Cardinal Egan turns 75 on Monday, the age when bishops are required to submit their retirement papers. So speculation is starting to churn about whether Pope Benedict will bring Egan back to Rome or let him stay in New York for next year’s bicentennial of the archdiocese or even indefinitely.
I’m working on a story about the speculation right now.
But I went back this morning and looked at something I wrote in July 1997 about Cardinal John O’Connor, who was then two-and-a-half years past retirement age and still going strong. He died in office in 2000.
Here’s the start of my article from back then:
In the 2 1/2 years since Cardinal John J. O’Connor reached retirement age, speculation about his future and his eventual successor has come in waves, ebbing for a time and then surging with every off-the-cuff comment from the cardinal about his uncertain status.
Now a new consensus is emerging among O’Connor acquaintances and church observers that the “ Cardinal O’Connor watch ” can be put on the back burner. While few would be shocked if Pope John Paul II suddenly announced tomorrow that O’Connor would get a deserved rest, there is a growing feeling that if His Eminence has stayed around this long, maybe he is not going anywhere soon.
Some are even suggesting that given the pope’s stated interest in celebrating the millennium, the pontiff will want one of his favorite conservative cardinals in office until the year 2000.
Consider that the 77-year-old cardinal, one of the nation’s most visible religious leaders, can’t seem to stop himself from adding commitments to his appointment book.
On Sept. 20, for instance, he is set to honor the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Mount Vernon by celebrating Mass there. Four days later, he is down to lead the annual “ Red Mass ” for Westchester County lawyers, as he has for nearly a decade. And he has promised to be on hand to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains on May 17 of next year.
“ He’s not acting like he’s going to retire, now is he? ” said William Harrington of Pound Ridge, a senior managing partner with the law firm of Bleakley Platt & Schmidt and an active supporter of the Archdiocese of New York who speaks regularly with the cardinal. “ Many people assumed he would retire. But he’s as active as he ever was. He’s all priest, and still tending to his flock. ”
O’Connor hit the church’s mandatory retirement age when he turned 75 on Jan. 15, 1995. To no one’s surprise, the pope asked O’Connor – to whom he is close personally and philosophically – to stay on for an indeterminate period. And thus began a steady analysis of O’Connor‘s public statements and personnel movement within the church for any hints about when O’Connor might retire and who might replace him.
But now there is a growing feeling that the pope, who is also 77, may want O’Connor by his side at the new millennium. And maybe O’Connor is not ready to give up the power that comes with media coverage of his weekly sermons at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. So the yellowing list of the four or five presumed leading candidates to succeed O’Connor will only get yellower.
“ Since he’s about the same age as the pope, and they are also close friends, my guess is that the cardinal will stay, ” said Rabbi James Rudin, interreligious affairs director for the American Jewish Committee, who works often with O’Connor. “ The year 2000 is very important to the pope. And the cardinal is still vigorous and strong. ”
Rudin said American Jews are keenly interested in O’Connor‘s future, given O’Connor‘s steady attention to Jewish concerns. He cited O’Connor‘s involvement in Vatican-Israel relations and O’Connor‘s quick response to Jewish concerns about former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s ties to Nazi Germany.
“ (O’Connor) may be more popular with Jews than some Catholics, ” Rudin said. “ It’s an interesting piece of history that the Jewish community of America, not just New York, is very interested in his legacy. ”
The Most Rev. Anthony F. Mestice, an auxiliary bishop under O’Connor and pastor of Resurrection Church in Rye, went as far as to say it would be a mistake for the pope to retire O’Connor before 2000.
“ It would be an error to replace him before the next millennium of Christianity, ” said Mestice, the vicar of central Westchester. “ If I were the pope, and I had a person like Cardinal O’Connor, who is in terrifically good health and working as hard or harder than when he came, I would leave him alone. Some people in their 50s act like they’re 95. But he’s not one. I think he’ll be here another five years. ”