Young Catholic Blogger Makes Waves

Rocco Palmo, a 23-year-old Philadelphian, has made a name for himself with his insider's blog on the Catholic Church. It has become a must-read for many Catholics — even some inside the Vatican.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Pope Benedict XVI is in Germany today.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Speaking foreign language)

SIEGEL: He has been widely cheered on this visit, his first trip as pontiff to Munich and to his home state of Bavaria. American Catholics have yet to get a live glimpse of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, but a growing number are following Benedict XVI and other Vatican happenings at an unlikely source. A 23-year-old American who writes a blog from the basement of his parent's home in Philadelphia is that source.

As NPR's Rachel Martin reports, his blog has become a must read for church insiders and for anyone else interested in the daily minutia of the Catholic Church.

RACHEL MARTIN: Rocco Palmo's cell phone is like an extension of himself. Sometimes he uses a wireless earpiece. Other times he jams the phone in the crook of his neck but it's never out of reach.

Mr. ROCCO PALMO (Whispers in the Loggia): Hey. All right. What's going on?

MARTIN: Today Palmo is walking down the street near his house in south Philadelphia when he gets a call from a loyal source dishing details about a breaking story.

Mr. PALMO: What do you think of this whole Jimmy Green thing? (Unintelligible) Now do we know if the ordination is going to be here? It is going to be. Do they have a date? Oh, my god! That's two weeks away!

MARTIN: Jimmy Green is actually Archbishop James Patrick Green, a Philadelphia bishop who's been appointed as the new papal diplomat to South Africa. Palmo presses the phone to his ear with one hand, frenetically flicking a cigarette with the other. He paces and anxiously shifts his wiry frame back and forth. Then he divulges a lead of his own using the language of the Church like a code.

Mr. PALMO: Oh, one more thing. One more thing. One more thing. I heard something about Wilmington. That Wilmington might be getting co-juder(ph). So keep your eyes open and if you hear anything about it, you know, let me know.

MARTIN: It doesn't matter how seemingly trivial the promotion or how obscure the Vatican edict, Palmo lives for this kind of stuff. He confirms leads, sprinkles in a bit of analysis, a pinch of sarcasm and a dash of humor and sends the finish product out into cyberspace on his blog, Whispers in the Loggia.

Every day he chronicles arcane appointments, policy minutia and downright gossipy details about the Church, the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI himself. Here's one of his favorites.

Mr. PALMO: One thing I noted was that I had been told the Pope would wear at the end of the day when everyone was away he had been given, a friend had given him a couple of gifts of blue track suits. Just to kind of lounge in you know and everything. Yeah, so imagine the Pope just sitting there in front of the TV, you know, flipping around, flipping around the channels or playing the piano in a blue tracksuit.

MARTIN: Palmo graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 with a degree in Political Communications and he still lives with his parents in the same row house where he grew up.

(Soundbite of neighborhood noise)

Here in his makeshift office in the basement, reference works on Catholic canon law spill from wooden bookshelves. A small framed photo of his grandmother sits on the desk. A portrait of Elvis hangs on the wall above an overflowing laundry basket on the floor. Palmo sits on a faded beige couch and writes up the news he just learned on his blog.

(Soundbite of computer keys)

MARTIN: Palmo started his blog a couple years ago with only three readers. Now he tracks as many as 8,000 a day from as far away as China and Australia. He says thanks to the Internet and his sources, he's got real time access to top-level information from the Vatican, sometimes rivaling even mainstream news sources.

Mr. BILL MCGARVEY (Editor, BustedHalo.com): Many people when he first came out thought he was a fifty-something Vatican bureaucrat.

MARTIN: Bill McGarvey is the editor of a religious Web site called BustedHalo.com.

Mr. MCGARVEY: There was a lot of speculation on Catholic blogs that he was this priest from Philadelphia. He knows so much and his knowledge is so deep about the Church and that people assumed he was an insider.

MARTIN: But Palmo never wanted to be a priest and didn't even go to Catholic school. The Church has always been a big part of his life, though. He's third generation in a huge Italian American family where serving as an altar boy was standard protocol. As a kid he became utterly fascinated with the inner workings of the Church and now he's turned that fascination into what he calls the Vatican sports section.

Mr. PALMO: You see who's up, who's down, who's in favor, who's not. Who's getting exiled, who's getting brought in, kind of (unintelligible). Just going off about other people doing this or that. So it's a beautiful thing.

MARTIN: Unfortunately, it's not really a well paying thing and he's just stared asking his readers for online donations. Sitting outside on his front porch, Palmo says he doesn't have a political agenda. But some readers think otherwise.

Mr. PALMO: I have people on the left calling me this misogynist conservative. I have, and I have the people on the right calling me this flaming, pinko liberal who won't be happy until Satan is crowned as Pope.

MARTIN: Love him or hate him, people in Catholic circles are still reading, even some inside the Vatican. John Allen is a veteran correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (National Catholic Reporter): As I move in and out of offices of the Vatican it's quite frequent for English speakers to ask me if I'm aware of this thing, Whispers in the Loggia, and what I think about it.

MARTIN: Allen has an online column himself and is considered one of America's top experts on the Vatican. He says Palmo's blog may have a following, but it's hardly seen by bishops as a source of hard hitting news and analysis.

Mr. ALLEN: I think some of them would see it as entertaining. Others would see it as salacious and kind of sensationalistic.

MARTIN: But even if Palmo's blog is more Entertainment Weekly than New York Times, it still has value, says Father Jim Martin. He's the editor of a weekly Catholic magazine called America. He reads Whispers in the Loggia daily and says it's not just a fun source of Vatican factoids, but a rare peek behind the Church's red velvet curtain.

Father JIM MARTIN (Editor, America): I think that what Whispers in Loggia does along with other blogs is to open up a window into what's going on in the Vatican which remains you know, cloaked in mystery. So anything that can shed light on the way the Vatican works I think is helpful for people.

MARTIN: Not so, says Archbishop Charles Joseph Chaput of Denver. He's impressed by Palmo's wide and deep knowledge of the Church, but he says blogs like his can distract people from the true meaning and mission of the Church.

Archbishop CHARLES CHAPUT (Denver): I think anytime important events in life and church are handled in a frivolous way or a gossipy way it certainly doesn't do any good. It seems to me that there's way too much time spent in exchanging information that in some ways really clutters rather than helps understanding.

MARTIN: By mid-afternoon Palmo has already updated his blog several times and needs another cigarette. He leans against the wooden railing on the front porch and lights up. Even though he has to deliver newspapers to help pay his ever rising cell phone bill, Palmo says right now he can't imagine doing anything else.

Mr. PALMO: It's just this kind of, you know, treasure trove of, you know, politics, of intrigue, of 2,000 years of colorful characters, please, and there's just something about it, its ritual, its mystic, which lures people and has this, you know, is able to captivate the imagination.

MARTIN: Do you have any proof that officials in the Vatican are reading your blog?

Mr. PALMO: Yes, I have emails I can't show you.

MARTIN: He grins when asked if the Pope is among his readers. A Vatican spokesman declined to comment on the blog or whether it's part of the Pope's regular reading material. But Palmo says he's noticed one German language computer connecting to his blog site from inside Vatican City, late night Rome time, which only makes him wonder.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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