He may not be the pope but if chapters 1-3 of “The Gospel According to Rocco” have proven anything it’s that Whispers in the Loggia‘s Rocco Palmo can pontificate with the best of them. So, in light of the fact that BustedHalo is geared toward young adult “spiritual seekers” and The Ratzinger Report (then Cardinal Ratzinger’s book-length interview on the Church) is more than two decades old, we asked Palmo to share his thoughts on the state of the Church today and how well it is reaching out to the next generation.
BustedHalo: You may not be a typical 23 year old but you do have a sense of what people your age are interested in. What do you think the Church could do better?
Rocco Palmo: Even if they don’t hit the cadences of the message exactly, but at least the sense of “We’re interested in you. We’re interested in who you are.” Not, “you’re wonderful for publicity purposes and you can come and paint signs but when Sunday morning comes the show belongs to everyone in their 40s and 50s and you just sit there and watch.” There is this rise of “orthodoxy” among people my age and that’s fine but it’s a very small group of people. But when you talk about your average twenty-something, coming out of college, getting into their first job. If I didn’t literally go after the church the way I did as a kid, it never would have cultivated me or been interested in me as someone who could be part of it.
I’m not saying we should be like Jehovah’s witnesses and knock on people’s doors but in terms of outreach give people something that will nourish them and make them feel good about being Catholic. Not something they do out of obligation. But something that even when they’re with their co-workers, without being a crazy zealot, banging people over the head with copies of the catechism, which if anything has a counter effect. Like when people are in their offices, again, like St. Francis said ‘preach the gospel always, when necessary use words.’ Give people something that they can come to where they feel unburdened and they’ll feel some kind of nourishment and spiritual fulfillment that can strengthen every aspect of their life.
BH: Didn’t John Paul II represent that for a lot of people? He was a huge superstar around the world.
RP: He did but now he’s gone. He’s not here. There was this phenomenon to John Paul II where 99 percent of people knew who he was. At the same time only about 65 or 70 percent of people knew who their pastors were. And there was this concept of “papalization,” that the church revolves around the Pope. And there are some who believe that it was an unhealthy excess. But God love him. I saw the man four times and every time he made me cry. There was nothing like that. But there’s no way you can keep that lightning in a bottle.
The problem with that concept of the church revolving around the Pope is that the church is not all about the Pope. It’s about its people. The church is the people of God. For those of us who accept the Second Vatican Council – not that there are many of us anymore (laughs), that’s the God’s honest truth – our parishes and people need to look at it and say, “Do we really treat our people, and not just the ones in the building on Sunday but the ones in bed who don’t think there’s anything for them there and that they don’t matter to the church, as our own?” Do our parishes and chanceries, and lay people and priests realize that these are the people who they serve, not the building?
BH: Do you think a lot of people your age don’t care?
RP: The church hasn’t given people my age reason to care. There’s this small group that’s seen as the hope for the future. But it’s not like it was for my parents. What we need to do is recover that Catholic sensibility that lives in the world instead of some closed-off club that is removed from the beauty and joy of everyday life.
BH: You don’t seem to be advocating the return of a Catholic ghetto or a Catholic culture.
RP: Yeah, well, the church is at its best when it’s lived in the world and not just for its people. When I wrote about Cardinal O’Connor a couple of weeks ago, I was given an experience I had always wanted: to go into the crypt at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, which is not open to the public, to pray at his tomb and just say thanks. A lot of what I’m doing in this moment is not because what I’ve done but what others have done for me and he was one of those people. Well, anyway, the beauty of O’Connor was that in this city, which many see as this capital of what the Pope before his election called “the dictatorship of relativism,” here you had this voice that stood up and said that the priority of the church must not be with those who have, but those who don’t.
And the Pope said that in his first encyclical. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Catholic or not. The church is supposed to be there for those who have no one to speak for them, no one to fight for them, who have nothing else to get them through. This isn’t simply some social justice thing, but what Christ tells us, that “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” Not just Catholics, not just Christians, but everybody. That the world may have light. The salt of the earth and the light of the world – not the salt of the church and the light of the church. It’s supposed to change the world, starting with the people closest to the flame. And the Pope just said this. That there’s all this self-absorption going on and people are complaining, “People aren’t listening, people aren’t listening.” Well no one’s listening because we’re not giving them an incentive to.
Most of the conversations that go on outside of Rome are shrill, too sophisticated and sophisticated for the wrong reasons. Because people like showing off how smart they are. It has nothing to do with faith. It’s about a zero sum game. And that’s not what Christianity is about. It’s not about, “I win, you lose.” That’s politics. And when the church has descended to the level of politics, which it has, it should expect the rewards of that, which are none.
BH: What are some examples of where the church has done well?
RP: I think you can bring this orthodoxy, this sort of tough line on faith, into the context of relevance. I think of Archbishop Chaput of Denver who has been able, in Colorado and in wider society, to captivate people’s imaginations by being someone who is exceptionally holy, exceptionally kind, doesn’t shy away from something that needs to be said but at the same time has an affinity for Don Henley’s “The Garden of Allah” and using “Sympathy for the Devil” as the backdrop for a major speech. And again, I don’t think as much in terms of new ecclesial movements as much as in terms of bishops. I guess that’s my weakness but that’s my beat, the area I cover.
