Note: This is the sixth profile in a series of 90 stories highlighting individuals who have shaped Notre Dame and/or live the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility.
When a priest is called to serve as bishop in the Catholic community, he is asked to select a motto, a brief statement of how he hears God’s call to service, an expression of what gives him inspiration and courage. Bishop Anthony M. Pilla chose words taken from the Gospel of St. John, Christ’s discourse at the Last Supper: “Live on in my love.”
Bishop Pilla has taken the challenge of those words seriously over the 25 years he served as bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland and in the years since. Conscious of the times and the power of the Gospel to address society’s needs and concerns, he has called for faith and action on vast religious, political, economic, national and international issues. Through his writings, lectures and educational efforts, Bishop Pilla has addressed hunger, homelessness, toxic waste, AIDS, substance abuse, violence, universal access to health care, quality education for all children, fair housing laws, and access to decent housing.
In 1993, Bishop Pilla published a challenging paper titled “The Church in the City,” which raised urban sprawl as a moral issue for the Diocese of Cleveland. The bishop questioned whether the unbalanced pattern of development occurring in Northeast Ohio – a pattern of migration from older urban areas and the creation of enclaves of wealth in new suburbs – was socially just, environmentally sustainable, or spiritually healthy. He challenged and invited Northeast Ohioans to become involved in rebuilding their communities and thus reversing the isolation of people that results from migration.
“We can create new cities, the kind our society longs for,” Bishop Pilla wrote. “Cities where people of different incomes, races, and culture can live together and be enriched by each other’s presence. Cities where the poor and disadvantaged will be able to live and achieve beyond their initial circumstances to the fullness of their human potential; where the weak and the powerless will be freed from chains forged by fear of violence and delivered from the destructiveness of drugs. We can build new cities where children will be able to live in decent homes, have sufficient food and receive an education which will prepare them for a life of meaningful employment.”
Bishop Pilla’s paper led to the Church in the City Initiative, which seeks to address the gap between rich and poor people, the relationships between people of different faiths, urban development and redevelopment, the development of suburbs and the decline of central cities, and the impact of urban sprawl. Since its inception, dozens of relationships have developed between urban parishes and suburban and rural parishes throughout the diocese.
Bishop Pilla has received the Notre Dame College Medal, the Fidelia Award and an Honory Doctorate of Humane Letters from NDC.
“Bishop Pilla elevated the work of justice and peace in Cleveland through his own pastorals,” Tom Allio, senior director of the diocese’s Social Action Office, said during an award acceptance speech at the 2011 Roundtable Symposium. “He taught us that anyone who aspired to be a ‘Servant of Justice’ must always strive to manifest Christ’s love for the poor and most vulnerable.”
In 2009, Notre Dame College honored Bishop Pilla with the Notre Dame College Medal, NDC’s highest honor, for his steadfast commitment to those in need and his role in building bridges of understanding in the diverse Diocese of Cleveland.
“The purpose of education is ultimately moral. It is to teach what ought to be done and it is to follow the examples of people like Bishop Pilla,” said Dr. Andrew P. Roth, president of NDC. “Bishop Pilla exemplifies personal, professional and global responsibility. He served and continues to serve the least of his brothers.”
Bishop Pilla grew up in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood. He is a graduate of Borromeo College and St. Mary Seminary. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1959, and served as a young priest at St. Bartholomew Parish. In 1960, he entered an academic career in history and economics and was appointed rector of St. Mary Seminary. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and a Master of Arts in History from John Carroll University, an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Baldwin-Wallace College as well as honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters from Cleveland State University, John Carroll University, Ursuline College and Notre Dame College.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II announced his choice of Father Pilla as auxiliary bishop of Cleveland. A year later, he was named the ninth bishop of Cleveland and given the responsibility to shepherd almost one million Catholics.
His 25-year period as bishop has been marked by outstanding pastoral responses to issues such as family life, poverty and the development of youth. He led the sixth largest Catholic school system in the nation and was attentive to educational opportunities for all the children of the region.
In 1994, Notre Dame presented Bishop Pilla with the Fidelia Award for his longstanding spiritual and intellectual support of the College. In 2002, NDC established the Bishop Anthony M. Pilla Scholarship Fund to honor him for his lifelong dedication to higher education and his endeavors to make a Catholic education accessible to disadvantaged Cleveland students. The fund encouraged Northeast Ohio philanthropists to enable impoverished students to achieve their dreams of a college education.
Bishop Pilla served on numerous community boards and committees including the boards of the Greater Cleveland Roundtable, the Catholic University of America and the former National Council of Christians and Jews. Over the years, he was instrumental in strengthening the relationships between Cleveland’s Catholic and Jewish communities.
At the 2009 Medal Dinner, fellow Notre Dame College Medal recipient and college trustee Sam H. Miller praised the bishop for his commitment to interfaith relationships in Cleveland.
“I have known this bishop now for about 30 years,” Miller said. “He has done more [than anyone else in Cleveland], in my opinion, for making Jews and Catholics realize that the differences between them are so much less than the commonality that they share.”
Bishop Pilla’s work went far beyond Northeast Ohio, however. He was the first bishop in the United States to write about the Church’s concern for the environment. He chaired the Implementation Committee for the United States Bishops' Pastoral on the Economy. For three years, he served as vice president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops before being elected president in November 1995, completing his term three years later.
“He had sharp political instincts, which he used locally to champion the plight of the poor, and nationally when he played a significant role in 2001 that convinced President George W. Bush to include the refundable child tax credit in his budget. This initiative lifted 500,000 children out of poverty,” said Allio, of the diocese’s Social Action Office. “He was a leader who understood that trust and relationships are everything. He was a consensus builder, who was unafraid of genuine debate, diverse opinions and honest dialogue. His inspiring example gave credibility and life to our four decades of work in Cleveland.”
Bishop Pilla’s work has made Northeast Ohio a better place, and his life is a testament to the motto he chose when he was called to service as a bishop: “Live on in my love.”