America's largest archdiocese will not long remain empty now that Cardinal John O'Connor has succumbed after his long battle with cancer. Indeed, sources in the Vatican say the decision about O'Connor's successor as archbishop of New York was made two months ago. But there was also a decision not to let the new appointment overshadow the sadness of the 80-year-old Cardinal O'Connor's passing. As tributes to Cardinal O'Connor fill the media and mourners flock to churches to pay their respects, who wants even to contemplate the likely successor of one of the best-loved figures in New York?

The most likely candidate at this moment seems to be Edward Egan, the 68-year-old bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Indeed, on May 8, the Boston Globe reported that Bishop Egan had asked his aides to submit their resignations to make way for his successor in Bridgeport, and on May 9 the New York Post reported that Bishop Egan's relatives confirmed that the bishop had told them of his impending appointment.

At 68, Bishop Egan is surprisingly old for the position. Bishops are expected to offer their resignations to Rome at age 75, and members of the College of Cardinals--which the archbishop of New York invariably is--lose their right to vote for the next pope at age 80. But Bishop Egan is well liked in Rome, after working closely with Pope John Paul II on a new edition of the Code of Canon Law. And, while much less colorful than Cardinal O'Connor, he brings strong financial skills, having pulled the Bridgeport diocese back from near-bankruptcy. Before Bridgeport, he served in New York for two years as an auxiliary bishop, heading the Catholic education system for Cardinal O'Connor, and he is known as a unyielding implementer of John Paul II's theological vision.

A widely canvassed, but apparently now fading possibility, is Sean O'Malley, a 55-year-old Capuchin friar who is currently bishop of Fall River, Mass. Of course, other names have been much mentioned. The Rev. Edwin O'Brien, vicar of the U.S. armed services (a military position that Cardinal O'Connor once held), is a strong possibility. So is Henry Mansell, a popular former auxiliary bishop in Manhattan now serving as bishop of Buffalo. And Justin Rigali, the archbishop of St. Louis, was ordained by Pope John Paul II himself in Italy as a sign of the pope's personal favor.

Yet another possibility is Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, who has done well-noticed work restoring his New Jersey diocese to orthodoxy and fiscal solvency. Archbishop McCarrick is also said to be close to Gabriel Montalvo, the nuncio, or papal ambassador, to the United States, who months ago sent a list of his recommendations to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, which in turn makes episcopal recommendations to the pope. A sixth possibility is Charles Chaput, the conservative Native American prelate whose rapid rise from bishop of Rapid City, S. D., to archbishop of Denver seems to be paralleling the meteoric trajectory of Francis George, a conservative theologian whom John Paul promoted from bishop of Yakima, Wash., to archbishop of Portland, Ore., to cardinal of Chicago, America's second-most-visible Catholic position, in just 11 months.

Of course, what all this means is that no one really knows who will be the next archbishop of New York--or, rather, those who actually do know will not allow themselves to be quoted. A longtime friend of O'Malley's confirmed that the Fall River prelate has been approached by the Vatican with the question of whether he would feel able to assume the enormous duties of America's most visible Catholic figure.

Certainly, whoever the new archbishop proves to be, he is going to need every possible advantage to face the formidable problems the Catholic Church faces in New York. Throughout his 16 years in the city, Cardinal O'Connor had been a staunch, old-fashioned Irish Catholic sort of political liberal: vehemently pro-union, pro-welfare, pro-immigration, and supportive of big government (except on issues relating to parochial schools, which he strongly backed).

He had also been a staunch, old-fashioned Irish Catholic sort of social conservative: vehemently anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia, pro-police, and supportive of a forceful, theologically orthodox clergy.

There used to be thousands of Irish Catholics like Cardinal O'Connor in both politics and the church. Indeed, through the 1960s the O'Connor-esque combination of blue-collar liberalism and social conservatism was nearly the definition of an American Irish Catholic. But those days are long gone, as Irish Catholics have risen to white-collar affluence and adopted the socially libertarian mores of the overclass to which they now belong. Cardinal O'Connor found himself with no strong constituency to fight the political battles--over abortion, immigration, and similar issues--that an archbishop of New York is, by his very visible position, forced to fight.

Despite this, Cardinal O'Connor was able to use his close relations with John Paul II and the force of his own evangelizing personality to forge for his successor a much more unified and orthodox archdiocese, with a revitalized seminary and far fewer troubled parishes, than he himself inherited in 1984 from his predecessor, Cardinal Terence Cooke. Nonetheless, supported neither by the unions (now largely white-collar, not blue-collar) nor by Wall Street to any large degree, the archdiocese of New York is in serious financial trouble. The political clout of the New York archdiocese, which politicians used to call the "the Powerhouse" in deference to its sway over Catholic voters, has seen real decline during the past 16 years.

To this troubled situation, Bishop Sean O'Malley brings certain strengths. Fall River, in sleepy southeastern Massachusetts, is no preparation for New York, but then neither was the equally sleepy Scranton, Pa., where Cardinal O'Connor was briefly bishop before moving on to New York. Bishop O'Malley has the Irish surname that every bishop of New York has borne since the middle of the 19th century, but he also speaks Spanish and Portuguese fluently, and he served from 1984 to 1992 as bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, preparing him for New York's racial and ethnic diversity.

Furthermore, Cardinal O'Malley was known for his fidelity to the traditionalist theology and tight lines of church organization that John Paul II has mapped out. His work on key social issues--particularly abortion--mirrored the serious concern Rome has about growing American disregard for the sanctity of life. The fact that Bishop O'Malley is a Capuchin, trained in the Franciscan tradition of combining contemplation with action, makes him unlikely to be easily swayed by a desire for good press from the relentlessly liberal New York media.

Less clear is Bishop O'Malley's talent for handling the other critical aspects of the New York position: the management, the money, and the politics. When he arrived in Fall River in 1992, he was confronted almost immediately with the case of James Porter, a former priest accused of molesting children in the diocese. His handling of the scandal--setting up hot lines, counseling services, and investigation procedures for clerical sexual abuse--received praise from a variety of sources. He is not known in Massachusetts for his fund-raising abilities, however, and he is of uncertain strength as a political player--simply because Fall River has offered little scope for politics.

Scope for politics is one thing that New York has never been short of. If Bishop O'Malley noses out the likes of Bishop O'Brien, Archbishop McCarrick, and Archbishop Chaput, he will find plenty of opportunity to learn on the job. All an archbishop of New York needs is a combination of financial wizardry, management skill, and political smarts. Almost any Nobel Prize-winning economist with an M.B.A. from Harvard who happens to be a world-class politician on the side would be perfect--provided he is also a saint, of course.

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