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The president of the U.S. Bishops' Conference assesses the state of the American Church today
BY Bishop Anthony Pilla
Current posts: Ninth bishop of Cleveland, a diocese covering eight counties in north-central Ohio; president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB)
Background: Native of Cleveland; ordained as a priest May 23, 1959 and as a bishop Aug. 1, 1979; bachelor's degree in philosophy and masters degree in history from John Carroll University; rector-president of Borromeo College Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio; served in many capacities at all levels of Catholic education; treasurer and vice president of the NCCB before becoming its president
Episcopal motto: “Remain in My Love.”
As of November 1997, Bishop Anthony Pilla completes the second year of a three-year term as president of the bishops' conference. Currently, he is also leading his diocese, Cleveland, Ohio, in a year-long celebration of its 150th anniversary, with the theme “Celebrating God's Blessings.” Events marking the sesquicentennial include a Vatican art exhibit, a performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, a Walk-a-Thon/Pray-a-Thon in the city of Cleveland, an ecumenical concert, an exhibit of the history of the parishes at the Cleveland Historical Museum, and more. Bishop Pilla has overseen the growth of the diocesan schools that now serve almost 69,000 young people; and the diocese's Church in the City initiative engages suburban parishes in supporting the presence of the Church in the center city. At his diocesan offices in Cleveland, Bishop Pilla recently spoke with Register assistant editor Gerry Rauch.
Rauch: What qualities do the bishops look for when they select a president of the bishops' Conference?
Bishop Pilla: I think they look for someone who can facilitate the meetings and bring people together, and who can act as a spokesperson for the Conference; someone who is very aware that it is the conference's agenda and not his own. Most people see this position like a political presidency, where you come in with an agenda. I don't see my role that way. My role is more to facilitate the discussion of the bishops. And, once the bishops make a determination, to carry out that program in their name.
It is so easy to transfer ideas of the political process from the civil arena into the Church arena, and to think of the bishops voting like a legislature. How would you distinguish the two?
Actually, the authority of the Conference is very limited. The authority in dioceses really resides in the local bishop. But many people see the Conference as some kind of super-authority and they want us to make regulations and rules. Our authority to do so is very limited. We can give guidance and we can give expression to the Catholic presence in the United States, but in most matters we have no authority within the local Churches. Many times people write complaint letters, and even expect us to intervene. We have no authority to do that.
Letter writers to Catholic publications are often critical about what the bishops are doing or not doing, whatever the topic. How does that affect the bishops—to be the focus of so many complaints?
I guess none of the bishops are surprised about that because given the position that we are in, we frequently become the target of criticism. In our Church, people's perception is that it is such a monolith and that we have total control over this monolith.
Well, that perception does not reflect the reality. There are levels of authority and our authority is limited. Everyone is not our subject and we cannot just say a word and have it implemented immediately.
There are procedures, there are laws of the Church that give us authority, yes. But they also give other persons their proper authority and rights, and we cannot ignore that. There is due process in law, and we have to observe all of that.
I think criticism is not always a bad thing. We are not above criticism, personally and as a conference. We do make mistakes and we need to be accountable.
Quite frankly, the criticism is not the issue for me. The way in which people express that criticism in this day and age, though, does concern me. There seems to be, more often than I think is appropriate, a mean-spirited criticism by individuals, by the media, that calls into question a person's good will, a person's fidelity to the teachings of the Church, a person's motivation.
Sometimes that is directed toward the bishop. Sometime it is directed toward the Church. That can be quite harmful. I know it is harmful to us personally as bishops. It drains your energy and your emotions. It is really divisive and harmful to the unity of the Church. Criticism needs to be done in a spirit of civility, in a spirit of charity. And this is sometimes not present.
Do you think we are headed toward more polarization in the Catholic Church in America, or toward less?
Well, I don't know if it's more or less. I think it has always been there, but because of the technology today, because of the media, we are much more conscious of the polarization.
