Class of ’04 | The telephone interview with Rocco Palmo C’04 has just begun when a ringing cellphone clamors for his attention: “Who’s calling me now? Oh God—Can I call you back in five minutes?”
The creator of Whispers in the Loggia, a blog about all things Vatican, later apologizes for the interruption. A New York Daily Newsreporter was calling Palmo for the latest wrinkle in a story that had ruffled quite a few clerical collars in the New York diocese. Whispers(whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com) was the first media outlet to publish an anonymous letter from a New York priest that called for a vote of no-confidence in Cardinal Edward Egan.
Palmo’s next caller, Religion News Service, wanted to know about an upcoming U.S. bishops’ meeting that would examine pastoral outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics.
Such is the life when you’ve got what Palmo calls “the mother of all specialty niches in journalism.” Whether the question is “Who’s going to be the next bishop of Pittsburgh?” or “Who makes the pope’s shoes?” Palmo has suddenly become the go-to guy on the Vatican beat.
For his watchful eye, Palmo has been praised and pilloried by the faithful. (Writing for Catholic New York, Cardinal Egan dismissed Whispers as “a blog that specializes in church gossip.”)
While some Roman Catholic leaders are ready “to engage the mass media and … see this as a moment of great potential for the Church,” Palmo says, others “are extremely fearful of the openness that comes with that.”
He was covering one event on the road (he won’t say where), when security began “trailing me like I was going to do something crazy. ”
Palmo’s fascination and love for the Church began in childhood and was stoked by the rituals that infused Catholic family life. When he was eight, the fanfare around Philadelphia Archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua being named to the College of Cardinals also made a lasting impression on him. Upon Bevilacqua’s return from Rome, Palmo got to meet the cardinal, who came to be a real mentor.
“After my father, he was the most influential male figure in my life and kind of showed me the ropes,” says Palmo. Bevilacqua even wrote Palmo’s letter of recommendation when he applied to Penn and kept another archbishop waiting to see him while Palmo delivered the good news of his acceptance. (“He was thrilled.”)
Growing up close to the newspaper business (Palmo’s father worked on the business end of The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News), he was keenly aware of a mutual suspicion between the media and the Church—and wondered if there was a way to build a bridge between the two. “The Church isn’t good, by and large, at explaining itself and that leads to misconceptions and misunderstandings,” he says. On the other end, reporters who aren’t familiar with how the Church operates can take things out of context.
Today Whispers draws 20,000 hits a day, but when Palmo started his blog as an undergraduate (majoring in political science) at Penn, it had three readers—all friends of his. During those early years he would call religion reporters and fill them in on the background of different issues in the Catholic Church. “I cold-called a bunch of them until they got to the point they’d be calling me,” he explains.
The death of Pope John Paul II and his succession by Pope Benedict XVI a year and a half ago has shaken up the Vatican beat, and Palmo says it’s been interesting getting to know a new pope from afar.
“Whereas John Paul would have meals in his apartment … with his family around, and it would always end with a singalong or something—I call it the 26-year Polish jamboree—to [go to] this pope who prefers to eat alone, who calls his books his ‘old friends,’ has been a dramatic sea change.”
While Palmo doesn’t shy away from covering some of the controversial issues facing the Catholic Church, such as its handling of homosexuality, abortion, and contraception, he says he has “no agenda.” Nor does he believe it’s his place to question Church teachings. What he does strive to do is explain things accurately, interestingly, and with as much context as possible.
Whispers has no guarantee of immortality, since blogging doesn’t pay too many bills—though Palmo’s grateful readers have been generous with donations, and he brings in some paychecks as a correspondent for The Tablet,
an international Catholic weekly in London. His overhead is low, since he covers the papacy from his parents’ home in South Philadelphia, though he’s “hoping to change” that situation.
Not that he would want to relocate to Rome. “If anything, I need to be further from the flame than closer to it,” Palmo says, “because it’s a very intense cycle.”