Philadelphian's insider blog on the Vatican, Whispers in the Loggia, stays busy these days

Rocco Palmo, who runs the Catholic insider blog "Whispers in the Loggia," says the process of naming a new pope isn't pretty.
Rocco Palmo, who runs the Catholic insider blog "Whispers in the Loggia," says the process of naming a new pope isn't pretty. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 05, 2013

It's early on Saturday evening, and South Philly's own Rocco Palmo emerges from what he calls "the bunker" after a week of hunkering down and heads toward Center City.

It's time for a breather. Time for a change of scenery. Grab it while you can because on Monday, "the craziness" will simply grow in intensity.

Palmo, 30, hair already thinning, body all angles, conversation careering from baseball to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua to iPads and back again, is smack-dab in the middle of something no one alive has seen: what happens when a pope resigns.

For eight years, Palmo has been writing "Whispers in the Loggia," an insider's chronicle of doings in the Catholic hierarchy, at http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/. It has become a must-read for church insiders who value its commentary and analysis - and its leaks.

Leaks lead to scoops. Consider Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of Baltimore. He was appointed grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in August 2011. The public learned of the prestigious appointment from Palmo.

Now Palmo has been handed the story of a lifetime: the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, cardinals descending on Rome, election of the next pope. It hasn't happened in centuries.

How's he doing it?

Palmo takes out his iPad, his pocket WiFi connection, his cellphone and puts them on a small table in the lounge of the Omni Hotel at Fourth and Chestnut Streets.

"You're looking at it," he says, erupting in a signature laugh, a kind of nervous cackle.

"My cellphone bill is going to be atrocious when all this is over. E-mail, cell, Skype. Hey, I started [the Whispers blog] in '05, and the technology has evolved until now. It's the first social-media conclave of the church."

Palmo is hoarse - he has a cold - and thirsty and rail thin. He orders a pot of coffee, a glass of wine. He downs some water.

"I'll tell you," he confides, "black coffee and cigarettes - that's all I'm fueling myself on now."

He checks his iPad. Checks his watch. Oops! Only 20 minutes left to cancel a plane reservation to Rome.

"Excuse me," he says, punching and clicking his way to a successful scuttling.

Palmo had planned to be near the Vatican for the next two weeks of historic doings, but the cost of the trip proved too much. "The hotels! he exclaims. "The media people going over are getting hosed!" He is completely financed by readers, accepting no advertising and no contributions from church policymakers.

"That keeps a purity to it," he says. "If I wanted to take ads, I could cash in big time. If I wanted to sign with another outlet, and there have been offers, things would be more stable. . . . I have complete freedom with this. I have the trust of people around me."

Palmo's sources and knowledge of church intricacies are indeed legendary.

"Rocco has the Vatican and most dioceses in the United States wired," Ann Rodgers, religion reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote in an e-mail Sunday from Rome. "The first time he attended a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I had bishops [ask] me to introduce them to Rocco, as if they, too, were in awe of what he does. I have walked into offices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and noticed that the staff member's computer was open to 'Whispers In the Loggia.' "

Yes, Palmo's disappointed not to be in Rome. But guess what - he really doesn't like to spend time there.

He'd rather be in his beloved Philadelphia near his extended family, near the Phillies, near Second Street. This is Palmo territory. He went to the Masterman School and then on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied political science.

"This is home," he says. "This is my happy place. I really don't like going to Rome. I don't have much tolerance for the scene. I work with it. I like the people. But the pressure! I'm close enough to the flame as it is in what I do."

Oh?

"I'm in the middle of a tornado," he says. "On a 10-scale, the day the pope resigned was a 28. Within nine to 12 days, the cardinals will have a conclave and it's a crapshoot. Nobody knows what's going to happen. "

Palmo became fascinated with the history and trappings of the church as an adolescent when Bevilacqua, archbishop of Philadelphia, was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II. Palmo peppered the new cardinal with questions and they eventually became friends.

The church has been a consuming interest for Palmo ever since. Yet he declines to be drawn into the guessing game. Who will be the next pope? No one knows, he says.

"Filling a papal vacancy is . . . always a response to the strengths and weaknesses of the last one," he says. "Only now do we enter into the beef, the substance of the making of the pope. Or, if you will, the sausage-making of the pope - because it is not a pretty process."


Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or follow @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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