on Bishop Hying.
“From that moment he came out on the balcony, I felt everything he was saying, he was saying directly to me,” he said of the pope’s preaching.
Bishop Hying had considered priesthood – in fact his eighth grade classmates at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in West Allis had predicted in their yearbook that he’d be the first American pope – yet it was that radio broadcast that spurred him to action.
After completing his senior year at Brookfield Central High School in 1981, he visited De Sales Preparatory Seminary and applied to the college program. When it closed one year later, he attended classes at Marquette University, earning a bachelor of arts degree in history, philosophy and theology.
Family life centers around faith
The youngest of six sons born to Albert and Catherine Hying, Bishop Hying grew up in a devout, Catholic family.
Not only does he recall praying the rosary every night “365 days a year after supper, whether we wanted to or not,” he also remembers accompanying his mother to Mass at St. Aloysius Parish, West Allis, on Saturday evenings when she had to work a Sunday shift as a nurse at St. Camillus Nursing Home.
But come Sunday morning, even though the family attended Mass with their mother the previous day, Albert would rouse his sons again for Sunday morning Mass.
“That’s how we were raised,” said Bishop Hying in an interview with your Catholic Herald about a month before his July 20 ordination as auxiliary bishop of the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
“My parents were very devoted to God, devoted to the church, were people of deep prayer. Both were equally strong in the faith,” he said of the couple who met while working at Falk Corporation. Albert had dropped something heavy on his foot and was sent to the nurses’ office where he met company nurse, Catherine. They met in August 1951 and married the following June.
Tragedy strikes in 1969
Six boys followed in succession, with the youngest, Donald, arriving Aug. 18, 1963. Tragedy struck the young family, however, the day before Thanksgiving in 1969, when Patrick, 10, died of liver cancer.
The youngster had apparently been healthy until summer that year when he lost his appetite and his energy level decreased.
“We’d be running around and playing and suddenly he’d be off sitting by himself, which was very unlike him,” recalled Bishop Hying, who would have been 6 at the time. Doctors initially misdiagnosed Patrick’s ailment, and once it was properly diagnosed, treatment was not effective.
“Some say little kids don’t understand death, but I can remember all that as if it was yesterday. It forced me, at an extremely young age, to grapple with the mystery of why my brother seems to be gone,” said Bishop Hying, adding that in “some mysterious way, this had an impact on my call to priesthood.”
“Watching my parents grieve was very painful; my wanting to console them and not being able to as a little kid,” he said, recalling heart wrenching times when his mother, after Patrick’s death, would go outside to call the boys in for supper: “Will, Don, Patrick,” before catching herself and realizing Patrick wouldn’t be responding, noting that it was only in the last years of his mother’s life that she could talk about Patrick without crying.
The death of his brother has helped him be more sensitive in his ministry to parents who lose children at a young age, he said.
First introduction to seminary life
Also, about this time, Bishop Hying was first introduced to seminary life when he visited his second oldest brother, John, who was studying for the priesthood at De Sales Preparatory Seminary.
“I used to visit him when I was a little kid and that really made a big impact on me. I was very impressed with this place,” said Bishop Hying, describing the welcoming atmosphere he found in the hallowed halls of the seminary. John eventually left the seminary and is now married with four children and serving as director of faith formation at St. Anthony Parish, Menomonee Falls.
When Bishop Hying enrolled in the seminary, he was the youngest member of his class. Had he not entered the priesthood, Bishop Hying said the only other career he considered was as a history professor.
While supportive of either choice, his parents, now both deceased, never pushed him, said Bishop Hying.
“My parents had exactly the right attitude. They never pushed priesthood, and were supportive and always made it clear that if I felt I wasn’t called to this, I would not be disappointing them or letting them down. They always gave us beautiful freedom to discern what we were supposed to do with our lives,” he said.
Good fit for parish
Bishop Hying was one of 11 priests ordained by Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland on May 20, 1989, and his first assignment was as associate pastor at St. Anthony Parish, Menomonee Falls.
Parish life was a good fit for the compassionate, people-oriented young priest, who immersed himself in the life of the parish and in the lives of its families.
Whether sitting with people while they were dying, hearing confessions, or preaching at the funerals of young children, Bishop Hying looks upon those as “profound moments when God is using (me) to really have the Holy Spirit enter into the depths of someone’s heart and life in a new way.”
He knows that was the case one morning in Menomonee Falls when he was awakened by a ringing doorbell at 2 a.m.
