In 1999, as O’Connor began to succumb to brain cancer, Egan’s name surfaced as a possible replacement. O’Connor was a favorite of John Paul’s, and as a sign of his affection, the pope had kept O’Connor on well past his 75th birthday. But now O’Connor was nearing 80, and his cancer was so advanced that the Vatican had to start thinking about making a move.
Although the process for naming bishops was once quasi democratic, or at least consultative, with local clergy having a say, in the past century the process had become increasingly secretive and byzantine. Even the terna, the list of three candidates traditionally compiled by Church officials for the pope to choose from, is not sacrosanct, and John Paul often picked someone else entirely. The names on the New York terna in early 2000 were reportedly Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, longtime head of Catholic chaplains for the armed forces in the United States; St. Louis archbishop Justin Rigali, a former Vatican diplomat who has since become cardinal in Philadelphia; and Buffalo bishop Henry Mansell, a former auxiliary to O’Connor, who remained close to him.
The infighting became fierce, especially when O’Connor heard that Egan was in the mix as well. Egan fit the profile of appointments during the last fifteen years of John Paul’s reign, when the pope overwhelmingly favored company men with a degree from Rome, experience in a Vatican office, and the powerful patrons that such a résumé brings. Egan knew the school system in New York, which needed reforming, and he was a prodigious fund-raiser, which New York needed after O’Connor’s profligate generosity. By those standards, Egan, a clerical lifer, was ideal.
But O’Connor thought he’d more than done his duty by taking Egan as an auxiliary years earlier, and he wasn’t about to see Egan warm his throne at St. Patrick’s. O’Connor wanted to see his friend Henry Mansell take over, to the point that O’Connor halted his chem-otherapy and went to see the pope, ostensibly to plead for Mansell. O’Brien didn’t have much pull in the Roman Curia (the pope’s mini-government), but Rigali did, and the pope faced an ecclesiastical impasse. Eight days after O’Connor died, the pope appointed Egan.
Following a week’s worth of tributes to O’Connor, Egan was introduced to the public. From his first words at the news conference introducing him at the Catholic chancery on First Avenue, his orotund speechifying, in a voice that sounded like Orson Welles (of the Gallo-wine-hawking vintage), made him seem a churchman from another century. There was none of the avuncular warmth that O’Connor broadcast so easily to the public.
Egan was given an impossible task. The landscape of the archdiocese was shifting under the Church’s once-solid foundations. For nearly two centuries, New York Catholicism was practically an Irish-run Establishment overseeing a mosaic of stable ethnic enclaves. But now those old-time Catholic communities were spreading out to the suburbs while new, poorer immigrants back-filled city parishes that had fewer priests to staff them and little money to support them. Churches and schools would have to close, creating a sense that after 200 years of surging numbers and clout, New York Catholicism had become a mature industry, religiously speaking, and was facing a discouraging phase of downsizing.
What’s more, part of O’Connor’s popularity was owed to the fact that he never denied anyone who came begging for a new program or for him to halt the closing of an old parish—and he left the archdiocese with a $20 million-a-year operating deficit and an infrastructure that needed a serious overhaul. During his tenure O’Connor reportedly blew through tens of millions in reserves—“O’Connor spent like a drunken sailor,” as one priest said. O’Connor left bureaucracy on top of bureaucracy, with overlapping offices and three or four different accounting programs that made it difficult to figure out exactly how much money there was, and where it was going.
Egan’s mandate was clear: Make tough decisions and then retire gracefully. In 2000, John Paul was ailing and knew his time was short, and he was consistently appointing bishops in their late sixties and early seventies who would retire within a few years, thus freeing John Paul’s eventual successor—now Pope Benedict XVI, who was elected in April 2005—to remake the hierarchy as he liked.
Egan got right to work, early on displaying the distinct management style that led priests to dub him “Edward Scissorhands.” During a March 2001 visit to the archdiocesan seminary in Yonkers, he began the meeting with the assembled faculty of St. Joseph’s Seminary by announcing, according to a witness, “Gentlemen, hard decisions have to be made.” He told those gathered that he wanted to restore the intellectual luster of the faculty, then snapped his fingers—“Literally, snapped his fingers,” recalls one witness—for an aide to hand him a sheet of paper. The cardinal then proceeded to read, with great formality, a list of faculty names and their titles. When he was done, he paused and announced, “If your name is not on this list, your services will no longer be needed in September. Questions?”
Those left off the list had been fired in public, and by default. It left several of them devastated emotionally and financially, and many are still angry. “It was done with such duplicity, such a lack of Christian charity,” says one professor who was in the room that day. Surely, much needed to be done to bring the archdiocese out of the red, and the cardinal closed or consolidated many chancery offices. Staffers who have worked with Egan say he seemed to want to stay as far removed from the emotional messiness of the budget cuts as possible. He formed few relationships with co-workers and answered those who inquired about the difficulty in cutting back with a simple rejoinder: “Economics 101.”