The Cleveland native led the area’s Roman Catholic Diocese for 25 years, becoming a beloved figure in the community.
CLEVELAND – Clevelanders will have one last chance on Tuesday to say goodbye to Bishop Anthony Pilla, one of the most prominent and beloved Roman Catholic figures in the history of the region.
Pilla’s funeral mass will be held on Tuesday at the St. John the Evangelist Cathedral downtown, under the presidency of Bishop Edward C. Malesic. Pilla, who led the diocese for 25 years, passed away a week ago today at the age of 88.
Son of Italian immigrants and a native of Little Italy in Cleveland, Pilla graduated from Borromeo College, Wickliffe (part of John Carroll University) before being ordained a priest in 1959. Twenty years later he was consecrated auxiliary bishop in Cleveland. , but just over a year passed before Pope John Paul II promoted him to bishop after James Aloysius Hickey was appointed Archbishop of Washington.
Pilla became the first (and so far the only) native of Clevelander to lead the diocese since its inception in 1847, and served from 1981 to 2006. His tenure saw a broad expansion in modern participation for the lay Catholics as well as his defense of the parishes of the urban districts of the city. He became known for his warmth and kindness to community members, and also fought quietly to help bring together liberal and conservative factions in the Church.
“[Jesus] wants us to be with him in a loving relationship, “he once said in one of his homilies.” Come with me on a pilgrimage of hope.
Like most bishops of the day, Pilla’s tenure in the early 2000s was affected by the clergy sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church around the world, and several accused priests were transferred instead. than revoked earlier in his tenure. Despite these earlier mistakes, Pilla is reportedly working to atone by removing abusive priests and establishing new safeguards that remain in place to this day, including a secular review board that examines such allegations. As a public gesture of reconciliation, he even washed the feet of a woman who had been raped by a priest as a child.
Partly due to the stress of work as well as burgeoning health issues, Pilla retired two years earlier than planned at the age of 73 and went on to become Bishop Emeritus. His replacement, Richard G. Lennon, then closed or consolidated 50 of the parishes that Pilla had fought to keep open, although the Vatican later partially canceled it and left 12 in operation.
Pilla remained in Greater Cleveland for the next 15 years, recently making an appearance at the Feast of the Assumption in Little Italy. With his death, Nelson J. Perez (now Archbishop of Philadelphia) becomes the only surviving former Bishop of Cleveland.
“Bishop Pilla warmly welcomed me to Cleveland in 2017 when Pope Francis appointed me the 11th bishop of this diocese,” Perez wrote last Tuesday. “During my time in Ohio, he became a close friend, a wise counselor, and a constant model of what a bishop is called to be.
“As a leader of the National Church, Bishop Pilla has been an inspiration and an example for me throughout my priesthood and my years as a bishop,” Malesic added, referring to the Pilla’s time as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1990s. “I felt so welcomed by him when I arrived in the Diocese of Cleveland, a church he loved so much.”
Pilla’s Vespers took place on Monday, and WKYC.com plans to broadcast today’s funeral live from 11 p.m. ET. After Mass is over, Pilla will be buried in the Cathedral’s Resurrection Chapel.
You can watch yesterday’s Vespers in the player below: