But Egan took his time with the process, spending three years on a plan and responding to appeals to spare several parishes and schools. “I think fair justice has to be done to him,” says Father John McLoughlin, pastor of St. Ursula’s in Mount Vernon. “He might not be the most popular archbishop of New York, but from what he has said and what he has presented at the Presbyteral Council, he has done a good job assuring our survivability … I give him a kudo on that one.”
Even Egan’s harshest critics admit that he’s not solely to blame for his shortcomings. In many ways, the system that nurtured Egan also betrayed him. From the age of 14, he had been immured in an ecclesiastical Xanadu, a largely Roman world where bishops are still deferred to like royalty and indulged like dauphins. The problem, say many officials, is that the Vatican pulled him up by the roots and thrust him into a strange land and under a harsh spotlight for which he was unprepared. “It’s a problem—and it’s not Egan’s fault—but this system drops someone in from the outside, and they’re lost,” says the former Church official.
Several years ago, a small group of priests attended a luncheon hosted by Egan at his St. Patrick’s residence for a priest who had turned 75. It was a pleasant afternoon, but what one priest remembers most vividly was that Egan, then about 70, was able to tick off, with apparent anticipation, how many years, months, weeks, and days would pass until he himself would turn 75 and be eligible for retirement.
That day will finally come on April 2, at which point Egan is required by canon law to submit his resignation. Pope Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul, tended to keep cardinals in situ well after that threshold—every bishop of the city so far has died with his miter on, so to speak. Until the recent blowup with his priests, Egan was considered a safe bet to remain in place for at least another year, until the conclusion of a yearlong series of events marking the 200th birthday of the New York Archdiocese. If Benedict accepts his resignation anytime before that, Church observers say, it would be viewed as a sign that the pope was no happier with Egan than were the priests of New York. It’s hard to predict exactly what Benedict will do—he likes to keep his own counsel rather than consult widely like John Paul did.
Then, of course, comes the question of Egan’s successor. Up to 25 American bishops, including five cardinals, are up for retirement this year, and judging from the pontiff’s handful of appointments so far, he is looking for pragmatists rather than crusaders, bishops with the willingness and intellectual chops to promote the faith in the public square, but not publicity hounds—in other words, someone with Egan’s restraint and O’Connor’s pastoral instincts. Whoever he is, the New York appointment could well determine Benedict’s legacy with American Catholics, just as John Paul made his mark with O’Connor in 1984.
As for Egan himself, whenever he leaves, he’s likely to return to what he does best, presiding at confirmations and baptisms, with the kind of low-key presence he had before becoming cardinal-archbishop. Rome, of course, is his favorite city. But with Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law biding his time in a luxe Roman sinecure in the city’s glossiest basilica, St. Mary Major, there aren’t many spots left for retired American cardinals with little to do and no place to do it.
Egan recently hinted that he might spend time in France. Maybe that’s where he would finally be at home—far from New York and the shadow of his own history.