Evangelizing a Troubled World: An interview with Bishop Donald J. Hying

Unrest, violence and societal angst show that, more than ever, says the bishop of the Diocese of Madison, the world needs Jesus Christ.

The recent virus pandemic and Black Lives Matter street violence show the urgent need to bring Christ to the world, Bishop Donald J. Hying said in an interview with CWR. (Photo by Chris Duzynski)

MADISON, Wisconsin — When Most Rev. Donald J. Hying took possession of the crozier as the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Madison, he said the job would involve challenging “our culture of violence and narcissism and materialism.” But he never expected what his first year delivered: a global pandemic that shut down public Masses for months, and rioting around the Capitol Square in Downtown Madison.

The sea changes in American society over the past four months—street violence and feared mass casualties from the coronavirus—have crystallized the urgent need for the Catholic Church to evangelize, Hying said. The fear and uncertainty brought on by current events should impress upon Catholics the need to bring souls to Jesus, Hying said as he reflected on his first year in Madison.

“Evangelization is very much in my heart,” Bishop Hying said during a wide-ranging interview at diocesan headquarters on Madison’s west side. “When we examine the writings of recent popes, when we examine the Acts of the Apostles, it’s clear that the mission of the Church is simple. Jesus put it well in the Great Commission. It’s hidden in plain sight for us to see.”

Hying, 56, succeeded the late Bishop Robert C. Morlino, who died suddenly in November 2018 after leading the diocese for 15 years. Hying’s appointment was a homecoming for the native of West Allis, Wisconsin, who spent four years as rector of St. Francis de Sales Seminary before becoming an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Hying has been a very visible bishop, from his daily video reflections, to a nightly Rosary live-streamed on the Internet, to a brisk public schedule that aimed to take him to every parish in the 11-county diocese.

As his flock wrestled with limited Mass availability caused by COVID-19, and rioting erupted around the state Capitol, Bishop Hying prepared a major evangelization initiative that aims to involve every practicing Catholic. The goals are simple: strengthen faith inside the Church, reclaim fallen-away Catholics, and bring the Gospel to unbelievers and the non-Christian world.

“That’s the mission of Christ, that’s the mission of the Church. Again, especially in this moment where pre-COVID we had 70 percent of our people not coming to Mass,” Hying said. “We have to (evangelize) if we want not only to survive, but flourish. Evangelization is not an option. It’s what we must embrace.”

The evangelization plan began in May when Bishop Hying issued a pastoral letter titled “Go Make Disciples”. It continues with the formation of leadership teams at each of the diocese’s 102 parishes across south-central Wisconsin. It will branch out to the faithful and beyond starting in Advent and continuing into the diocese’s 75th anniversary year in 2021. While the plan has goals, there is no end date because it needs to be a permanent part of Catholic life, Hying said. “It’s what Jesus said at the end of his earthly life: go make disciples, proclaim the Gospel to every creature, teach all nations what I have commanded you, and baptize in the name of the Trinity.”

Hying observed two anniversaries this summer: his first year as Madison bishop and his ninth year overall as a bishop. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2011, before being named bishop of the Diocese of Gary in Indiana. He arrived in Madison in June 2019. His leadership experience has served him well, as current events threw life into chaos and he was faced with government mandates to close public worship due to the coronavirus.

Coronavirus tests the faithful

Bishop Hying suspended public Masses on March 16 due to growing fears that the coronavirus that spread from China could cause mass casualties. But unlike many other dioceses nationally that locked the churches, Bishop Hying made sure the faithful were not cut off from their spiritual homes.

“One thing that we were always adamant about here in the Diocese of Madison is that churches would be open for Eucharistic adoration, that priests would be available for confession, and churches would be open for private prayer,” Hying said. “There were many dioceses where churches were locked tight as a drum, 24-7. That was never the case here, so even in the most ambiguous first weeks of COVID, we still had those opportunities available to our people consistently.”

As frustrations mounted over the COVID-19 societal lockdown, Bishop Hying said, “I would always remind people part of being Catholic is being a good citizen. We see that even in the early writings of the Church. Christians only resisted the edicts of the Roman Empire when it came up against faith; when it became a crisis of conscience. So part of being a good Christian is being a good citizen. It seems to me in the COVID crisis, part of being a good citizen is truly caring for the health of others around us.”

After the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” program that kept most of the population homebound well into May, Dane County quickly moved to impose its own continuing restrictions on public gatherings. Churches were limited to 10 people in attendance at Mass, while big-box stores, restaurants, and health clubs could be open with 25 percent of their building’s capacity. Local health officials threatened to send observers into the churches to ensure compliance. That unequal treatment didn’t sit well with Bishop Hying, so he engaged the Becket Fund to prepare for litigation against the city of Madison and Dane County. After receiving a 17-page letter from two Washington, D.C. law firms representing the diocese, the city and county backed down.

