Category: Archive

Working Lives Zwilling, servant of church serves in a secular role

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Harry Keaney

Joseph Zwilling’s job is a little less demanding these days, at least in comparison to what he’d been through the previous six months. During that time, the director of communications for the archdiocese of New York had to deal with relentless media interest in the final months of the life of his longtime boss, the late Cardinal John O’Connor, as well as the speculation about, and installation of, O’Connor’s successor, Archbishop Edward Egan.

"The illness, death and funeral of Cardinal O’Connor was perhaps the most difficult time I had here because of the nature of what I was dealing with," Zwilling said. "It was very difficult for me personally to see him become ill and then to lose him."

Zwilling, who has been working for the archdiocese for the last 18 years, described O’Connor as a friend. "He had been more than just the boss, he had been someone you could go to and talk to about anything," he said.

Turning from the personal to the professional, Zwilling said there were times during the cardinal’s illness when he had to balance giving accurate information to the press with honoring the cardinal’s wishes. "He put a lot of trust in me to handle this and the last thing I wanted to do was to betray that trust," Zwilling said.

As an example of this, Zwilling revealed that the cardinal never said to him or to his associates that he had "cancer."

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"There were times when, of course, reporters would ask me about that," Zwilling said, "and I would have to not give in to my own speculation or repeat something I had heard from other sources or deny something that had never been denied to me."

Zwilling, who’s of German ancestry, lives with his wife, Cathy, and three children: Thomas, 6, James, 4, and Mary, 2, on his native Long Island. He usually gets into his 19th floor Manhattan office, in the Catholic Center on First Avenue, between 7 and 8 a.m. "My day often depends on what’s happening," he explained. For example, if a major news story breaks that is unrelated to the archdiocese, Zwilling’s phone rings less often. Indeed, last Tuesday, when an Air France Concorde crashed on takeoff in Paris, his phone hardly rang at all.

"On a typical day, I will talk to several reporters, producers or editors," said Zwilling, who not only is spokesman for the archbishop of New York but also has responsibility for the institutions and agencies that are run by the archdiocese. "My greatest fear is that I get a call that a priest has been charged with inappropriate activity because that is a very difficult and depressing situation to deal with," he said. "We have more attention being paid to that in recent years, and attention paid to it is not a bad thing because it helps us to deal with the problem in a better way."

Although Zwilling is just 41, he is now, he said, "an old hand" in dealing with archdiocesan matters. "I wind up on a great number of committees for the archdiocese," he said, because in so many cases communication plays a role and I have been here 18 years and am familiar with what went on in the past."

For now, at least, he seems to regard working for the archdiocese as his vocation. "I do not know I’ll be here for the rest of my life, but while I’m here, I do have a sense of serving the church and it has coincided with my personal values and beliefs. It’s a rare gift because a lot of people do not have the opportunity to do something they enjoy as well as it giving them the satisfaction of doing what they believe in as well."

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