The Gospel According to Rocco

Just who is the mysterious scribe behind Whispers in the Loggia, the controversial blog that Catholic power brokers can't seem to get enough of?

Those who choose to focus solely on Rocco Palmo’s age miss what is most unique about him. Certainly his youth is a curiosity, but what sets Palmo and his blog apart is his ability to resist simplistic categorization. The internet is overrun with self-proclaimed experts who are all too willing to let readers know what a “true Catholic” actually is. To his credit, Palmo isn’t interested in wrestling the Church away from infidels. He may frustrate some of his readers from time to time but ultimately Palmo is interested in identifying with the universal, small “c” aspect of the Catholic Church.

“He is the rare blogger who is both attentive to contemporary Catholicism and has a sense of historical consciousness about the Church” says James Martin, SJ, associate editor of America magazine and author of My Life with the Saints.

Rarer still, as Chapter 3 demonstrates, is a person who is equally comfortable dissecting the pope’s latest fashion choices as he is parsing the most recent Howard Stern show.

BustedHalo: Have you found that a lot of the trepidations in some quarters about Cardinal Ratzinger becoming Benedict XVI were unfounded? After the first year, what is your sense of things?

Rocco Palmo: It’s funny because this has been the upside-down papacy. He comes to office and you have the conservative faction jumping up and down, you’ve got progressives doing everything but jumping out of windows. Fast forward a year and now you have the progressives jumping up and down and you have the conservatives ready to jump out of windows – and some already have. Not literally but in their columns they’ve almost committed some sort of ritual hara-kiri because they say he’s sold them out. I just think it’s been very enlightening. You have two polar sides of the church, who absolutely want to destroy each other and at their worst extremes act completely contrary to everything Jesus stood for. Here is this Pope saying, “God is love.” Talking about the primary importance of the unity of the church. And while this is going on you have these factions of the church that want to rip their opponents to bits. There’s no justification for that. If these are the people most heavily invested in the church they should be listening most closely to what the Pope has to say. And if he’s saying “Here I am,” and these people are trying to say they’re more Catholic than the Pope, well, that’s not how it works.

We call this church “the bark of Peter.” He’s the helmsman, with the bishops. The rise of the Catholic blogosphere has led to the rise of everyone thinking they’re their own bishop. And thinking they get to decide what elements of church teaching they will follow and enforce and which they will choose to ignore, both on the right and left.

BH: Why did the New York Times ask you to comment on what Pope Benedict was wearing?

RP: I did something for the week in review section back in February about the fashion of the Pope. Afterward I looked at piece and thought, “Jesus, sweet Jesus, I’m like Mr. Blackwell!” And people were asking, “Why are you interested in all this fashion show?” And the thing is that the fashion show is not supposed to be something in and of itself. I mean, everything that is worn has meaning. And that’s where I’m coming from, a historical and liturgical perspective. This is all worn for a reason. It all means something in relation to the Pope’s role as a Christian, a priest, a bishop. This is the thing about the Vatican, it’s a very closed world. When he chooses to wear something, even the littlest thing could be a seismic indicator about the direction of one of the most influential and oldest institutions in the world.

BH: Can you give me an example of a seismic fashion indicator?

RP: For example, the Pope has gone back to wearing the choir dress that he wears when he’s not celebrating formal, liturgical events. This old style of a red velvet cape. Which in the old days had this ermine lining – which wasn’t worn by John Paul II because, being an action man, he would get too hot and he didn’t like the frilly stuff. So, Benedict pulls it out and you have kind of this restorationist festival, neo-traditionalist heads exploding with joy. It was like when the Red Sox won the World Series for Bostonians (laughs). And as opposed to wearing linen, which was the form used for the surplices, which looks like what the altar boys would wear, linen was worn after Vatican II because the lace was seen as old school. Well, the lace came back. And then you had people really going crazy. So, it shows that the Pope has more traditional leanings, which some would see as the possible or impending restoration of the Tridentine mass to a wider profile in Catholic life.

BH: Do you think that will happen.

RP: It could be coming. It changes with the day. There are a lot of sources and a lot of opposition to it within the Vatican. So this, together with the recent decision about the Legionaries of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel [who was asked by the Vatican in May 2006 to renounce all public ministry], are going to be two things for Benedict: whether he chooses to flex the muscle, the full weight of the office, or if he’s going to pursue a more diplomatic strategy. Not through the blunt use of authority, but through a longer trajectory of time.