I also think about Archbishop Dolan in Milwaukee. Another incredible guy who people have not ceased to give him hell since he was installed five years ago when, to make the people warm to him, he put on a Green Bay Packers cheesehead. Of course you have those purists who talked about the sacrilege of it all. But ultimately it won the church more credibility in a moment when it needed it more than all of the doctrinal espousing in the world.
I think of Cardinal McCarrick in Washington. The [church’s] moral credibility and public credibility are at an all time low in the United States right now except in Washington. McCarrick has been vilified by some people within the church but he’s put the best public face the church has had. He’s been Uncle Ted. He’s been everybody’s uncle who just loves to see you and doesn’t scream at anybody. He has at the same time lived the teaching in full and has been an advocate for the cause of life from womb to tomb and for the rights of immigrants and a more compassionate and just immigration policy. And again, he couldn’t have done all that if he didn’t have the approach. The Church needs to be in the world, not in this splendid isolation.
BH: How about the Church’s political influence? How is it doing in that arena?
RP: The Church needs to play smart. We’ve had to deal with the crisis of a couple of bishops have chosen to say their piece about abortion and communion. Of course they are the shepherds of their dioceses and that is their prerogative. However, the church needs to play smart in politics – that McCarrick approach, the approach that we will fight for the dignity of the human person. Not the Catholic person. Not the liberal person. Not the conservative person. But every person at every stage. Period. No matter what that means, whether it’s immigration or marshalling every last force possible to protest abortion, to change it. But it also means to go past the question of law, that abortion is not just a question of law. A constitutional amendment will criminalize it. But then again, we can’t just stick our fingers in our ears and go “lalalala” while women head into the back alleys.
And I have said this to several bishops, it’s a question of culture. And at the same time you have to marshal and fight for those things that don’t fall into the church’s normal political purview, like fighting for family leave, fighting for just wage, fighting for universal health care or the best possible coverage. So that where abortion had once seemed the only feasible option for some people, that bringing a child into the world, which is a joy and can have life to the full. Just like, “I came that they might have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus said that and that is not something that the church made up, or that the church can ignore. Again, it doesn’t matter who it is regarding their faith or their socio-economic status, but it’s something that has to be true to the world.
BH: Can the Church change?
RP: The Church moves in centuries. And that’s the thing that people don’t realize. They look at it now. People think in the now. One of my great professors at Penn, a guy named Jaroslav Pelikan, died last week; he was 83. I had him as a senior here, and it was one of those experiences that rocked me academically and spiritually because he opened up this treasure of the past.
He wrote like 50 books or something. He was this incredible man. And I would sit there and listen to him and be the bobble head that I am because there is nothing to do but nod your head. He was the genius and I was just trying to absorb all of it. Well, anyway, one of the things he said was, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” What we do as church, and this Pope comes at it from the same way, that the church is not church by adding on things. If anything, less is more. And the whole goal of the church is to get back to the ideal of Christ, the vision of Christ, the teaching of Christ. Not just to expound that teaching in word but to really live it. And to be out there as the instrument of it. And again, not by beating people over the head with the Catechism but by living it in daily life. And not by some over the top, “I’m so saintly” way but living it so that people just say, “Oh, she’s such a good person. What makes her tick?” So the closer we get back to that, the better church we are. And that’s the change, with all of these policies about liturgy and ideology, that changes the church for the best.
BH: What gives you hope? What keeps you in a Church that isn’t always as responsive as it could be to people of this generation?
RP: If we walk away then less is going to happen.
BH: Some people do walk away.
RP: Yeah, some people do, But if we walk away, nothing will happen and there’s almost no incentive for the Church to reach out, and then it goes out to its own splendid Viking funeral. Because I’ve seen so many people: priests, religious, laity. Parents, families. People who don’t trumpet it but just get involved and get nourishment from the Church in their lives. These people have worked hard to make this a reality. It’s taken a lot of their time, effort and commitment. These people have believed in this knowing that it’s bigger than themselves. They have given all of their love to it, especially in the case of priests and religious who have given their celibacy, their chastity. They have given all for it. The church is built of living stones. It is built with the lives, sins and temptations of the people who make it up. And to take yourself out of it, no matter how bad or irresponsive the Church may seem, is to take life out of it.
I’m just doing one guy’s part. I have no agenda. I just want it to be the best Church it can be. That’s not my call as to what it is. I’m not a bishop, thank God. I am not a priest or seminarian, thank God. I just want it to be the best it can be. And the indication of whether it’s the best it can be for people is what it gives to their lives. Whether people can be church or not, even when they’re not in that building on Sunday, but in the world. That’s not a conservative thing, not a liberal thing. It’s a Catholic thing. This division in the church right now, you have liberals, you have conservatives but the concern is to be Catholic.
BH: Do you have a message to those folks who have spent so much of their psychological energy on what faith is and where to look for faith and sustain and nurture your spiritual seeking, which is what BustedHalo is all about.
RP: Don’t let anyone pressure you. Do it at your own pace. Don’t let anybody tell you what you need to be doing. Nobody knows that better than you. If it takes one year, two, five, ten. If it takes going to 25 parishes. Make the effort. You will find a place where you will be welcomed, embraced and loved, and where they’ll need you more than you think.