He is a wiry bantam rooster of a man; a ball of nervous energy with brown hair and rectangular glasses sitting atop a Roman nose. From a row home in South Philadelphia he fields emails and phone calls day and night from sources around the globe who feed him inside information on all things ecclesial: what the Vatican is saying (and what it really means), which Bishops are being moved where, who’s in and who’s out. His blog, Whispers in the Loggia, is read by a growing legion of fans that includes everyone from very prominent cardinals and Vatican bureaucrats to parish priests and lay people. His knowledge of arcane Church traditions is so thorough that the New York Times and Associated Press now use him as an expert source on Roman Catholicism.
His name is Rocco Palmo and he is 23 years old.
Yes, you read that correctly. One of the most entertaining and provocative voices on the Catholic Church today is the work of a young man just barely out of college. Don’t believe it? You’re in good company. When Whispers in the Loggia debuted 18 months ago, Palmo’s inside information and knowledge of Church traditions and protocol was so exhaustively detailed—and accurate—that many readers assumed he was a much older priest in Rome or even a Vatican insider who had created an alter ego in order to be able to trade Church gossip.
Palmo himself refers to Whispers as “the Vatican sports section;” the box scores of the Church if you will accompanied by a campy running commentary. And while he also moonlights as an American correspondent for the UK-based international Catholic weekly The Tablet, the vast majority of his time is spent updating his blog with the newest tidbits arriving via his email inbox or cell phone.
Three Quarters of a Million Rocco Fans Can’t Be Wrong
“The blogosphere was made for Rocco Palmo” says journalist and former Vatican Radio correspondent David Gibson. “He is a guilty pleasure for everyone from cardinals to ink-stained wretches like me” he says. Gibson whose book on the new pope The Rule of Benedict, is due out this September, then adds “Rocco probably makes most readers smile and maybe some prelates wince.”
Over the past year, Palmo has made three quarters of a million readers smile and/or wince and thousands return obsessively every day for the inside dope on the Church.
But, in spite of all its success, Whispers is not without its challenges. At the moment Palmo’s labor of love is teetering on the edge of folding because it produces little or no income (he refuses to take advertising or charge a subscription, hoping that some portion of his thousands of readers will make a donation to keep it afloat). Also, for reasons related to both privacy and security (yes, there are people who have tried to threaten him), Palmo prefers not to publish pictures of his face.
BustedHalo sat down with the Whispers’ chief on the campus of his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia to conduct the first profile ever done on him. He speaks in measured machine gun blasts punctuated by short bursts of laughter and drags on his cigarette. Despite his Ivy League pedigree, his accent is pure, unadulterated Philadelphia. As someone who was born and raised there, trust me, if cheese steaks, soft pretzels and scrapple could talk they’d sound just like Rocco Palmo.
On his blog he plays the role of church gossip to the hilt but during our interview Palmo revealed himself to be a very bright young man with an exceptional understanding and love of the Church that transcends liberal/conservative tribalism. But make no mistake, the whisperer is far from uncritical; as a young Catholic his concern for the relevancy of the Church in the world today is deep and it comes through loud and clear.
Busted Halo: You’re a 23-year-old who probably knows more about the Catholic Church than most priests three times your age. Where did this fascination come from?
Rocco Palmo: It came from a bunch of places. Coming from Philadelphia, you see the church as different, as something removed, almost removed from the human, and that inspires a curiosity. When I was very young, 8 years old, I happened to see something and it just sparked an interest in so many things as far as historical, political, the art and culture. The triumph of what is called the Catholic imagination; the church’s ability to be all things to all people. And from there, over the years, I’ve met a number of people who have had lots of experiences. They’re like reservoirs. They have a tremendous amount of experience and want to share it if only you ask them to, if you’re open to it. And over the years, they’ve opened themselves up to me and what I do is kind of a tribute to them. They’re the essence of the work.
BH: What was this event that happened at age eight?
