Rocco Palmo is going to Rome. Not that the author of the blog “Whispers in the Loggia” had much trouble reporting on the Vatican from his usual perch in Philadelphia. But the upcoming conclave to choose the Catholic Church’s next pope offers some obvious advantages to a Vatican reporter who’s present. “The conclave is Rome’s biggest party,” Palmo said by phone from Philly. “Everyone shows up. In Italian culture,” he said, “you get everything done over a drink at lunch.”
Like most on-site Vaticanisti, Palmo speaks Italian. He also writes in Spanish during the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December, a day celebrated by many Hispanic Catholics and one that’s growing in importance in the U.S. He fanatically covers comings and goings in the church, offers thoughts and analyses on other news and relays the pope’s homilies and statements.
He does not, however, appreciate being called a blogger. “A blogger is someone who vents their spleen online,” says Palmo, who ends all his posts with an old-fashioned “-30-.” “That’s not what I do.”
“The model on the blogsphere is build it and they will come, and he obviously has been able to cobble together a sufficiently compelling presentation that a lot of people read it,” National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen, reached by phone in Rome, said of Palmo, though he added: “I don’t think most guys in the Vatican are reading a lot of American commentary.” Palmo said he does indeed have readers “behind the Vatican walls”; why else would the Vatican ask him to moderate a conference on social media?
“I’ve kind of made a reputation for leaking things,” Palmo said. He gets tips — “I get text messages from cardinals and I’ll FaceTime with bishops” — and other insiders. Unlike other Catholic reporters, he said, his free-agent status means he’s not subject to Vatican oversight. Palmo said that if he worked for a church-directed publication, “I’d get fired very quickly.” He works alone: “The only person who could probably be my secretary or my assistant would be some retired monsignor from the Vatican,” he joked, and he carefully guards sources. “A lot of the stuff I get — if it’s found out who gave me it they could be excommunicated,” he said. He calls the trust his sources place in him “the seal of the confessional.”
“I take that as seriously as a priest takes his obligation,” he said.
Palmo considered the priesthood but “once I started meeting girls as a teenager there that went.” Still, he established a good relationship with Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who inculcated a lifetime fascination with the church. When Bevilacqua died last year, Palmo wrote a warts-and-all obit for his mentor, whom prosecutors had charged ignored sex abuse allegations against priests.
Palmo, who is 30, studied American politics at the University of Pennsylvania, with an independent study of Vatican politics. “I thought, I’m not gonna be a priest; how am I going to bring these two things together?” he said.
Traffic to “Whispers in the Loggia” was minuscule at first, Palmo said, but by 2006 NPR called it “a must read for church insiders.” Now he averages 15,000-20,000 readers a day, he said. Last week, when Pope Benedict XVI resigned — an event Palmo said “blindsided” him as well as the rest of the press — Whispers had 75,000 readers. He keeps the blog floating via reader donations.
“I’ve already got $5,000 on my credit card that wasn’t there Saturday morning,” Palmo told me, but he’s confident the outlay will pay for itself in scoops: “There’s going to be news breaking all over the place,” he said. His relationship with the Holy See Press Office is now quite good, he said, an improvement from early days when there were “plain-clothes security following me around at church events.”
“And now I’ve got several friends who are gonna go in and elect a pope, which for me is a really amazing thing,” Palmo said. He refused to speculate who might emerge as the next Bishop of Rome: “Any exercise in names right now is counterproductive and is only useful for entertainment.”
But he will predict the Catholic Church will soon be run by “a pope that’s used to having a computer on his desk.” For a job he calls “the world’s greatest gilded cage,” Palmo said, “that changes everything.”