In 2011, the then-newly named Bishop Donald J. Hying was driving a 2002 Volkswagen Beetle. Bright red, it had more than 190,000 miles on it.
“Ernie Von Schledorn called and told me, ‘Your Beetle must be getting tired,’ the bishop said.
The car dealer convinced him to get a new one.
“But I didn’t want a black car, because every bishop drives a black car,” Bishop Hying recalled, laughing. He had no choice, as black was all they had. Color aside, it’s still a Beetle, a 2012 model.
The choice of a car is indicative of his humble approach to the episcopacy.
“Gone are the days when bishops rode around in limousines and wore gloves, and just lived at a distance in some kind of haze of luxury and pomp. All that’s gone, and rightfully so; it’s good that it’s gone,” said
Bishop Hying, who celebrated his silver jubilee May 20. “Bishops today are much more with their priests and their people, side by side in the trenches, doing servant leadership. That’s a good thing.”
No doubt he would be a priest
Some teens agonize over what they will be when they grow up. Sixteen-year-old Donald J. Hying, future
priest and bishop, didn’t agonize; he knew.
“God’s call of my life to the priesthood was this absolute, clear message,” he said in a May 8 interview with the Catholic Herald.
Only once – about six months before he was ordained a deacon – did he wonder.
“I was sitting at Sunday Mass watching the priest preach and I had this moment of panic where I just realized that in about a year you’re going to be doing this every day – of your life,” he said. “Is this what you want to be doing?”
The clarity to his vocation he heard nine years earlier returned, and he, along with 12 other men, were
Stretching body, mind and spirit
For the last 25 years, Bishop Donald J. Hying, by his own admission has done a lot of stretching.
ordained to the priesthood.
“The message I heard from God at that point was don’t look at the whole trajectory of your life; all you have to do is say ‘yes’ to the next experience, ‘yes’ to the next day, ‘yes to the next moment,’” Bishop Hying said. “I’ve always tried to live my life in the present moment, and especially since being a bishop that really helps, because if you look at the whole picture, it’s just overwhelming.”
Even as bishop, a ‘parish priest’
Bishop Hying spent the first 17 years of his priesthood in parish work, including three years as a team member at the archdiocesan mission parish, La Sagrada Familia, in the Dominican Republic, before then-Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan appointed him rector of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in 2007. He misses what priesthood in a parish offers.
“I miss the specificity of a parish community that you related to for at least six to 12 years. You get to know a particular group of people, you know their life stories, you know their problems, you know their hopes, you know their holiness,” he said, adding he especially misses Christmas and Holy Week. “And it informs how you preach, how you are present in that parish.”
Bishop Hying has adopted a perspective Cardinal Dolan has about the role of a bishop.
“When I look at the success of Cardinal Dolan, I think it’s his decision to continue to see himself as a parish priest, and I still see myself as a parish priest; I’m the associate pastor of the whole archdiocese,” he said.
Life-changing phone call
While he had 10 years to consider God’s call to priesthood, he had almost no time to consider the call to episcopacy. That call came on May 10, 2011, with the-late Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, conveying that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Fr. Hying to be auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee. The nuncio needed an immediate answer.
“My response was that being obedient to the church has never gotten me anything but blessings and goodness, I have to trust that it will be the same in this,” he recalled of his conversation with the nuncio. “If God called me to something, he’ll give me the courage to be faithful to it.”
He did experience what he termed a “panic moment.” It came on the first day of a conference for new bishops in Rome. It was all in Italian and with people he had never met.
“The first talk was on the essential duties of the bishop, which seemed to be everything. And again, there was this moment of ‘What did I get myself into?’ There’s no way out of this; it’s already a done deal,’” he said. “At that moment, I thought of that panic moment before I was a deacon, and I was filled with peace, because in that sense it’s the same thing only at a different stage.”
‘Extraordinary opportunities, experiences’
Bishop Hying regularly refers to his priesthood and episcopacy as blessings from God.
“To be with people in the most poignant, joyful, sorrowful significant moments of their lives, sacramental moments, counseling moments, being with somebody when they’re dying at 3 a.m., marriage counseling, celebrating a wedding, doing a baptism, all the things a priest does,” he said, terming them as “extraordinary opportunities.”
But he welcomes the “extraordinary experiences” he has had as a bishop – celebrating Mass at Lourdes, visiting Assisi, going to bishops’ conference meetings, and meeting the pope.
“These have helped me appreciate the beauty and the universality of the church in a broader context than just our own diocese,” Bishop Hying said. “In all of that, I feel God has blessed me with some remarkable experiences that have really stretched my understanding of God and the church – beyond anything I would have envisioned as a parish priest just starting out.”
Shaped by office, shaping the office
In an interview following Bishop Hying’s appointment, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki noted the office shapes the bishop, and that the bishop shapes the office. Bishop Hying has experienced both.
“Being a bishop pulls certain things out of you administratively and sacramentally with confirmations and ordinations,” he said, adding with a laugh, “In some ways people have a different perception of you. What you say seems to matter on some level. That always surprises me sometimes. There’s this expectation of the office.”
The “shaping” of the office has much to do with his persona, as well as his roots in the church in which he was raised.
“For me, there’s the grace of being in my own archdiocese; people knew me before and I like to think people don’t really treat me that much differently than they did before and that they still see me as someone who is approachable, (who) will listen to them, who tries to love them and serve them,” Bishop Hying said. “And people are still very comfortable to call and ask for favors or sacraments, or to come in for spiritual direction, or to counsel them about something.”
He estimated that one-third of his time is devoted to pastoral work, e.g., sacraments, presentations, talks; one-third to administration; and one-third to correspondence and personal appointments.
“I have put a lot of time into the Archdiocesan Synod and the new evangelization,” Bishop Hying said.
Beyond the view of church he might have had as a parish priest or as the seminary rector, being a bishop has provided him with a wider view of the church.
“It’s challenged me to take a more universal vision of things. I really see how all the parts fit into the whole,” Bishop Hying said. “As you see in a broader way the graces, blessings and good things going on, you also see in a deeper way the problems, challenges and difficulties. You see all of that on a bigger stage.”
As priest and bishop, a praying servant
It might be the humble roots that Albert and Catherine Hying provided their sons, the embracement of the Gospel, the example of Pope Francis, or a combination of the three, but as a bishop, Bishop Hying sees himself the same way he did as a priest – a servant.
“There’s no glory in being a bishop, and rightfully so. There shouldn’t be – in terms of earthly glory,” he said. “Sometimes people look at it from the outside and think it is glamorous life, but it’s a lot of hard and good work for the sake of the church, proclamation of the Gospel.”
In his growth as a priest and a bishop, he has learned what he is capable of doing.
“They challenge you to have to go outside of yourself to preach about God, faith, hope, eternal life, the Gospel – the things you feel you’re not necessarily qualified to speak about, yet God has called you to do that,” Bishop Hying said. “Both priesthood and being a bishop have put me in situations that have taken me beyond my levels of comfort and culled gifts out of me perhaps I didn’t think I had.”
Prayer has had an impact upon the bishop’s 25 years of ministry, and vice versa. It all begins, he said, by putting is relationship with God at the center of all he does.
“I feel like every day I am blessed to serve more people; more intentions, more situations insert themselves into my life and demand some sort of spiritual inclusion in my prayer,” Bishop Hying said. “The spirituality of a parish priest has to somehow incorporate the essence of his ministry with his people and the time God wants for you alone. To be effective in what we do, we have to be men of prayer.”