ALLENTOWN, Pa.– A funeral Mass will be celebrated May 19 for the late Bishop Edward P. Cullen, retired bishop of Allentown, who died May 9 at Lehigh Valley Hospital Center-Cedar Crest in Allentown. He was 90.
Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez of the neighboring Archdiocese of Philadelphia will be the celebrant of his funeral Mass at the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena in Allentown, with Bishop Alfred A. Schlert, the current bishop of Allentown, as the homilist.
Bishop Cullen was the third bishop of the five-county diocese in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, serving as its shepherd for 11 years until his retirement in May 2009.
“Bishop Cullen lived his life as a faithful servant of Jesus Christ and His Church. He was visionary in spiritual, pastoral, and temporal matters. Along with the clergy, religious, and laity of the Diocese, I mourn his loss and commend his soul to God’s mercy, trusting in Our Lord’s promise of reward to good and faithful servants,” Bishop Schlert said in a statement.
Bishop John O. Barres of Rockville Centre, New York, succeeded Bishop Cullen in Allentown as that diocese’s fourth bishop, serving until 2016, when Pope Francis named him to Rockville Centre. He said his late predecessor “modeled for us the critical importance of deep contemplation to discern creative, Spirit-driven Catholic evangelization.”
“Bishop Cullen’s devotion to and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit was truly inspirational in his life as a bishop,” Bishop Barres said in a statement.
In his homily at his installation Mass Feb. 9, 1998, Bishop Cullen urged his new flock to exert a “missionary zeal” in bringing lost Catholics back to the church. “My prayer today is that ultimately all of the faithful of the Allentown Diocese will carry out the divine mandate to go, to teach and to serve.”
“How revitalized our local churches would become if the faithful — knowledgeable of and motivated by their baptismal call — became the driving force to reevangelize our Catholic brothers and sisters who have been weak in the practice of their faith,” Bishop Cullen said.
During his tenure, Bishop Cullen “provided strong leadership to strengthen ministries, improve administration, and benefit parishes and schools of the diocese,” a diocesan news release said.
From the beginning of his tenure, it said, he began working proactively to remove offending priests from active ministry, and to implement policies and procedures to prevent abuse and protect children.
“He was a strong advocate for incorporating a “zero-tolerance policy into church law to enable permanent removal of perpetrators,” the diocese said.
In 2002, after the U.S. Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse scandal erupted, Bishop Cullen became the first bishop in Pennsylvania to convene a meeting of the district attorneys of the five counties of the diocese and turned over the personnel files of all priests known to have allegations against them.
A 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report on a months-long investigation of alleged abuse by priests and other church workers in six dioceses in the state over a 70-year period (1947-2017) claimed Bishop Cullen had mishandled the case of a priest accused of abuse, as had some other bishops.
But the diocese in its news release on Bishop Cullen’s passing said he had “significantly increased protections for children and young people, forged bonds of cooperation with law enforcement and enhanced care for victims of abuse.”
He expanded criminal background checks for priests, deacons, employees and volunteers and formulated the diocese’s sexual abuse policy and code of conduct. He established a diocesan review board to assist in dealing with abuse cases, set up a safe environment program in parishes and schools, and established a victims assistance coordinator position.
Bishop Cullen also reorganized diocesan administration and launched a spiritual initiative called Renew 2000, a diocesan-wide, parish-level program in keeping with St. John Paul II’s call for new evangelization in the church. In 2008, to address a shifting population and fewer priests, he oversaw a restructuring with parish closures and mergers.
In 2003 Bishop Cullen launched a $28 million capital campaign called “Strengthening Our Future in Faith,” with diocesan Catholics pledging almost $54 million to the campaign.
In 2005 Bishop Cullen convoked the diocese’s second synod, which closed in 2006. The synod resulted in a restructuring of some parishes to address population shifts and fewer priests while continuing to serve the faithful.
He also created the diocesan Commission for Women, and during this time Project Rachel also was launched to minister to women suffering in the aftermath of an abortion.
Born March 15, 1933, in Philadelphia, the second of five children in a traditional Irish-Catholic family, the future bishop attended West Catholic High School, where he excelled in athletics, especially football and track. After high school, he was an engineering student at Drexel Institute of Technology.
In 1953, he entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary near Philadelphia to prepare for the priesthood and was ordained May 19, 1962.
He subsequently earned three master’s degrees — in social work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1970, in religious education from LaSalle College in 1971 and in divinity from St. Charles Seminary in 1974.
He served six years as a parish priest and one year as a high school chaplain. In 1968, he was appointed an assistant director of the Philadelphia archdiocesan Catholic Social Services agency, the springboard to his two decades of service in social work. Named a monsignor in 1982, he was the agency’s assistant director until 1983, then its director through 1988.
In August 1988, then-Msgr. Cullen was named vicar for administration and vicar general of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, posts he held for 10 years. On Feb. 8, 1994, St. John Paul II appointed him as auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia and on Dec. 16, 1997, named him to head the Allentown Diocese. He was installed about two months later.
He wrote two pastorals, “Experiencing the Love of Our Triune God” (2008) and “The Cross and Suffering: The Bridge to the Transformation of the Soul” (2009).
In retirement, Bishop Cullen officiated at confirmations around the diocese, and conducted retreats and Days of Recollection. He also continued to write, with his most recent book published last year: “Our Eucharistic Lord: A Pathway to the Transformation of Our Soul.”
“Being the bishop of Allentown,” he once said, “has been a tremendous blessing, a blessing that is rooted in being immersed into the life of a Catholic community that is, by any measure, superlative.”