RP: In 1991 the archbishop of Philadelphia, Anthony Bevilacqua, was named a cardinal. He went over to Rome, got the red hat. There was all this splendor and ritual. Things that had their root from a thousand years ago. That leads some people to think, “Why are they doing this? Why are they wearing this? Why are they saying this in Latin? What does it mean?” So, that was my initial curiosity. When the cardinal came home, I got to meet him and he really became my first teacher.
RP: Well, I saw him at the cathedral and I said, “Nice gig you’ve got.”
BH: You said that to the cardinal at age eight?
RP: In so many words. He asked me, “Well, do you want to be a priest?” And I had never thought of it. I thought about it for a long time and decided it wasn’t what I wanted. But he told me a lot of the ways things work because I was so curious. So there was an intellectual thing. But that led to faith, to trust, to love, to the living encounter with Christ, which is the core of the work, but I don’t talk about that all the time. So much of what I do stems from that, to share that with people and give them a sense of what I learned. To pull them in intellectually and with the sensual. The beautiful thing about Catholicism is that it is a faith of the senses. It isn’t puritanical – or at least it shouldn’t be. It is in a lot of quarters today, but it’s a faith that rejoices in every part of reality. It’s just the greatest allure in the world and when it calls you, it’s very tough to not take that.
BH: Up to that point what were you interested in? Were you a precocious kid?
RP: Let me tell you, before this event, I had no interest in the church. My parents were culturally Catholic; go to mass on Sunday, put the envelope in the collection, go home and watch the Eagles lose. I was interested in history and languages. And whatever else. Playing in the sandbox, throwing sand at each other, spitballs. God knows what. Then this came through and it resonated with me at that age but it wasn’t as if I was completely absorbed with this from the start. It was sort of a quiet side thing in addition to the sandbox and spitballs. I never went to Catholic school which, in many ways, is a mortal sin in the life and culture of Philadelphia Catholicism. I went to public school all the way up and if anything I got some unexpected support and affirmation in my curiosity about my love for the Church from my teachers. Despite being in a public school many of them were incredible Catholics who raised me, taught me what it means to be a Catholic in the world as opposed to someone who lives their life in the auspices of the Church, working for it full time. Like the early Christians: “See how they love each other, see how they help each other.” They were incredible examples and remarkable in their profession without giving up the essence of who they were. Their impact remains with me, I hope, until even this day.
BH: It sounds like you were somebody who went out of their way to meet bishops and cardinals? A bit of a hierarchy groupie…(laughs)
RP: I guess you could say that. Being so young the church isn’t the coolest thing to be connected with, so I guess I just started my own little world among my peers, that this was something I had this love for or found this love for with time. I’m kind of grateful it worked out that way. I hope this isn’t the case elsewhere, but I think without that push the church wouldn’t have gone after me. The church wouldn’t have cultivated me. It’s a commentary on the time we live in. That there isn’t much youth outreach. And here I am, twenty-three, doing this and it’s good, but the church can do much better. Still I was very lucky to have those kinds of mentors growing up, who were able to cultivate that in me. But if I didn’t present myself for that, I don’t think it would have happened in the way it did.
BH: Let’s jump ahead to college. What was your time here at Penn like?
RP: When I got here I was pretty well-programmed as a kid raised in the strict world of Philly Catholicism, where you got what you were given, and you either took it or simply disappeared from the life of the church. So I got into a lot of discussions here I never had before, things which always seemed above question were back on the table. And I didn’t like that, because I thought it was heresy or mockery, it wasn’t good. But it took me a good while to internalize something I had read about for years as a kid in the Psalms and in the Old Testament where faith is said to be like “fire-tried gold.” Gold isn’t gold until it meets the refinement and test of the furnace. And going through that, I tried to close it off but eventually gave myself over to it and realized that, if anything, going through that the truths of faith emerge from that fire even better, more sacred, than they were before. At least that’s been my experience.
BH: When did you start Whispers in the Loggia? What was your initial inspiration in doing it?