People now go to the media, they go to the press, they go to the television, they write, they use e-mail, they get on the Internet, they have a web page. All of that has instant audiences. I think the divisiveness within the Church has much more impact because of the modern context.
Do you think that means we are saddled with it for good?
Oh, I think we are saddled with it. And it's not just the technology. I think the culture in which we live promotes it maybe more than before.
You know, I don't want to use a word simply because it's connected now with a TV show, but there is nothing sacred. Everyone feels, in the context in the United States, you're free to take off on anyone you want—whether it is a priest, bishop, Pope, whatever.
That's the American way. The consumer mentality really prevails. If you don't like the product you are free to say anything you want, in any way you want, and people are supposed to allow you to do that.
Well, I'm not sure about that. I think if you want an answer you should write with some courtesy and some respect.
The other thing, too, in our culture, is that institutions don't fare well. There is such an emphasis on the individual and individual rights that the institution is always the ogre, and the villain. The individual is always the victim.
The government experiences the same thing. Other professions experience the same thing.
Can you think of a criticism that came your way that you did not agree with at first but ended up being helpful?
Yes, many times. With my first presbyteral council, for example: I needed to do things personally with priests more than I was doing. I felt this was constructive criticism.
And when we wrote the pastoral on the economy. As a direct reaction to criticism that we had not listened enough we had hearings throughout the country. We had drafts that people could react to. That was a direct result of constructive criticism.
The same thing with regard to lay participation on the Conference's committees. We are so conscious of the need for that because people have indicated that we don't have all the expertise on a number of issues. But many people within the Church do, and we ought to take advantage of that.
If we are dealing with medical-moral issues, we ought to involve doctors. We ought to involve other professional persons. We as bishops need to consult these people, and that is constructive. Obviously, we are the teachers, but that does not mean we have to possess all the knowledge ourselves. We ought to take advantage of these other experts in various fields.
When we write on the economy, we ought to talk to economists. We ought to talk to corporate people. We ought to talk to labor people.
I think women in the United States have made us much more conscious of the fact that even within the current discipline of the Church we need to be more inclusive and careful in how we speak so that we don't offend people unnecessarily. That is constructive.
You mention lay participation in the bishops' decision-making. It is my impression that there is a move somewhat away from that, with more of the committees being directly guided by the bishops. Is that correct?
I can understand how people perceive that. When we talked about the re-structuring of the conference, part of the consensus was that we do not need two conferences anymore: the NCCB and the USCC. The need for two was clear originally. But the context has changed, so that we don't necessarily need two. The consensus is we can get along with one conference. One conference, then, is a conference of bishops. If it is what it is—a conference of bishops—then bishops need to be on the committees.
But then what is the appropriate role of non-bishops? How do we involve other people? I don't think anyone wants to get away from the appropriate participation of non-bishops, but the task is “How do we incorporate that into a new structure that is a conference of bishops?”
And I think the arrangement will be that the members of the committees will be bishops, but that other persons, men and women, lay, religious, clergy—any non-bishop—will be in those committees in the role of consultants, or whatever role is as meaningful as we can make it.
The whole idea of national bishops' conferences is new since Vatican II. Has it been a good development?
The positive thing—and I see this as very, very positive— is that it allows us to serve the people of the Church together as bishops. While I understand the local bishops and the diocese, and the need for that, we also need to do things on a national level.
If we are really going to address issues of the Church on a national level, if we are going to mobilize the Church on a national level to address issues within our society, I think we need a structure to do that. I think the conference is a good structure to do that. It can bring people together to work together and to deal with issues in an effective way. There are a lot of issues that we have to address beyond the local Church.
It also gives us a perspective other than our local perspective. And it gives us a vehicle to impact policies that affect us locally. Many of those policies are national policies that have enormous impact at the local level, but as a bishop of the diocese of Cleveland you can't have that much impact on national policy. As a member of a national conference you can.
