NEW YORK - One bishop says the candidate to succeed Cardinal John O'Connor as the man to lead New York's 2.4 million Catholics has already been chosen - but he won't say who it is.
Another experienced observer says whoever would want the nod from among the dozen or so possible candidates ''should have his head examined.''
''You're in the public limelight all the time,'' said Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. ''Everyone is always telling you how to do the job. You work grueling hours, sometimes 70 hours a week. There's an incredible number of constituents to please, to say nothing of the media.''
O'Connor died Wednesday of brain cancer after 15 years as cardinal, regarded the nation's most influential Catholic post. The pope had been expected to name O'Connor's replacement after he turned 80 in January, the age when cardinals lose their power to vote for a new pope.
In the arcane process of choosing a successor, the name that has emerged as a likely choice is that of a Connecticut bishop whose flock is less than a sixth of the Catholic population in the New York archdiocese.
Bishop Edward Michael Egan of Bridgeport, Conn., was a church official in New York and spent enough years at the Vatican to be known to Pope John Paul II, who will ultimately choose the successor to O'Connor.
Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J. - who had been considered a candidate and who just returned from Rome - said the decision on a successor already has been made. He wasn't naming names - although he said it's not him.
''We know who the final candidate will be. ... We'll all be delighted with the choice,'' McCarrick said as he arrived in Newark after a three-day Rome visit during which he spoke with the pope.
McCarrick had high praise for the 68-year-old Egan, calling him a strong administrator who had done good things in Bridgeport, where he has been bishop since 1988.
Egan's name has also been mentioned as a likely successor by priests at Masses around the city. Bishop Patrick Ahern told parishioners at St. Thomas More Church in Manhattan on Thursday that he was certain Egan would be named to replace O'Connor.
''It's the constant rumor and I have no difficulty in accepting it because it's a very appropriate appointment,'' said Ahern, a former aide to O'Connor. ''He's a strong man, a smart man. He's very able. He's from the Chicago area, so he's already a big-city fellow.''
New York Archdiocese spokesman Joe Zwilling refused to comment on suggestions that Egan had already been chosen, as did the spokesman for the Bridgeport diocese.
Egan, who was born in Oak Park, Ill., just outside Chicago, is head of a diocese with 367,000 Roman Catholics in 88 parishes. He is credited with regionalizing the Catholic school system and establishing the diocese's Inner City Foundation.
He served in Rome for 18 years and was an auxiliary bishop in New York, chosen by O'Connor to oversee the archdiocese's education programs.
His name was one of about a dozen candidates mentioned as possible successors. Several have strong New York connections.
Henry Mansell, 62, a bishop in Buffalo since 1995, was born in the Bronx and educated in Catholic schools here. He also was an auxiliary bishop in New York and a former top aide to O'Connor. Mansell, however, told reporters he would like to stay in Buffalo.
Edwin O'Brien, 60, who has been archbishop for the Catholic Archdiocese for the U.S. Military since 1977, was also born in the Bronx.
There is no timetable for the pope to name a successor. Many believe there will be no announcement until after O'Connor's funeral Monday at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
The process begins with recommendations in the United States, then goes to a committee in the Vatican, which makes its recommendations. The pope can reject any candidate and call forth another.
Reese, the magazine editor, said he has heard so many names mentioned over the past nine months that he no longer takes any of them seriously.
''All it means is that Bishop Egan has joined the rumor of the week club,'' he said. ''The fact is, this is a highly secretive process and those who know don't talk and those who don't know spread rumors.''