Joseph Zwilling is in the middle of a media storm surrounding the visit of Pope Benedict XVI.
Fortunately, Zwilling, director of communications for the New York Archdiocese, has the necessary experience, having served 26 years as a spokesman for the archdiocese. Zwilling is also publisher of the twice-monthly archdiocesan newspaper Catholic New York and producer of the Catholic Channel on Sirius Radio. He and his wife, Ann, live on Long Island, N.Y., and have three grade-school children.
Register correspondent Stephen Vincent spoke to him.
How are preparations going for the Pope’s visit?
This is the second papal trip I’ve had the privilege of working on, and it is really exciting. When John Paul came in ‘95, we actually had more than a year to prepare because he was first scheduled to come in ‘94, but then broke his hip and postponed. This time, we’ve only had a few months since it was officially announced that Pope Benedict will visit. I tell the many people who are working long days and nights that when Benedict is here, and you see the reaction of the people from all over New York and all over the country and hear his message, the work will be more than worth it. I surely can’t wait for it to happen.
What do you think the effects of Pope Benedict’s visit will be for the archdiocese?
Cardinal [Edward] Egan has instructed our chancellor, Msgr. William Belford, to prepare materials for the parishes so that the people of the archdiocese will be prepared spiritually when the Holy Father arrives.
I think there will be long-range spiritual benefits that may not be known for years. For example, Father Dave Dwyer, a Paulist priest who has a program on our Catholic radio channel, was working with Comedy Central and MTV when he went to World Youth Day years ago to see John Paul II. The result was that he left a promising secular career to become a priest. I think we will see much of that sort of effect with Benedict’s visit.
Tell us about the archdiocese’s new Catholic radio channel.
The Catholic Channel on Sirius Satellite Radio, which is available to subscribers, has been a great blessing for the Church. It was quite a lot of work, putting together a Catholic radio station from scratch, but I am fortunate to work with great professionals who make it go day to day.
The goal of the Catholic Channel — and we had many discussions about this with the people at Sirius — is to be solidly Catholic, with the most up-to-date model on how to appeal to a wide range of listeners. This means that when you tune into the Catholic Channel, it will sound just like any other radio station, with the big difference being the content, the topics the hosts raise and talk about.
Someone has called our style “pre-evangelization.” We can appeal to fallen-away Catholics, or those who haven’t given a lot of thought to their faith in a long time, and engage them in a discussion of Catholic things in a contemporary format.
What kind of feedback do you get?
We get a caller or two a week who says, “I’ve been away from the Church for 10 or 20 years but I happened to find the Catholic Channel and that led me back to Mass or confession.”
The fact is, we get people who subscribe to Sirius for Howard Stern becoming regular listeners of the Catholic Channel and coming closer to the Church.
And what about you: Did you have a Catholic upbringing?
I grew up in Levittown [Long Island] as a member of St. Bernard’s Parish and attended the parish school. With the very strong support of my mom and dad, I went to high school at St. Albert’s Preparatory Seminary, a boarding school run by the Carmelites in Middletown, N.Y.
Saint Albert’s had a very profound impact on me. The Carmelites gave me a warm appreciation for Carmelite spirituality, as well as a much better understanding of Catholic teaching and belief, something that was sadly lacking in many Catholic schools during the mid-’70s.
Realizing I was not called to the priesthood, in my junior year I transferred to Holy Trinity High School, a diocesan high school on Long Island, from which I graduated.
How did you get involved in the media?
During my junior year in St. Albert’s I came to know Father Peter Madori, who worked in the Office of Communications for the archdiocese, and hosted a radio program on WABC. He invited me to be a guest host on his program, something I did several times during my senior year of high school. It is what led to my interest in communications, and influenced my decision to attend Syracuse University and major in television and radio production.
I continued to guest host his program several times during my college years. After graduation, Father Madori told me of an opening at the Office of Communications as an assistant to then-Father Edwin O’Brien, who is now the Archbishop of Baltimore. I took the job in 1982 for what I thought would be a one-year diversion from my goal of breaking into radio.
The New York media has a reputation for being rough and unforgiving. Do you detect a streak of anti-Catholic bias?
My experience in 26 years in communications is that there is some out-and-out hostility to the Church, no question about it. But of equal difficulty are the reporters who don’t know anything about the Church, or worse, those who think they know something and let their misperceptions guide their reporting.
I spend a lot of my time with reporters, simply explaining Church terms and practices.
Working in the media capital, what are some of your most memorable experiences?
Three memories stand out. One was during the Mass of John Paul II in Central Park, when I was escorting a group of photographers to get a closer shot of the Pope. I turned to my left and out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of the 125,000 people on the great lawn, all there to see the Vicar of Christ, and I was helping the media bring his message to a worldwide audience. It was an intensely humbling moment.
Another was the illness and death of John Cardinal O’Connor. I was very privileged to be with him in his final days, praying at his bedside as he went home to God. I had the responsibility of informing the media of his death, and I was a bit nervous as I prepared to step outside his residence and make the announcement. I said a prayer, and prayed to the cardinal, for I was certain he was in heaven.
I asked him, who was such a great communicator, to help me find the right words at that very emotional moment.
The third memory was when I was privileged to be in Rome with Cardinal Egan for the events surrounding the death of John Paul II.
I was in St. Peter’s Square for his funeral and was there again for the election of Pope Benedict XVI. When I saw the white smoke, I called WCBS [New York] radio on my cell phone just to inform them that a pope had been elected. They put me live on the air and I was able to describe for that audience what was such a wonderfully happy occasion as Benedict appeared on the balcony.
Stephen Vincent writes from