Thursday, January 05, 2006

Pilla: Still Bishop of Cleveland

Some reports this morning seemed to indicate that Bishop Anthony Pilla's resignation as head of the diocese of Cleveland and its more than 800,000 Catholics is relatively imminent.

Rumors circulating in recent weeks of Pilla's desire to leave office early were confirmed when the bishop yesterday told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that he had asked to be relieved of the governance of the diocese in advance of his 75th birthday in November 2007.

Despite the unusual request, a word of caution is still advisable.

Bishop Pilla's letter to the Holy See seeking retirement under the provisions of Canon 401, paragraph 2 merely sets into motion the process for the selection of his successor, which normally begins once a bishop has surpassed the canonical retirement age of 75. In recent years, however, particularly in the wake of the sex abuse scandals since 2002, the replacement of retiring diocesan bishops has been subject to increased scrutiny placed upon potential nominees by both the Congregation for Bishops in Rome and the apostolic nunciature to the United States in Washington. Delays have often extended to beyond a superannuated prelate's 76th or even 77th birthday.

In an interview with Whispers, Cleveland diocesan spokesman Bob Tayek indicated that Pilla intends to remain in his post until the acceptance of his retirement and designation of his successor, a series of events which could likely take a year or more to conclude and are expected to occur in tandem.

"He's not going anywhere," Tayek said of Pilla, whose patience will spare the diocese of having to install an administrator to govern it for the interim. Alluding to the bishop's awareness of the the state of the process, the spokesman said the bishop "just wanted to get [his request] into the pipeline."

On the eve of his 25th anniversary as diocesan bishop, Pilla -- who served as an auxiliary of Cleveland for 18 months prior to his ascension to the top post -- is both the longest-serving bishop in the diocese's 160-year history and the first native son to serve as its head.

Despite lacking the distinction of being a metropolitan see -- an honor accorded in its province to the older archdiocese of Cincinatti -- the diocese of Cleveland is the largest local church in one of the United States' largest, and most densely Catholic, states. Cleveland currently ranks 15th among American dioceses in terms of Catholic population, and its history of influential prelates has made it one of the most prominent postings in this country. This reality was uniquely affirmed over the course of the 20th century, when several of its bishops in succession were elevated to the dignity of archbishop ad personam (i.e. an honor for themselves, not one tied to the local church). The appointment of then-Bishop James Hickey, rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, to Cleveland in 1974 was seen as a reward for his work in formation in the Eternal City. Hickey was promoted to the archdiocese of Washington in 1979 and made a Cardinal in 1988.

Complicating the timetable which will select the tenth bishop of Cleveland are several shifts at work, both in Rome and the United States.

The Cleveland appointment will be the first major American appointment to bear the stamp of Pope Benedict XVI's hand-picked representative to the United States, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who was appointed as nuncio to Washington last month to replace the retiring Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo.

Sambi, who is not expected to arrive in Washington until late January at the earliest, must establish his own criteria for the research and consultation processes from which the terna of recommended nominees is produced before the appointment dossier can proceed to the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican, which votes to forward one name to the Pope.

The Congregation is currently at its highest-ever American compliment of five prelates, among whom can be expected a significant exchange of views given Cleveland's size and prominence on the national stage. Notable among the Americans is Archbishop William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose counsel has already begun to be felt in Benedict's first US appointments, coming barely five months after his arrival in Rome.

Pilla, who served as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1995-98, is said to be "well aware" of the factors which will likely delay Rome's acceptance of his retirement. To mark his Silver Jubilee as diocesan bishop, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington will celebrate an invitation-only liturgy tomorrow at Cleveland's Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist at which a standing-room only crowd of 1,200 is expected.