The 68-year-old archbishop, who served as bishop of Bridgeport for the past 12 years, replaces Cardinal John O'Connor, one of the country's most charismatic religious leaders, who died last month after a battle with a cencerous brain tumor.
But while this was clearly Egan's day, O'Connor's spirit hung heavy in Manhattan's famed St. Patrick's Cathedral, as a sea of bishops, priests, nuns and politicians looked to the future in America's second-largest Catholic jurisdiction with one nostalgic eye clearly on the past--and the long shadow left by O'Connor's legacy.
Egan likened the archdiocese to an ancient Roman basilica built on the foundation of a house occupied by early Christian martyrs, and he pledged to build a sturdy, new basilica with his new flock.
"Our basilica will be strong if it is built on faith and sustained by prayer," Egan said during his homily. "But it will only be truly strong if that faith is lived out in the works of justice and charity."
The three-hour service had all the trappings of an ancient coronation ceremony. Soaring choral and organ music accompanied Egan down the main aisle in a procession of clergy and others that lasted more than 30 minutes.
The service reflected the enormous diversity of the archdiocese, with prayers being offered in English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Creole. Egan delivered a short address in Spanish, a skill he developed in Bridgeport.
Egan's homily was interrupted by applause when he reaffirmed his commitments against abortion and euthanasia.
"May we allow racism, or let the sick and disabled to go unattended?" Egan said. "May we look the other way when the elderly are put to death because someone questions the quality of their life? The answer to these questions must be no.
"The victims of discrimination, the impoverished, the sick and disabled, the unborn, are all images of God, and there can be no prayerful faith if there is wavering regarding the rights of those images of divinity."
This is not Egan's first assignment in New York. From 1985 to 1988, Egan served under O'Connor as auxiliary bishop for education before being assigned to Bridgeport. Egan said it was the love, hard work and compassion he saw in New York that made him excited to be back.
"My prayer today is that a new New Yorker may remove with you all the doubts about the foundations of our basilica," Egan said. "We are a people of faith, a people of prayer, a people of justice and a people of charity."
Egan received thunderous applause inside the historic cathedral from a standing-room-only audience of 3,000 people, including more than 120 purple-clad bishops and archbishops, eight red-vested cardinals and more than 700 priests. The ceremony was also a Who's Who of New York politics, with Senate candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rep. Rick Lazio and Mayor Rudy Giuliani looking on.
Egan won accolades in Bridgeport for his attempts to strengthen the diocese's schools and recruit a new generation of priests. A close associate of Pope John Paul II, Egan is expected to toe the traditional Vatican line opposing abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women.
Before taking the positions in New York and Connecticut, Egan spent 22 years as a professor of canon law in Rome. That position, church observers say, is what got Egan the job in New York.
"You combined pastoral ability and gracious manners with the defense of the right faith and a concern for Catholic education, so that even from afar your careful administration was known to all," read Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the pope's representative in the United States, from the papal letter announcing Egan's appointment.
He faces an archdiocese of 2.4 million people--seven times larger than his flock in Bridgeport--and a bloated church infrastructure of ailing hospitals, schools and parishes. Some wonder whether Egan will close some of those institutions, something O'Connor refused to do.
"The reason our school is still in existence is because of Cardinal O'Connor, and we're not sure what will happen now," said Sister Carole Eden, a junior high English teacher at All Saints Catholic School in East Harlem. "That's a major concern for us."
Egan also faces the struggle of competing with O'Connor's legacy for the devotion of his flock. When Egan served under O'Connor, the two men were cordial but never close. While O'Connor was affable and charismatic, Egan is reserved and approaches the job, as the New York Times put it, as the "consummate corporate executive."
Egan's tenure in New York could be relatively short, since bishops are required to offer their notices of retirement at age 75. The pope, however, doesn't always accept them, letting church leaders skirt the limit and serve until age 80, as he did with O'Connor.
Still, despite the challenges faced by Egan, the crowds at St. Patrick's warmly welcomed their new shepherd and offered to give him a chance. Egan has said he will spend the summer visiting the 412 parishes in 10 counties and getting to know his new territory.
Still, O'Connor's shadow is likely to follow him throughout his career.
"There's no way to compare them," said the Rev. John Steven Kostek, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Church in Lower Manhattan. "They're just so different. There will be two stars in heaven--one is O'Connor, and the other is Egan."
Egan officially took over as archbishop in a church ceremony Sunday at which the Vatican's emissary to Washington, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, read a letter from John Paul appointing Egan to the post. In Monday, Mass of Installation, Montalvo read the letter again, and Egan celebrated his first Mass as leader of the New York archdiocese.