Our website is made possible by displaying online ads to our visitors.
Please consider supporting us by whitelisting our site.

Msgr. Robert Avella, first priest ordained for the Arlington diocese, dies at age 71

First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
Previous Next

A livestreamed Mass of Christian Burial was offered by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington Nov. 23 for Msgr. Robert E. Avella, the first priest ordained for the newly formed (1974) Diocese of Arlington. Msgr. Avella died Nov. 18 of cancer. He was 71. 
Father Jamie R. Workman, vicar general, delivered a homily extolling Msgr. Avella’s hard work for the diocese and great love of God. “He served so wonderfully those that he encountered, seeking in a very hopeful and joy-filled way to bring God to his people,” he said. 
Father Workman said one of his earliest memories of Msgr. Avella is a photo of him with Msgr. Frank E. Mahler, now deceased, in the hospital. The two were about to undergo serious surgeries and their hospital beds happened to meet in the hallway. “What strikes me so much as I recall that image is the smile on Monsignor's face,” said Father Workman. “That radiant smile showed forth what was in his heart — a peace, a calm, a childlike trust in the mercies and promises of Christ.”
At the end of the Mass, Bishop Burbidge spoke about Msgr. Avella’s love for all the parishes he served. “He had the heart of a shepherd, the heart of a pastor,” said Bishop Burbidge. But he also had great love for his fellow priests, whom he was able to support in his role as vicar for clergy and vocations director. “Dear brother priests, the way we can honor (Msgr. Avella) is to continue to recognize those men who may have a priestly vocation, to share the joys of our priesthood with them and actually invite them by name to step forward to discern God’s holy call and will.”
Msgr. Avella was born May 11, 1949, in Washington, to Gennaro and Anne Avella, who soon afterward moved their family to Arlington.
He grew up near Ft. Myer military base and Arlington Cemetery, and he and his siblings could hear the evening taps being played. "We (in the Arlington diocese) have a special responsibility to pray for the men and women in the military, and their souls are entrusted to us, both in times of peace and war," he told the Catholic Herald in an interview in 1999.
Msgr. Avella attended St. Charles School and Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington for one year. He completed his secondary education at St. John Vianney School in Richmond, a minor seminary. He attended St. Mary’s Seminary and St. Mary’s University, both in Baltimore, graduating in 1975. He was ordained to the priesthood May 10, 1975, by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, the first bishop of Arlington. 
His earliest post in the diocese was as parochial vicar of St. Ambrose Church in Annandale (1975-78); he then served at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington (1978-79). He was assistant principal and chaplain at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington while in residence at St. Agnes Church in Arlington (1985-89), when he was named pastor of St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax, where he remained for more than a decade. 
In June 2000, he became pastor of St. Mary Church (now the Basilica of Saint Mary) in Alexandria and was named Bishop’s Delegate for the Clergy. He served as rector of the cathedral from Nov. 24, 2003, through Feb. 16, 2005; and as pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Arlington from June 28, 2006, until his retirement in June 2020.
Over the years, Msgr. Avella served in many diocesan positions, including twice as director of vocations, (1978-85; 2003-04). He served on the presbyteral council (1995-97; 2010-14), the committee on priests’ retirement (four terms: 2000-14), the clergy personnel board (three terms: 1992-2006), the diocesan school board (2007-10), and the committee on the priest’s retirement facility (2007-10).
He lived in the bishop’s residence from 1979 to 1984, with both Bishop Welsh and Bishop John R. Keating. 
He said he was in “complete shock” when Bishop Michael F. Burbidge visited him after a hip surgery in 2018 to give him a bit of “good news” — that the pope had named him a monsignor, with its more formal name, Chaplain to his Holiness. “That’s kind of like being a parish priest to the pope, who I’ll never see but I can pray for daily in a personal way,” Msgr. Avella said. “I’m his chaplain. It’s lovely wording. I wouldn’t want to be anything else.”
Throughout his ministry, Msgr. Avella said, "the most wonderful thing I found as a priest” was to be in a confessional, to hear penitents’ concerns and hopes, and provide encouragement.
Long into his priesthood, he would still say he aspired "to become a good priest," as he believed he had only just begun. 
From his earliest days, he said, "I have really admired and been edified by the priests in this diocese," many of whom “are now gone to God."  

Condolences may be sent to David Avella, 1206 Perry William Dr., McLean, VA 22101

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020