NEW YORK — As American Catholics wonder whom the Vatican will name to replace Cardinal John O’Connor as archbishop of New York, they might consider this: Those who know aren’t talking, and those who are talking don’t know.p. Despite all the speculation whenever a big city archbishop dies or retires, ‘’I don’t know of successful prediction in recent years,‘’ Scott Appleby, a Notre Dame church historian, said Thursday. Pope John Paul II, he said, ’’has been predictable only about being unpredictable.‘’p. O’Connor’s successor will head the nation’s third-largest Roman Catholic diocese (with 2.4 million members) and, by virtue of his seat inthis media capital, enjoy the bulliest of pulpits. But trying to guess his name, Appleby said, is like trying to handicap a horse race.p. Such speculation is somewhat informed, fairly logical and usually wrong.p. Since O’Connor’s death Wednesday night, the New York news media have bandied the names they’ve been bandying since the cardinal had brain surgery in August. They include Bishop Edward Egan of Bridgeport, Conn.; Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, head of the diocese for Catholics in the military; and Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis.p. A Jesuit priest who arguably knows more about American archbishops than anyone — Thomas Reese, who wrote a book on them — wasn’t even trying to predict. ‘’Nine months ago, 20 people called me (after O’Connor’s surgery), and each absolutely knew who the new archbishop was going to be and exactly when he’d be appointed. They were all wrong,‘’ he said. ’’I’ve given up trying to be Jimmy the Greek.‘’p. It’s easy to see why. Nobody mentioned O’Connor as a candidate to succeed Cardinal Terence Cooke in 1983 — O’Connor had been bishop of Scranton, Pa., for less than a year — and the prognosticators’ record since has not been inspiring.p. * When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago died in 1997, more than a dozen bishops were mentioned to succeed him, including Rigali. They did not include the one who got the job: Portland, Ore., Archbishop Francis George. That’s largely because George had been the head of a religious order and lived in Rome for 12 years. He had been in Portland less than a year.p. * After William May resigned his post atop the St. Louis archdiocese in December 1992, the Vatican did not replace him for 13 months, an unusually long interval. The list of potential successors was long, and the man who got the job, Rigali, was not high on it. That was no wonder. He spent most of his career in Rome as a Vatican administrator, a capacity in which he gained the pope’s respect. Some experts, in fact, speculated that the long delay indicated that the pope had rejected whomever church officials recommended and that he picked Rigali personally.p. * The first time Atlanta Catholics heard that Charlotte Bishop John Donoghue would replace the late James Lyke as their archbishop was when the Vatican announced his appointment on June 21, 1993. Donoghue said he was surprised, too: ‘’I didn’t expect it.‘’p. So it has gone. Archbishop William Lavada was a surprise to replace William Quinn in San Francisco five years ago, as was Bishop Daniel Cronin to succeed the late John Whelan as archbishop in Hartford, Conn., nine years ago. When Baltimore Archbishop William Keeler was named cardinal in 1994, it was only the third time in two centuries that the archdiocese’s leader was so honored.p. Occasionally, the crystal ball works. St. Petersburg Bishop John Favalora was high on the list of names to succeed Miami Archbishop Edward McCarthy in 1994. He got the job.p. What’s the problem? ‘’Most of these rumors come>from local clergy, and who do they know? The big name archbishops and the bishops they’ve worked for themselves,‘’ Reese said.p. ’’Reporters give too much credence to the clergy,‘’ he added with a laugh. ’’If they heard it from politicians, they’d be more skeptical.‘’p. ’’The bishops’ assistants start these rumors,‘’ Appleby agreed, ’’and we pass them around.‘’p. The pope picks the church’s bishops, but only after an elaborate process plays out.p. When a bishop’s position comes open, the papal nuncio, or representative, in Washington conducts an investigation and accepts reports from various sources, including the retiring bishop. He forwards three names to the Vatican committee on bishops, which in turn recommends a single candidate to the pope.p. The pope can accept the recommendation, ask the committee for another name or immediately appoint someone of his own choosing.p. Participants are sworn to secrecy, and they almost always keep their word.p. ’’It’s not an open process,‘’ Appleby said. ’’I believe the American cardinals know who O’Connor’s successor will be, but they’re not talking. The Vatican didn’t start thinking about this yesterday. There is a scenario; the problem is that people only have little pieces of it.‘’p. In fact, there’s always a logic to such selections, but it often becomes apparent only in retrospect.p. O’Connor, for instance, had experience in New York as an auxiliary bishop when the military diocese was based there. He also was a protege of Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, a Polish-American who was close to the first Polish pope.p. Similarly, George’s appointment in Chicago made a certain sense: He was the first Chicago native to head the archdiocese.p. Cardinal O’Connor, everyone agrees, had a strong say on the identity of his successor — both because he was close to the pope and because he had been a member of the Vatican committee that recommends bishops. ’’O’Connor had a better chance than any other American bishop of being able to handpick his own successor,‘’ Appleby said.p. Two local favorites, O’Brien and Buffalo Bishop Henry Mansell, both former O’Connor aides, seemed to fade this week in the speculative pecking order. The theory: If the pope were going to appoint an O’Connor man, he would have done so before the cardinal died.p. John Paul II seems to have strong preferences when picking bishops: He likes men who have administrative experience in Rome; who have run dioceses; who speak the language of local minorities, notably Spanish; who have advanced degrees in church law; and who have demonstrated willingness to uphold the pope’s traditional theology.p. On Thursday, one of the supposed candidates to replace O’Connor, Newark Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, arrived at Newark Airport on a flight from Rome. A New Yorker who began his career under Cardinal Francis Spellman, McCarrick was too young for the post when Cooke died, and now, at 69, is probably too old.p. ‘’We know who the final candidate will be,’’ he told reporters. ’’We’ll all be delighted with the choice.‘’p. But he wouldn’t say who the choice was.