BH: You’re from Philadelphia, which was hit pretty hard after the release of a grand jury report in October 2005 that detailed years of sexual abuse and mismanagement in the archdiocese. How has the sexual abuse crisis affected you?

RP: It devastated me in many ways, which are still very present and I’m still trying to deal with. The miracle of Catholicism – this phrase is usually used about second weddings – but the miracle of Catholicism is that it represents the triumph of hope over experience. I hate saying it, but here we are, four and a half years after the revelations in the Boston Globe and so many things are still coming out and so many people have suffered. Not just the victims of sexual abuse, but people who belonged to parishes that have closed because of these settlements; people who have given their lives for the church and expected better. As for myself, as a young person and to see this institution which, after my family, is the love of my life kind of implode or take this damaging hit by its own making, you wonder how. You wonder why. Over the four years my thinking has become more complex, because every easy solution has been tried and failed. It’s painful. It’s brought down people I’ve known, friends, mentors. People I expected better of. It doesn’t mean I love them any less. It doesn’t mean I’m any less grateful for what they’ve been in my life. No, if anything, it’s made my thinking much more complex.

“I was listening to the Howard Stern show the other day and they were saying, “you can’t hate your enemies because in doing that you destroy yourself.” Meanwhile Catholic blogs are off doing blood sport, and here they are having this discussion on the Stern show…I think that’s an accurate indicator of the state of things today.”

class=”red11″>BH: How have you dealt with some of the ugliness that comes from the church that you want to serve on a certain level?

RP: My readers give me a lot of grief about this: I’m a huge Howard Stern fan. I’ve started my morning off with him since high school. I followed him over to Sirius [satellite radio]. I was listening to the show the other day and they were saying, “you can’t hate your enemies because in doing that you destroy yourself.” This is something you would hope to hear on a Catholic blog, but they’re off doing blood sport, and here they are having this discussion on the Howard Stern show, which is supposed to be the great demonic fest of our time. And I think that’s an accurate indicator of the state of the world today. I’m very hard pressed to understand how people who are committed publicly and experience the perks, both lay and clerical, of being ambassadors of God’s love to the world – how they justify having enemies and hating people. Trying to destroy and go after people and not aspire to the better angels. I have a very hard time seeing how it’s possible to hate anyone. I mean, God is love. That’s the message of this pontificate. These “eager disciples” of Benedict putting their fingers in their ears and going, “lalalalala.” This is supposed to be the man from orthodoxy. And he is. This is the most crucial point of orthodoxy. And this is the contradiction in Christian teaching. Love becomes the teaching. Most teachings you hold in your mind but this is the one you live. It’s kind of staggering and it’s sad. I just do my best. I say I’m an okay Catholic but I’m an aspiring Christian. That kind of perspective helps.

BH: So you’re a disciple of the church and Howard Stern. How do you reconcile that?

RP: It’s a Catholic sensibility.

BH: Howard Stern has a Catholic sensibility?

RP: You don’t close yourself off from anything. The beauty of the church is that for two thousand years, it’s seen everything. No matter what’s going on at this moment in time, everyone’s pulling their hair out saying, “The sky is falling; it’s all going to shit.” But we’ve been here before and the church has been here before. And the beauty of the church is that in the Catholic sensibility there is a response to everything. And there’s always this faith, not in this sort of verbose manifestation of it, but this kind of spirit. That backdrop of sensibility. The beauty of the church is that it rejoices in humanity and doesn’t shy away from it, doesn’t run from it. It is sensual in every way. It is not a puritanical thing. Not this draconian recoiling from the world. Jesus said, “Go out into all the world.” Not “Build yourselves a ghetto…in Florida,” or anywhere else for that matter. And being Catholic. The word means universal. It ain’t universal if it doesn’t include every last thing there is in life. Even Howard Stern, Conan O’Brien. Even The Sopranos. For two thousand years, especially at its great apexes in history, the Church has been the patron of the arts, the patron of learning. Not the institution that shuts these down.

BH: Do you see that happening?

RP: I do.

BH: A lot of it is about tone, isn’t it?

