Pope visit fans Egan retirement talk

May 1, 2008 8:49:28 AM PDT
Whatever impressions Pope Benedict XVI took away from his long weekend in New York may influence a big, upcoming decision - picking a successor to Cardinal Edward Egan as archbishop. Speculating on the next leader of the New York Archdiocese, one of the most important posts in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, has become something of a parlor game for church-watchers. A couple of the candidates who keep surfacing reflect the diversity of the American church: the black archbishop of Atlanta and the Hispanic archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Egan, 76, handed in his retirement papers a year ago, as required for all archbishops at the age of 75. Although Benedict's intentions are unknown, outside experts seem to believe his mid-April visit made for a fitting farewell. If Egan indeed gets to retire, that will be a first: Every previous bishop who led the church in New York died in office.

"The papal visit was kind of a golden handshake for the cardinal," said David Gibson, author of the papal biography "The Rule of Benedict." "He gets to bask in the reflected glory of the papal visit and it's a nice exit. If I had to take a guess I'd say he'll be gone within six months."

However, archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling says Benedict and Egan did not discuss the cardinal's retirement while the pope was in town and nothing has been set.

"A lot of people are talking who don't know what they're talking about," he said. Egan himself has joked that he expects to be working "for the next 150 years."

If Egan's retirement is accepted, his successor may be announced at the same time, and observers have included about a dozen bishops in their guesses. Those most-mentioned seem to be:

  • Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, 58. Dolan is an expert in seminary education, a plus in New York, where few men are being ordained. In addition, Gibson said, "If you were doing an Identi-Kit for a New York archbishop, the first thing would be, 'Is he Irish?' Dolan fits the bill."
  • Chester Gillis, author of "Roman Catholicism in America" and a professor at Georgetown, noted that Dolan was rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome for seven years. "It helps if you're known in Rome," he said.
  • Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan, 57. Gonzalez Nieves has been a pastor in the Bronx and a bishop in Boston and Corpus Christi, Texas. He was a staunch critic of the U.S. Navy base on Vieques in Puerto Rico.

    The church in New York is increasingly Hispanic but there are comparatively few Hispanics in upper-level clergy. "If the pope is looking around for a Hispanic archbishop for New York, this would be the guy," Gibson said. New York has never had a nonwhite archbishop.

  • Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, 60. Gregory, who converted to Catholicism as a boy, is the American church's highest-ranking black leader. He was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and guided the enactment of reforms after the clergy sex-abuse scandal erupted in 2002.

    "In a sense Rome owes him because he oversaw the bishops conference during the crisis and did a fairly competent job," Gillis said. "He's originally from Chicago, understands the big city."

    Gibson isn't sure the Vatican would select a minority archbishop for New York, "but Wilton Gregory is somebody who would be welcomed. He's very popular, very well-regarded among priests. Just because of who he is and his track record, he could break through the Irish-American monopoly and I think it would be a brilliant choice."

  • Archbishop Henry Mansell of Hartford, Conn., 70. A native of New York, Mansell was director of priests and chancellor of the archdiocese. When Cardinal John O'Connor died in 2000, Mansell, then bishop of Buffalo, was considered a strong possibility to succeed him.

    "He was always a favorite of New York priests but his odds are longer now," Gibson said. Monsignor Raymond Kupke, who teaches church history at Seton Hall University, said Mansell might be too old but added, "I think New Yorkers would be very happy."

    If those four are the favorites - and observers acknowledge they're guessing - it should be noted that both Egan and O'Connor were surprise choices when they were named archbishops by Pope John Paul II.

    "I wouldn't put my money on the front-runners," Gillis says. "Rome really makes independent decisions on this stuff and has a much broader perspective."

    Others being talked about include Auxiliary Bishops Dennis Sullivan, 63, and Gerald Walsh, 65, of New York. Sullivan helped Egan realign New York's parishes and Walsh is the rector of St. Joseph's seminary in Yonkers. Archbishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, 63, who is known for his support of immigrants, also is in the mix.

    Although Egan made news this week by saying that former mayor and abortion rights supporter Rudy Giuliani should not have received Holy Communion during the pope's visit, Gibson said Benedict is probably looking for someone who will be "more of a presence than Egan has perhaps been and more willing to put the church's teaching out there."

    Egan is better known for wrestling the archdiocese's finances into shape, eliminating the operating deficit, than for any pastoral role, Kupke said.

    "He cannot help but be aware that in the short run he will be remembered more for closing parishes and schools," Kupke said, "but hopefully in the long run history will judge him better and say he's the one who kept the archdiocese from heading further toward the brink of disaster."

    Zwilling argues that Egan's legacy will be a warmer one than people expect and he is "already well-known in the parishes of the archdiocese to which he has been incredibly devoted."

    "We see him celebrating Mass in packed churches, posing for pictures at receptions afterward," Zwilling said. "As a cardinal he could be flying to Rome, accepting engagements and high honors. He goes without any of that, he stays here to be with his people and his parishes."

    If he ever retires, Zwilling said, the cardinal plans to stay in New York.


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