“As with every bishop, I was faced with the two extremes,” he said. “The one extreme saying, ‘You’re being reckless with the little bit that you’re even doing,’ and the other extreme is, ‘we should just completely disregard the government; this is an assault on religious liberty and we should just be bold in our defiance.’ I think prudence led me to the middle course. In the end, we threatened to sue the city and the county over the changes in restrictions here in Dane County. In some people’s minds, that made me a hero and in other people’s minds, a villain. I’d like to think I’m not either one, really. We did what we felt we needed to do in that situation.”

The coronavirus lockdown tested the faith of many, Hying said, with the majority finding their appreciation deepened for Holy Mass and the sacraments. A smaller group, he said, struggled with fear and despair, and maybe thought about giving up on the Church.

“I heard from many people [who] really almost expressed a physical aching for the Eucharist,” Bishop Hying said, “and [had] this realization that what Jesus says in John Chapter 6 is profoundly true, that He is the Bread of Life and those who feed on Him will live forever. That Eucharistic Christ is the source of our—not only promise of eternal life—but even our spiritual sustenance on our pilgrimage to the Father’s house.”

Hying won’t ascribe potential motives for the government actions to vastly limit church attendance. “I’m not sure if it was insidious or pernicious,” he said. “I would certainly want to give the benefit of the doubt to the intentions of everyone.”

“One thing it does say is that the spiritual health of our people would not necessarily be a priority for a secular way of thinking.”

The legal challenge launched against Madison and Dane County over COVID-19 regulation of public gatherings was a fundamental issue of fairness, Bishop Donald J. Hying said. (Photo by Chris Duzynski)

Violence in the streets

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May led to ongoing protests in Madison by supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. On several occasions, protests turned violent and led to rioting, vandalism, and widespread looting along State Street in Downtown Madison. Dozens of closed, boarded-up retail stores more than a month later are testament to the ongoing damage to the community. On June 23, the arrest of a black activist who harassed a mother praying the Rosary and a tavern full of patrons led to more violence. A mob of up to 300 people toppled two-centuries-old statues on the Capitol Square, vandalized the state Capitol and other government buildings, firebombed the City-County Building, stole a tow truck, severely beat a state senator who tried to photograph the protests, and beat a motorist who happened to drive up near a group of rioters.

The protest movement sparked by Floyd’s death has some very troubling aspects, Hying said, although he firmly believes racist treatment of blacks is one of the “greatest moral failures” in America’s history. “Having said that, it’s clear when you read the manifesto of Black Lives Matter, it goes far beyond that question of racism,” he said. “They advocate the destruction of the nuclear family, they advocate homosexual expression, really any sexual expression; they advocate abortion. Clearly things that are against our faith and really strike at the heart of the dignity of the human person. I would concur with those who would be warning against Black Lives Matter as a political movement.”

The BLM phenomenon has striking differences from the civil rights protests of the 1960s, Hying said. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Protestant minister who used scriptural references to formulate his vision of leadership. Protesters sang Christian songs and engaged in non-violent protests. “I find that radically missing in this current moment. It’s as if all of that has been pushed aside, found to be inadequate, or even found to be a stumbling block,” he said. “So what you’re left then is really an assertion of power against the perceived injustice, but it can’t be healing, because it’s not rooted in the truth of the human person and it’s not rooted in forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Hying said current events make him think of the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II. For human society to flourish, the pope said, it needs a thriving, authentic public morality, a healthy economy with the human person as the end of all economic activity, and a healthy democracy, driven by virtue. “Here again I think we see a very organized, financed group of people who have essentially embraced violence to instill fear and intimidation in other people,” Hying said. “How can any of that come to a good end, or be efficacious for the eradication of racism and inequality? It contains within itself the seeds of the very thing that they profess to fight.”

There is a movement among BLM supporters that others must embrace their goals and methods—or else. “We see a disturbing trend here that if you are not vocally, radically for us, for our goals and our methods, then somehow you’re an enemy to us and you need to be intimidated and even in certain cases, assaulted,” he said. “That’s the definition of bullying. We’re so ostensibly against bullying. Here’s bullying on a massive scale. It’s not to say that there isn’t racism and there aren’t things that need to change, it’s the methodology and the ideology behind the methodology.”

Catholic targets for persecution?

Events such as the threatening of the Rosary-praying mother, the toppling of statues of St. Junipero Serra in California and Christopher Columbus in Baltimore, and the threatened destruction of a statue of St. Louis, leave Catholics worried about persecution in the public square. Recent violence, combined with the COVID crisis, have left some wondering if we have entered into the end times.

“It may feel that way. To be honest, there’s times I feel that way as well,” Bishop Hying said. “Is this some sort of apocalyptic moment? Yet again, being a student of history, I think this must have been what the Polish people felt like when Hitler ran across their borders; it must have been what French Catholics felt like when the French Revolution hit. It must have been what the Russians felt when communism took over.”

Hying said for most of Christian history, the Church has been under attack, so Catholics should not be surprised to find themselves persecuted for the faith. Today’s events don’t rise to the level of violence against the early Christians, who were brutally martyred by the thousands. “Think of the numbers of popes and bishops and priests and laity that have been imprisoned and martyred and murdered for their faith,” he said. “To think I may go to jail someday if certain proclamations of truth are labeled hate crimes…the Church has been in jail before and will probably be in jail again.”