RP: The problem with the church in our times is not the message or meaning. It’s the way it’s delivered. When the church, whether officially or unofficially, shows itself to be shutting itself down to the world, that shows to the casual observer that they’re afraid, they’re challenged, they don’t feel they’re up to deal with reality. The church should never be fearful. If the teachings, as we are supposed to believe, have not only the value of truth but also have been tested through experience, there is no reason to shy away from the Vagina Monologues, The Da Vinci Code. If anything, the problem of The Da Vinci Code is not the story itself but, as I said a couple of weeks ago on Whispers, it’s a cautionary tale of what happens when the church fails to engage the world in substance. And they’re saying, “Oh this is all Dan Brown’s fault.” And meanwhile, they’re selling tickets for the movie by all this controversy and stonewalling. But if the church had been out there for the last thirty or forty years, the way it was when Fulton Sheen walked the face of the earth, especially in the 1950s and 60s, we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now. Church communications is so important because that’s the face of the church. People don’t read their diocesan papers, they read their local papers. When they see that the diocese is cagey or doesn’t answer questions, that’s not the face of the church that people should be getting. They should be getting a message of the church that is open and joyful, which is embracing, welcoming. In too many places they’re not getting that right now.

BH: You mentioned Bishop Fulton Sheen who had a very popular television show that was well before most of our readers’ time. Who are some of your other heroes?

RP: Another one of my heroes was a native Philadelphian who in some respects never left: John Cardinal O’Connor of New York, who taught me so much growing up.

BH: You knew him?

RP: I did. He was just an incredible man. His example is something we need to keep in mind. He was a person who was so faithful that he was a horrible insomniac. He would never sleep. He was always burdened by the troubles of somebody who would write to him about some horrible problem in their life. It would always weigh heavy on him. Some nights when he was able to slip out of the house, he was the archbishop of New York, so he always had an NYPD detective with him, and he would go to and AIDS shelter and change bedpans. Completely anonymous. This wasn’t something that everyone knew.

BH: Cardinal O’Connor, Cardinal Bevilaqua…you’ve had some pretty high-profile mentors.

RP: The story of the church isn’t so much about the big names but the nameless saints. The parish priests and lay people who give up Friday nights and give up their weekends and take time away from their families for something that is bigger than them, that’s bigger than this life. And people who live the simple heroism of self-giving. It’s not something that wins them a place in the history books but it wins them a place in my heart. So much of my own work is to repay the debt of gratitude. So beyond the stories and facts and figures, they showed me what it is to be a good person, a good Christian. The best thing you can do for the church is to be a decent human being. That’s the best advertisement. You know, Saint Francis has this great quote, “Preach the gospel always, when necessary use words.” The people around me were a great example of that. But most of my heroes are outside of the church. My grandmother, who I’ve written about pretty frequently, was a widow by the time she was forty. She raised seven kids single-handedly. It wasn’t something that she asked for but she lived it with great acceptance and with great joy.

BH: Where’s she from?

RP: She’s from the Marche region of Italy; Central Italy, a couple of hours from Rome. If there’s anyone I know who has every right to be bitter about the hand that life has dealt them, it’s her. But if anything she says, “God got me through it. I couldn’t have done it on my own.” And she’s got this unseen strength that has guided her through everything. And given her this resonant joy, this resonant peace. She wanted to be a nun, but she was too poor and they wouldn’t accept her. And she said “My joy is my family.” And it’s beautiful. It’s given us something to live up to. I mean, my parents are my heroes. They’ve been married twenty-six years. You know, they’re still in love with each other. I mean, as gross as it is (laughs). It’s something that gives my sister and I something to shoot for, especially in a world that does not always seem to value commitment. They’re not overly zealous, pious people. But they just try to do the best by themselves and God and those who love them. What better example could you ask for than that?

BH: How do they react to your fascination of all things church as a kid and even now? They must be thinking ‘this is a strange boy indeed?’

RP: (laughs) They were like, “Where did you come from?” The one thing that kind of hit them, though: My parents are very old school Philadelphia neighborhood people. I was sort of the freak of nature who went to public school, where the rest of my family, cousins, went to Catholic school. And they always went to where the South Philly people went to school. How I ended up in the Ivy League, it’s a miracle (laughs). The thing that hit them more than anything else, more than the New York Times, the thing that made them think that I had arrived was when KYW, the all news all the time radio station in Philadelphia, interviewed me. My folks listen to it every day. My parents are very down-to–earth, blue collar people. It’s all dust and ashes to them. That’s how it should be for all of us. When their friends were calling them saying, “We heard Rocky on KYW.” They thought ‘something’s going on here.’

The Rocco Report-Remedies for the Church from a 23-year-old Whisperer “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.”