RP: When I graduated from Penn in 2004 we had the most incredible commencement speaker of all time: Bono, the lead singer of U2. I’ll never forget that speech; he quoted a poem called “The Song of Judas,” by an Irish poet, Brendan Keneally, a line of which said, “To serve the age, betray it.” And that quote always stuck with me. I thought about the church coming out of the scandals, an institution I’ve always loved and people I’ve always loved. And saying, well, let me try my hand at this. I needed to make money somehow and ended up doing medical communications and PR for strip malls. And I thought, “[The Church beat] is what you love and you need to do this now or you’re going to kick yourself for the rest of your life if you don’t try this.” So, December 2004, I started this blog. I barely knew what a blog was and gave the address to three people, three friends and a couple of months later the death watch for Pope John Paul II started. So, again, I thought ‘this is the one chance in your life to do what you love doing’ and here we are 18 months later. It hasn’t paid off financially but in every other way, it has.
BH: So you started with these three friends, but you’ve grown very quickly. What are your numbers for the blog now?
RP: It’s grown to a daily readership of somewhere around six thousand. It just hit 700,000 total yesterday and counter’s been going since June 2005 and it’s a good feeling. It’s amazing, but I’m almost frightened by the fact that so many people enjoy it. Basically me putting my mind on paper and not thinking of the consequences.
BH: What’s a typical Whispers in the Loggia day like?
RP: I’m up by 6:30 in the morning to get the Vatican’s daily press bulletin, and from there it’s like the green flag and I just start going through emails, and the news. The phone will ring invariably throughout the day, whether it be the press seeking interviews or sources checking in. There’s no typical day. The most typical thing about it is that at 7am I’ll say to myself, “You really have to get out today” and then I look up [and the day is nearly over].
BH: You’re getting phone calls, you’re posting. When do you sleep?
RP: I sleep when there’s no news breaking or when the phone’s not ringing. I usually get four or five hours a night. It’s nice to be a workaholic in the winter. I’ve never worked harder in my life. As enriching as an experience it’s been to meet these people, I sometimes feel like I’m in the confessional. I get about 250 emails a day. I beat myself up about the fact that I can’t get back to them all. They express so much in their stories and give of themselves. If anything, that keeps me going, because it sure ain’t the cash. I haven’t been solvent at all in any of this experience.
BH: How will you keep it going?
RP: It’s come to the point where, and this isn’t me saying this, this is what my readers see, that it’s more than a blog now, it’s this sort of news operation, which is not what I expected it to be. To do that on a budget—and to call it a shoe string would be an exaggeration—I’m just immensely grateful for having had the experience and I want to keep it going for as long as I can. I’m not good at facing reality. I do have to get my loans paid and clear my debt to this university. I have a pretty big financial debt to it. The time has always been looming. I always have tried to have a stay of execution. And that’s the thing. I love my readers and I love what I do. I was listening to this amazing song the other night by Iron & Wine. It’s called “The Trapeze Swinger,” and it goes on for like nine minutes and thirty-seven seconds. It’s like a spiritual experience, you could listen to it over and over again. But there’s this line: “The trapeze act was wonderful but never meant to last.” And that’s basically what I’ve been doing, the trapeze act, and I’ve been having a great time doing it. That’s the thing, though; you can only stay up there so long. I’ve gone 18 months longer than I can go (laughs).
BH: And you don’t want to charge subscriptions?
RP: No, I don’t want to. I mean the most of my audience, and especially my core, I mean, priests don’t have a large stipend, they get $16,000 to $18,000 per year, however, I know a lot of my audience are in their 20s and 30s and they’re starting families and paying back loans and I want them to feel welcome. Again, this is what the church can do. I could have the comfort of subscriptions, but if it brings people something then it’s worth [going without]. The Church can be loved, it can be hated. But at the very least it must be relevant and people can talk about it. The worst thing for the Church is when people don’t care.