Archbishop Pilarczyk realized his ministry was to do the best he could do
Mar 24, 2020
For more than three decades Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, who died March 22 at age 85, was one of the most visible and influential members of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States.
Also one of the smartest and funniest.
His long career as archbishop of Cincinnati unquestionably had its ups and downs, including repercussions from the sex abuse cover-up that he, like many other bishops, practiced. But in the end he was what his successor in Cincinnati, Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr, called "one of the outstanding churchmen of his time."
I knew him mainly for his work on the national level close to the start of his career and mine.
In the early 1970s, a time of rapid change and no little confusion in both the Church and society, the American bishops decided to prepare a collective pastoral letter on moral values. I was told to staff the drafting committee.
The president of the bishops' conference at the time, Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin of Cincinnati -- later to be the cardinal of Chicago -- knew very well this was a sensitive project and, knowing that, wanted me to get some firsthand advice from his new, hand-picked auxiliary bishop and trusted adviser, then-Bishop Pilarczyk.
I flew to Cincinnati to meet him. Before getting down to business, we chatted a while, and somehow the conversation turned to Johann Sebastian Bach, the great 18th-century composer. What, Bishop Pilarczyk inquired, did I think of Bach's "Goldberg Variations?"
Shamefacedly, I admitted that I didn't know the piece. The bishop's look conveyed the only semi-humorous message that he couldn't imagine anyone reaching adulthood without being familiar with that music.
And so it went. High intelligence and dry wit. Both were on frequent display in 1986 to 1992 when he was vice president and then president of what was then a dual entity, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference.
Both qualities also were evident when, as chairman of an ad hoc committee, he played a key role in the tortuous project of merging the two conferences into a single body, today's U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
After Archbishop Bernardin moved to Chicago in 1982, his auxiliary bishop was the natural choice to succeed him in Cincinnati. And there, as archbishop until his retirement in 2009, Daniel Pilarczyk experienced perhaps the most painful and humiliating episode of his career. Like many other bishops of that era, he covered up cases of sex abuse committed by some of his priests.
When the inevitable happened and the archdiocese ended up in court, the archbishop personally went before the judge to deliver its no contest plea. "He didn't have to do that," one of his associates remarked, pointing out that someone else could have represented the archdiocese. But Archbishop Pilarczyk chose not to shirk that unpleasant task.
"Before the Lord and his people, I want to say I regret what happened," he said in his retirement homily. "I made some inadequate decisions and people got hurt and I'm sorry."
In the long run he will be remembered for many things: his intelligence, his wit, his mistakes. And his grit.
"I don't think this has been the easiest time to be the archbishop of Cincinnati," he once said, "but I don't think my predecessors would say I really had it hard and they had it easy. You take what the Lord sends, and you do the best you can with it."
(Shaw is former secretary for public affairs of what was then the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference.)
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