Clergy from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland and beyond joined the family and friends of Bishop emeritus Anthony M. Pilla on Sept. 27 to begin saying a final farewell to the beloved bishop who died Sept. 21 at age 88. He served 26 years as bishop of Cleveland, 1980-2006.
Before vespers – evening prayer for the dead – began, Auxiliary Bishop emeritus Roger Gries, OSB, the presider, read messages of condolence from Church hierarchy offering thanksgiving for his many years of dedicated service to the Church of Cleveland and the wider Church. Bishop Pilla, the first son of the diocese to serve as its bishop, also served three years as head of what is now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He was the ninth bishop of Cleveland.
Among those attending were Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson Perez, who served as Cleveland’s 11th bishop 2017-2020, and Bishop Neal Buckon, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, a former priest of the Cleveland Diocese. Many diocesan employees and seminarians also were at the liturgy.
Vespers began with Bishop Gries sprinkling the bishop’s wooden casket with holy water. Family members then placed a simple cream-colored pall with a large burgundy cross on top of the casket. After processing up the main aisle, Bishop Gries placed a Book of the Gospels on top of the casket.
“The Servant Song” was sung as the procession moved to the front of the cathedral. Two psalms and a canticle were sung before a member of Bishop Pilla’s family read a passage from Scripture.
Bishop Martin Amos, retired bishop of Davenport, Iowa and a former priest of the Cleveland Diocese, was the homilist. He read a short poem of thanksgiving before noting that the bishop was a son, brother, uncle, great-uncle, priest and a bishop for more than 40 years. “He was our bishop,” said Bishop Amos.
“Those who worked with him and knew him have their own memories of him,” he said. “He loved his priests and like to remind them that they were good priests and this was a good diocese.” He said the late bishop deeply loved his family, especially his mother, Libera.
Bishop Amos said he has two vivid memories of Bishop Pilla. One was in April 2001, when he was called to Bishop Pilla’s office and informed that Pope John Paul II had appointed him auxiliary bishop of the Cleveland Diocese.
The second was in October 2006, after the apostolic nuncio called him to say Pope Benedict had appointed him bishop of Davenport.
“Bishop Pilla said, ‘Davenport? Davenport?’” he quipped.
When a bishop installs a new pastor, Bishop Amos said the priest is reminded to be three things: a wise teacher, a gentle shepherd and a loving father. “Bishop Pilla was all of those things,” he said.
He exemplified the wise teacher throughout his long involvement with the formation of priests in the diocese, serving as a teacher and administrator at the diocesan seminary.
He was a gentle shepherd, but Bishop Amos noted that “sometimes he had to get the attention of the sheep. But I truly believe he never wanted to hurt anyone.”
In addition, the late bishop was a loving father who loved his family, his Church and his diocese, Bishop Amos said, modeling himself after Jesus, the high priest, who also was a loving father and a gentle shepherd.
After intercessions and additional prayers, Bishop Gries gave a final blessing.
The casket was prepared for visitation, which continued until 7 p.m.
The funeral Mass, which also will be livestreamed on the diocesan website, begins at 11 a.m. Sept. 28 in the cathedral. Bishop Edward Malesic, the 12th bishop of Cleveland, will be the main celebrant.
Bishop Pill will be interred in Resurrection Chapel, also in the cathedral. The chapel is the final resting place of several Cleveland bishops, including – most recently – Bishop Richard Lennon, the 10th bishop of the diocese, who died in October 2019.
The diocesan archives prepared a digital exhibit in thanksgiving for the life and ministry of Bishop Pilla. Click here to view it.
More information about Bishop Pilla, including a video tribute, is available here.