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Obituary: Former USCCB president Bishop Pilla dies at 88

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by Christine Rousselle

Washington D.C., Sep 22, 2021 / 14:01 pm

Bishop Anthony Pilla, who led the Diocese of Cleveland for 25 years and served as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, died Tuesday, Sept. 21. He was 88.

“It is with deep sadness that I share with the Catholic community of the Diocese of Cleveland the news of the passing this morning of Bishop Anthony M. Pilla,” said Bishop Edward Malesic of Cleveland on Tuesday. “Bishop Pilla died peacefully at his personal residence.”

Malesic described his predecessor as a “very warm, kind-hearted and deeply faithful shepherd” who was “generous with his time and sharing his knowledge and concern for the diocese with me.”

Pilla, said Malesic, was dedicated to the people he served in Cleveland, and served as an inspiration to him throughout his priesthood and episcopate. “As a leader in the community and a friend to so many, he will be greatly missed,” Malesic said.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), echoed Malesic’s sentiment in a Wednesday statement on Pilla’s death.

“[Pilla] led the bishops’ conference in the 1990s as president, and those who worked with him have expressed that his deep love for the Church was evident through his faithful commitment and desire for unity within the Church which he expressed through his pastoral leadership of the Conference,” said Gomez. He offered prayers for Pilla’s family and friends.

“May the Lord grant him eternal rest,” said Gomez.

A native of Cleveland, Pilla was born on Nov. 12, 1932, and discerned a vocation to the priesthood while in high school. He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland at the age of 26 on May 23, 1959.

Almost exactly 20 years later, on June 30, 1979, Pilla was named as an auxiliary bishop of Cleveland by Pope John Paul II. He was consecrated as a bishop on Aug. 1, 1979, and, after just under a year, was named the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Cleveland after Bishop James Hickey was appointed to lead the Archdiocese of Washington.

Pilla was officially named the bishop of Cleveland on November 13, 1980, becoming the first native of the city to lead the diocese. He was installed as the ninth bishop of Cleveland on Jan. 6, 1981.

In November 1995, Pilla was elected president of the USCCB. At the time, he was just the second bishop to be elected president; typically, the role went to an archbishop. He served his three-year term until 1998.

Throughout his time as bishop of Cleveland, Pilla was known for his desire to unite the Church, and for his deep love for the people of his hometown. He started a program called “Church in the City,” which aimed at partnering people who lived in the urban, suburban, and rural parts of the diocese to work together.

Pilla retired from the episcopacy in 2006, at the age of 73, reportedly for health reasons. He spent the entirety of his episcopacy, and his priesthood, in the diocese of his birth.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.

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