Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla Remembered As A Compassionate Shepherd

Bishop Anthony M. Pilla
[Catholic Diocese of Cleveland]

Updated 2:47 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021

Cleveland's Catholic community is mourning the death of Bishop Emeritus Anthony M. Pilla. Pilla, a native Clevelander who led the Diocese of Cleveland for 25 years, died at his home Tuesday morning. He was 88.

"In my short time as the bishop of Cleveland, I came to know Bishop Pilla as a very warm, kind-hearted and deeply faithful shepherd, always dedicated to the people of the diocese," Bishop Edward Malesic said in a statement. "I felt so welcomed by him when I came to the Diocese of Cleveland, a Church that he loved so much. As a leader in the community and a friend to so many, he will be greatly missed."

Pilla will be remembered for his work to improve the lives of every Clevelander, said businessman and longtime friend Umberto Fedeli. That meant everyone regardless of their faith, nationality or status.

“He was truly a Cleveland legend, a giant in a very kind, compassionate and loving way,” Fedeli said. “‘We do this not because someone is Catholic, we do it because we are Catholic,’ is what he said.”

Pilla, who was inducted in to the Cleveland International Hall of Fame, worked to lessen racial and economic divides in Cleveland, as well as to bridge gaps between Jewish and Catholic people.

He served as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1995 to 1998.

“He was a real part of the fabric of our community,” Fedeli said. “He was known all over. But he was our bishop, and he will be missed immensely.”

While speaking at The City Club of Cleveland in 1982, just a year after he was installed as bishop, Pilla highlighted the church’s place as a moral compass for society.

“I believe there must be also be a courageous effort to reform the conscience of humanity,” the bishop said. “I believe that the isolation of the poor and the vulnerable members of our community particularly wounds the whole community.”

Pilla was kind and supportive both in his work and his personal life, said Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Roger Gries. He also oversaw efforts to increase engagement in local Catholic communities during their decades of working together, Gries said.

Many parishes were shrinking as people moved out of the city, Gries said, and leaders expected parishes to close or combine in the face of low attendance. But Pilla maintained a policy of letting parishioners decide what happened within their community, Gries said.

“His whole policy with all of that was to let it come from the people,” Gries said. “Let the people recognize when they can no longer support the parish or when they can no longer be active in the parish.”

Pilla's  "Church in the City" initiative promoted spiritual and economic bonds between parishioners in poorer city parishes and the more well-to-do suburban ones. 

The bishop's work continued even after retirement, Gries said, and he leaves behind a legacy of encouragment and support for those who most need it.

He also built up a reputation of being accessible and open to the community, said Chip Joseph, the former director of Catholic Charities’ Hunger and Shelter Network. Joseph is in recovery for substance abuse, he said, something Pilla supported him through.

“One day at work, he said, ‘I worked at 12 Steps,’ and I said, ‘Really? Are you in recovery?’” Joseph said. “He said, ‘No, I’m not in recovery. But it doesn’t mean the 12 Steps aren’t a good idea for all people.’”

The Bishop William Cosgrove Center, which provides resources for those facing hunger, relied on Pilla’s effort and support, Joseph said. In order for the center to start, a Catholic school needed to be relocated, he said, and Pilla made that happen.

“He was a great guy. Not somebody you felt, 'Oh, I can’t approach him. he’s the bishop,'” Joseph said. “He was very approachable, and very interested in the lives of others.”

Following the national revelation of decades of priest sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in 2002, Pilla appointed members of a commission to review the Diocese of Cleveland's policies and procedures regarding cases of sexual abuse.

Pilla was a champion for social justice and peace, said Tom Allio, former Senior Director at the Cleveland Diocesan Social Action Office. Allio met with Pilla for lunch a few weeks ago, he said, and Pilla continued to provide keen insight and guidance.

“He would invite people of various different faiths and no faith to the table over common concerns, to try and improve the quality of life of people,” Allio said.

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland will host a funeral for Bishop Pilla, beginning with vespers at 3 p.m. Sept. 27 in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Cleveland. The wake will continue until 7 p.m.

A funeral mass will take place at 11 a.m. Sept. 28. Both events will be livestreamed on the diocese’s website, and the stream will be archived.

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