Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Retreat of One?

Can somebody tell me what the archbishop of New York is doing in Rome?

Of course, it's not atypical for far-flung cardinals to be in town on dicasterial business -- O'Connor used to fly Alitalia like you or I would visit the supermarket. But my curiosity is stoked as the bishops of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York are supposed to be on retreat together until Friday of this week. Unless the Catholic Standard & Times got the Pharaoh's Schedule wrong, it seems something might just be amiss.

It's never appeared to almost anyone that Egan and Rigali have what Forrest Gump would call a "peas-and-carrots" relationship. The current archbishop of Philadelphia, of course, came within millimeters of succeeding John Cardinal O'Connor in 2000, if only those damned Americans didn't pitch a fit about it and start a civil war, which John Paul simply settled by shedding the terna (a rare event in his time) and "naturally and spontaneously" choosing Egan, who he remembered well from the Chicagoan's extensive work on the revision of the Code of Canon Law, which marks its 23rd Birthday two weeks from today.

You'd think that two Irishmen (contrary to legend, Rigali's 75% Irlandese) still having a staredown over who gets to be the undisputed American Poster-Boy for Romanita' on the Left Shore of the Atlantic is nothing more than wildly funny fiction. But, as is often the case with the realities of this business, you couldn't invent the best plotlines if you wanted to.

And, you've got to admit, it takes balls to get up in the most prominent pulpit of the Capital of the World and begin your first homily in it with these words: "Fifteen years ago, I was ordained a bishop in the Church of Saints John and Paul on the Caelian Hill in Rome." That's exactly what Egan did at his New York installation. As John and Paul was the titular church of every New York cardinal since Francis Spellman, it was a humble premonition which implied (with flashing scarlet lights), "Cardinale subito -- and that will be my church."

You've got to love the modesty of it. But Egan's road to 452 Madison wasn't easy. He earned the opportunity to gloat, and have Renee Fleming come out and (contrary to the traditionally unamplified operatic custom) sing Mozart into a microphone -- an occurrence which remains vivid in the minds of the bishops in attendance.

(For the record, the Alleluia from Mozart's Exultate, which Fleming sang that day, is one of my favorite pieces (I was just listening to a Celia Bartoli rendering of it last night), but it's not microphone-friendly.)

Two years after the recodification was wrapped, John O'Connor, freshly arrived in New York, requested an auxiliary bishop. He was asked, and reluctantly agreed, to take Egan -- who, in one of the great Roman inside jokes of all time, was given as his titular See not some former Italian megalopolis which now contains all of four people and a huge church, but Allegheny, the most American thing you could imagine.

For a Roman of three decades, that screams "Insult."

When the new auxiliary bishop -- who, in case you needed reminding, was ordained in Rome -- returned to this side of the Pond, hell started breaking loose. Bishop Egan had been given a walk-up in an apartment complex for retired priests, and he started making noises that the place wasn't sufficient to accomodate his piano, a baby-grand which was one of his cherished possessions and means of relaxation (Egan was an organist in his days at the NAC).

Legend has it that Cardinal O'Connor told the priests, "I've found a place sufficient for Bishop Egan -- across the river in Newark." They cheered.

It gets better. Egan, who had been given competence over the New York archdiocese's sprawling education ministry, started reassigning Newman chaplains without informing the archbishop. Protests ensued from furious students, and O'Connor reversed his auxilary's moves.
This one-upsmanship continued to the end of Uncle Jack's days. Egan was supposed to be appointed as Archbishop of New York and O'Connor's resignation accepted on 2 May 2000. But as the cardinal's people had let Rome know that time was short -- he died 36 hours later -- the plans were scrapped to let the incumbent die in office. This is how word didn't just leak, but poured out from every ecclesiastical orifice in the Tri-State area, that Egan would get the nod well in advance of the eventual announcement, which took place on May 11, three days after the cardinal's funeral.

All that said, you couldn't invent Egan even if you wanted to, and he's such a unique character -- and you've got to love the unique characters in this line of work, as they're so few and far-between. Who else begins every single Mass with the same introduction which always reeks of gravitas: "Dear Friends in Christ, we will now begin the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We will bring Jesus Christ -- Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity -- down upon that altar *POINT TO ALTAR*. We will receive him -- Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity -- into our own hearts and souls."

Every time I hear that (and mouth it along as he says it) it feels like the first time all over again.

So here's hoping that, whatever on earth he's doing in his hometown this week, he's enjoying it. After all, how could one not enjoy the luxe surroundings of the Presidential Suite at the Crown Plaza Minerva?

PHOTO: AP/Plinio Lepri