Catholics will be increasingly called to witness to their faith just as the early Church did. Being Catholic “really forces a decision,” Hying said. “Part of this is really a sifting the wheat, as the scriptures say. There’s not going to be a lot of room in the middle; either you’re in or you’re out. Either you’re going to conform to the culture or you’re going to be a Catholic. There’s decreasing amount of a kind of neutral middle space between those two choices. The choices are pretty stark.”

On June 22, Hying issued a statement condemning the toppling of Catholic statues and the suggestion that any art work or depiction of Jesus as white should be torn down. His denunciation drew national attention, a reflection of his increased public profile beyond the Diocese of Madison. He said it all comes with the job.

“Current events have forced the issue perhaps with greater clarity,” he said. “I wouldn’t label myself as a culture warrior. I don’t enjoy being in conflict with people, and yet there’s times when that is required. The virtue of prudence—often times people think of prudence as doing nothing—prudence is knowing the right thing to do and, as importantly, the right time to do it.”

Marks of evangelization

Bishop Hying’s evangelization efforts will ask every Catholic to cultivate relationships that help bring more people to Christ. He wants to see Sunday re-claimed as the sabbath, with every Catholic coming to Mass. Catholics should spend at least 15 minutes a day in prayer, utilizing the Scriptures. And if all Catholics went to confession once a month and did some sort of penance, the impact would be huge.

“Is that the totality of living our faith? No, but I think it’s four measurable actions that we can say, ‘Imagine if every Catholic just did those four things.’ How that would transform our parishes, our diocese, our communities,” Hying said. “We would have a deep impact on the course of human events if we awakened the sleeping giant that is Catholicism.”

The mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous says one can only maintain sobriety if he or she is busy helping someone else find theirs. “I think that applies so beautifully to faith,” Bishop Hying said. “I will only grow in my own faith if I’m busily sharing that faith and cultivating it in others. Evangelicals kind of have that down pat. Any Evangelical worth his or her salt is busy cultivating three other people: buying them a Bible, bringing them to church, listening to their problems, praying with them. We’re not trained as Catholics to do that. It’s what we need to get over.”

Most Rev. Donald J. Hying, shown at his June 2019 installation Mass, says evangelization could awaken “the sleeping giant that is Catholicism.” (Photo by Joseph M. Hanneman)

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About Joseph M. Hanneman 32 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.

10 Comments

  1. It’s not “teach all nations what I have commanded you”. It’s “teach the disciples you’ve made and baptized to observe all that I have commanded you”. A little reading comprehension goes a long way.

    • Bishop Hying: ““It’s what Jesus said at the end of his earthly life: go make disciples, proclaim the Gospel to every creature, teach all nations what I have commanded you, and baptize in the name of the Trinity.”

      Jesus (Matt 28:19-20): “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”

      What’s your issue with his summation?

  2. Well Bishop I guess toppling statues is more important to save than unborn babies being murdered 6 days a week in your home town.
    “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?

    • A most ridiculous and uncharitable comment. Is it really surprising or unusual that the bishop would, first, answer the questions asked him and that, second, the questions would focus on many recent and significant events? As for Bishop Hying’s views on abortion, this, from last year, seems quite clear:

      Any person with a modicum of moral conscience, human decency and basic common sense is reacting with outrage and horror to the recent state legislative initiatives in New York, and those now proposed in Virginia, which allow abortion right up to birth without the requirement of a doctor’s presence.

      The governor of Virginia has stated that if a baby intended for abortion was accidentally born alive, the mother could still decide to kill the child.

      These proposals represent a new low in the inhumane evil which the abortion culture in this country has embraced.

      The “pro-choice” mantra has always been that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” In actuality, it is dangerous, immoral and common. The constant refrain that a woman should have control of her own body will now include the right to take a life that has actually left her body.

      Abortion and infanticide are not evil and wrong because the Catholic Church and many others say that they are. These attacks on human life in its most tender and vulnerable stage violate the moral law inscribed in every heart. One can be an atheist and still conclude that it is wrong to kill another.

      • Thank you, Carl. Bishop Hying has spent time praying outside abortuaries. His pro-life bona fides are clear. My decision to focus on those topics for our discussion was not in any way a reflection on other Catholic issues.

  3. I can’t find a playbook for Catholic evangelism. I have Protestants in my family who are very close. They are Lutheran and they feel that their faith is so important, that they leave the contest of evangelism to Catholics. Moreover, they are Christians who struggle to believe that they are different in Christ’s eyes. Making things even worse for a rogue evangelist they will not discuss religion at the dinner table. That playbook would be part of a curriculum for a doctor of philosophy.
    Excerpt:
    “Most Rev. Donald J. Hying said. The fear and uncertainty brought on by current events should impress upon Catholics the need to bring souls to Jesus, Hying said as he reflected on his first year in Madison.” Please don’t frown on our weakness.

    • This is an inspiring article. I especially am motivated by the section on Marks of Evengelization. Thank you.

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