“The doorbell was ringing furiously and I don’t know how long it had been ringing,” recalled Bishop Hying. Still shaking off sleep, he answered the door and found a drunk man who told him he had a loaded rifle in the back of his truck and he planned to use it to kill himself if Bishop Hying hadn’t answered the door.
“He was in such a position of profound despair,” said Bishop Hying. “I spent the rest of the night talking to him and I thank God I heard the bell. I thank God that he used me to save him.”
After five years at St. Anthony (1989 to 1994), he spent three years (1994-1997) as a team member at the archdiocesan mission parish in the Dominican Republic, La Sagrada Familia, (see related story, Page 35), a year as temporary administrator at St. Peter Parish, East Troy, (1998), a year as pastor of St. Anthony Parish, Milwaukee, (1998-1999), before being assigned as pastor of Our Lady of Good Hope Parish, Milwaukee, (1999-2005). In 2006, he was appointed temporary administrator of St. Augustine Parish, Milwaukee, and in 2007, he was appointed the 18th rector of Saint Francis Seminary, St. Francis.
Approaches life with humor
As rector, Bishop Hying developed a good rapport, often fueled by humor, with the seminarians.
“Christianity essentially, is a comic religion if you believe in the ultimate happy ending of the resurrection, so we need to be joyful and laugh and don’t take ourselves too seriously. My perception is that oftentimes God is kind of laughing at us. To me it’s a balance of how do you take things seriously, and not seriously at the same time. Humor helps us to face difficulties, tragedies, stresses, tensions,” he said.
That approach probably explains Bishop Hying’s reaction to the mounted deer head that he discovered in his seminary bathroom positioned above the toilet at 2 a.m. one morning.
Bishop Hying had just returned from a trip to the Dominican Republic, but even after the long day of traveling marked by flight delays, his eyes were focused enough to see the mounted creature which had previously graced the wall in the seminary basement’s “Rathskeller” staring back at him as he entered the bathroom.
Immediately he knew the redecorating culprits were then-seminarians, now Frs., Mark Brandl and Sean O’Connell.
“They wanted it back,” he said of the deer, “but it’s hung there ever since and, in fact, it’s convenient. I use one antler as a towel rack and the other as a toilet paper spindle so I told them, ‘You can’t have it back.’”
Surprised by appointment
His appointment by Pope Benedict XVI as auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee was a shock, admitted Bishop Hying.
“As with many priests, people always say, ‘You’re going to be a bishop one day,” but it was always something I dismissed and honestly dismissed, because I wasn’t the traditional prototype for someone who gets named to be a bishop. I did not study in Rome, I am not a monsignor, I spent most of my life as a parish priest, I don’t have an advanced degree (although he has completed all of the coursework in the doctor of ministry degree program at the University of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary/Mundelein Seminary). So I can honestly say, it was very unexpected,” he said of the announcement made in Rome on May 26.
While shocked, Bishop Hying said he calmly accepted the appointment, believing it to be God’s will made manifest in his life through obedience to a request made by someone in authority over him.
“When I think of my priesthood, everything I’ve done is because someone invited or asked me to do it,” he said.
“There is a freedom when you say yes to what is asked of you and you trust that God’s will is being made manifest in that question. The one time I forced my will in terms of a parish assignment, that was the only time I was not happy as a priest. That was a great lesson for me in that the one time I forced my will, it did not work out and every time I’ve surrendered, it’s worked out beautifully,” he said, adding that becoming bishop is “another example of allowing the Lord to carry me.”
Hopes to continue volunteer work
As he prepares to assume his new duties as auxiliary bishop, Bishop Hying said he hopes to be able to continue ministries to which he’s already committed. For example, once a month, he volunteers at the Guest House, passing out toiletries and bedding to guests; he also prays regularly in front of area abortion clinics, gives mission appeals for Hands Together, a U.S.-based group that runs schools, clinics and orphanages in Haiti, and is chaplain for the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
He expects his role as auxiliary to be pastoral.
“I’ve always anticipated that when my role of service as rector is finished, I’d be going back to a parish and be a pastor again,” he said, describing the satisfaction he gains from “being with the people of God, helping people in profound moments of need and spiritual growth.”
“My conviction is this appointment is less about the personality of the person in the office than it is about the office itself. God has established the role of bishop to be a servant who proclaims the Word of God and celebrates the sacraments and builds up the church through his ministry and my deepest prayer is that my episcopal service will be a blessing for the people of the archdiocese through the power of the Holy Spirit and that the Lord will give me a true servant’s heart to be faithful in that vocation to them,” he said, adding, “I love the archdiocese very much and I dedicate my life to its spiritual flourishing.”
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