There is a ferment these days on the question of liturgical renewal. What is your own view on where we stand, and where we should be headed?
There is a tremendous diversity within the country. For some, we are not moving fast enough. They are afraid that they're going to be disappointed and disheartened because we are not going where they want us to be. For others we're moving too fast, or inappropriately, and they are afraid that we're going to take them where they don't want to be. That is a struggle.
My own sense is one of healthy development. We are progressing while trying to do so in a way that is pastorally advisable.
Change for the sake of change is not necessarily good. We have to make sure change is appropriate. If we make a change, there needs to be proper catechesis so that people can understand, and the change can be nourishing.
The document for the Synod forAmerica said that some approaches to liturgy do not preserve the sense of the transcendent. And some people want to restore that sense of the transcendent partly through a use of Latin. Is that a good direction?
I am convinced of the value of mystery, symbol, and a sense of the transcendent. It is very difficult to say whether a return to Latin will restore that; but I think that is part of the dialogue we have to have before we make decisions. Would it be appropriate because a group of people feel that way? There is also another large group of people who feel that while you preserve the mystery and the tradition, you should also have full participation, and can you have that full participation in a language other than the vernacular?
That is the diversity I was speaking of, and the difficulty for the conference is how to take all of that diversity and then legislate in a way that is going to preserve the unity of the Church.
Everyone wants us to do what they want done. Everyone wants the Church that they want. But it's Christ's Church so it has to have room for everybody. That is what people have a difficulty with.
You have special interest groups, you have special agendas, and everyone trying to influence the final result. That is what is difficult. That's why I think there is always going to be an amount of diversity within the Church.
Some people will struggle with that. They want to mandate for everyone. Everyone has an itch to reform everybody else and everyone wants to use the crosier on everyone else—immediately. But when it comes to them they want us to be out of the scene. Then we're supposed to leave them alone.
It seems to me that one of the trends of the last twenty years is not just an emergence of the laity, but an explosion of lay activity in the Church. For example, you have right here in your diocese WMIH radio station for Catholics, which is a lay initiative. You have lay people who wanted to continue a Catholic school, and you allowed them to do that. And so on. How is all this lay explosion working for the bishops?
It's wonderful. By Baptism we are all called to share in the mission of the Church. I don't think you can have too much involvement of lay people.
Talking about more laity and less clergy can be offensive and misleading. There is an appropriate role for the clergy. There is an appropriate role for the religious. There is an appropriate role for the laity.
The greater participation of all the members of the Church the healthier it is.
For example, in politics, we need great leaders, informed in the Catholic tradition. That would be of tremendous benefit for the whole country. But as people get active, many times instead of thinking of that kind of thing, they think, “I want to preach the Word like the priest does.”
What we need is Catholic lay persons to understand that they share in the mission of the Church in whatever they do.
We have a terrible need for informed Catholic persons to be elected to political office. We have a terrible need for informed Catholic persons to be doctors and to follow the moral teachings of the Church. We have a terrible need for Catholic lawyers to follow the moral and ethical teachings of the Church. We have a terrible need for Catholics to be CEOs of major corporations who make decisions every day that affect who eats, who doesn't eat; who gets medical care, who doesn't; who lives in decent housing, who doesn't; who gets a fair wage, who doesn't.
Our Catholic tradition has something to contribute to all of those fields. Catholic values need to be part of the public debate. Catholic social teaching can enrich the lives of all the people in our land.
How can the teachings become better known?
Well, that's a challenge we face. I think Catholic education is a critical part of that. We must be well-informed Catholics and we all—individuals and institutions—have to transmit that teaching authentically, which is not always done. We have to preach more effectively, which is not always done. We have to use the media more effectively, which we have not been able to do.
On the question of being involved in public policy in the United States, you were involved with the cardinals in opposing partial-birth abortion. What do you think was achieved through that?
What we succeeded in, I think, is that we put our views on this terrible procedure before the President, the Congress, and the people of the United States. I think we gave it tremendous visibility that without our participation it would not have had.
So I think we had some impact on bringing this to the public's attention—that it is never a legitimate alternative. Congress passed legislation which would have prohibited partial-birth abortion, but the President vetoed it. It is going to come up again, and I hope that we will continue to present the teaching in an effective way and be able to overcome the present situation. But at least we have been a significant part of that public debate. We do plan to continue that.
What do you think are the best things happening in the American Church today?
Well, I think there is a great deal of spiritual renewal going on that I find very, very encouraging. People are looking for spiritual development. And I think we have had significant impact on justice issues in our country as a Church. I find that all very encouraging.
From reading some of the things you have said, it seemed to me that you had a particular interest in scripture. Is that right?
I guess the core of my own personal spirituality is Eucharist, and I think Eucharist necessarily involves the Word of God.
Whenever we gather to celebrate, a central part of that gathering is a reflection on God's word, because we are nourished in order to carry out the mission of the Church. Understanding the mission of the Church you have to understand the word of God, because it's God's Church and not our own.
I, as a bishop, have to make sure I am doing what God wants me to do, and not imposing my personal will on other people. I am not an elected official. I have been sent. I have been called by God and sent to the people of God, so I have to be nourished by the Scriptures because that helps me to understand that call. Scripture also helps me to keep refining my motivation.
I think that's where people get mixed up. It's not sociology, it's not humanitarianism, it's sanctification. That's what the Scriptures are all about. So it is reflecting on that and properly understanding the word of God that helps me to do what I'm supposed to do today.
I don't know how you're about God's business without reflecting on God's word, because that is one of the major ways in which God's will is manifested to me—that and the tradition of the Church. Those are the two sources.
If I am not nourished by those two sources then am I doing what I am supposed to do, as a person and as a leader of the Church? I don't think so.
How did you find your calling to be a priest?
The goodness of my parents was important. And I went to a Catholic high school and a brother who was kind of the moderator of students there just asked me to consider it one day.
What did you think when he asked you?
Not much. I was almost surprised that he even asked me. I never saw myself as particularly pious. I was interested in medicine. My dad was in the electrical business and probably would have loved for me to become an electrical engineer. There were a lot of things that I was interested in, but he did ask me and I did start thinking about it, and the more I thought about it the more it attracted me, to a point that eventually I decided to find out and go to the seminary.
And I heard you played quarterback for Cathedral Latin High.
I was the quarterback on the freshman team. I never played Varsity, because I transferred to a seminary.
Did that experience serve you well in life?
Yes. I thought playing sports, especially at Cathedral Latin, was a great experience for me because it taught me discipline, it taught me the value of team effort, it taught me the value of collaboration, that if you're going to win you need to depend on other people and they need to be able to depend on you. I think I learned something about leadership. I learned that it is tough to lose sometimes. You don't always win and you can't crumble under that.
Someone said to me that you're really strong on seeing yourself as a priest. Can you elaborate on that?
I came into ministry to be a parish priest. I didn't do it very much, but that is still my focus. And basically, that's what I am. I am a parish priest, a diocesan priest, who has been called to act as bishop, but I see my role as a pastor and not as an authority figure or an exerciser of power. I just see the fact that I have been called from among the priests to be their bishop, but I am one of them. I am one of them and I need to always be one of them and I need to keep that focus. Some people want me to be judge, jury, and executioner. Some want me to be an efficient manager. That's their image; that's not my image. I see myself primarily as the pastor of this local Church.
If you had a chance to say one thing to Pope John Paul II that he would really listen to, what would it be?
“Take good care of yourself. We need you.”
I think he has been an outstanding leader and I think the Church and the world have benefited from him. I think he is a man of integrity and a deeply spiritual man. I say this very genuinely. I really feel that strongly. I would urge him to take good care of himself so that the blessing that he has been we can enjoy as long as God wills.