Characters: The Vatican Whisperer

From his parents’ South Philly basement, 23-year-old Rocco Palmo is the go-to guy for what’s happening inside the Catholic Church.

One of the top Vatican experts in America is sitting in his gray Mercury Sable, trapped in Center City traffic, when he sees a lithe brunette walk out of a hair salon. “Hunh,” he grunts. “She’s real cute.”

Rocco Palmo — who is 23 years old and lives in South Philadelphia — pauses. Sometimes, Rocco is arrogant and didactic. But when he’s not discussing the Catholic Church, he can be deferential almost to a fault. He interrupts himself, and laughs at strange moments. His hands twitch self-consciously. Which is to say that Rocco is the kind of smart young man who hasn’t yet grown into his own skin. “I get really shy around women,” he says.

Then, suddenly, his cell phone rings. “What joy!” he cries, checking the number. “It’s Rome calling!”

He answers, and he and the caller exchange jokes in Italian before switching to English. Rocco giddily shares some gossip he’s gotten for his blog, Whispers in the Loggia, which covers the inner workings of the Catholic Church. “Oh, I heard López Trujillo” — president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family Office — “is gonna be out before the end of the summer!” Rocco explains. “Yes! Yes! People will be shitting themselves! They’ll call it an eclipse of God!”

For most people, the pope firing one of his aides hardly qualifies as news. But then, few people understand the Vatican like Rocco Palmo. Cardinal Trujillo is Rome’s Pat Robertson, a hard-line conservative who uses his office to rage against homosexuality and abortion. If this rumor is true — and it probably is, since it comes from one of Rocco’s reliable Vatican sources — then Rocco knows the pope is sending his conservative lieutenants a message: If I can fire him, I can fire you. So cool it with this culture-wars crap.

Rocco also knows that publishing this little tidbit months before the official announcement will really piss off the Vatican press office. In fact, as the Sable inches forward in traffic, the lithe brunette long gone, Rocco gets a gleam in his eye.

“I might even post it,” he says, “just to watch people squirm.”

Those who know Rocco Palmo say he is one of the smartest, strangest 23-year-olds they have ever met. He began immersing himself in Vatican history and lore at the age of eight — and 15 years later, he puts that curious education on display daily with Whispers in the Loggia. If courtiers to the throne of King Edward ever published an underground ’zine, it would read something like Whispers, which covers the eternal war for control of the church. As in any empire, these battles are never explicitly discussed. One must watch the many factions, learn the characters, understand the euphemisms they use to describe victory and defeat. And when it comes to the Vatican, few people are better qualified to do this than a kid who lives with his parents in a rowhouse in South Philly.

Rocco calls Whispers “Page Six for priests” or “the box scores of the Vatican,” and both are apt. Like Page Six, the blog — which gets about 7,000 hits a day — is filled with gossip, scoops and rumors that are devoured by those with inquiring minds (it’s occasionally linked to by popular blogger Andrew Sullivan); like the inner folds of the sports pages, it’s written in code that confirms for insiders their insider-ness. This summer, for instance, Rocco spent several days covering the debate over a completely new mass translation, including whether the liturgy should refer to the Holy Spirit as “an outpouring” or “dew.” Conservatives liked “dew” because it’s closer to the original Latin; liberals preferred “outpouring” because it’s better understood by regular people. When the liberals won, Rocco described the overall translation vote as “the most important vote the U.S. bishops have ever taken” — which would have been an overstatement, except that’s exactly how Rocco says the bishops were describing it among themselves.

For the church hierarchy, having secrets aired in the blogosphere is not only new, but potentially troubling. Though Rocco counts many priests and bishops as regular readers and sources, not everyone has embraced what he’s doing. “I have heard some folks speak very strongly and very negatively about Whispers,” says David M. O’Connell, a Philadelphia native who’s president of Catholic University. “They consider it irreverent and offensive.”

That’s due, in part, to the cheeky tone of Whispers. Rocco typically refers to Pope Benedict XVI as “His Fluffiness,” since the pope is known for his bouffy white hair. Alternately, he calls him “B16.” (“It’s like he’s a vitamin!” Rocco proclaims.) But what really gets some Catholic vestments in a bunch is Rocco’s subject matter — the fact that he’s taking the inner workings of a highly secretive organization and posting them on the Internet for the world to read. The Catholic Church is the largest institution in the Western world that still thinks its internal politics are nobody else’s beeswax. Almost three decades after Ted Turner founded CNN and the 24-hour news cycle, the Vatican press office still closes at 3 p.m. Rome time.

And yet those who imagine Rocco is out to bring down a 2,000-year-old institution have it all wrong. Beneath his surface irreverence lie deep wells of reverence. He loves the Catholic Church, and has taken it upon himself to translate a tarnished, baroque institution weighed down by centuries of mystery and metaphor for an increasingly skeptical, secular, literal-minded world. And he’s doing it under a de facto vow of poverty, since his blog generates almost no income.

He might as well take a vow of chastity, too, since being a world-class Catholic Church expert is a terrible way to meet women. As Rocco says with a sigh, “I can’t find a girlfriend to save my life.”

ROCCO IS A GOOD-LOOKING guy, five-foot-eight, 135 pounds. He resembles a miniature version of Michelangelo’s David, only with perpetual two-day stubble, wire-rim glasses and no muscles. He’s twitchy, jittery, but when he’s talking about the church, his words come in a loud, uninterrupted stream. On a recent Monday morning, he is walking toward the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on the Ben Franklin Parkway when he stops before the statue of John Neumann, Philadelphia’s fourth bishop. “What an amazing character!” he says, launching into a 10-minute monologue about Neumann’s life, including that he is said to have been carrying a package to a poor family at age 48 when he collapsed and died. “It happened right here, on the sidewalk,” Rocco says, stabbing one of the clove cigarettes he chain-smokes at the ground. “That was in 1860.”

Few people alive know by heart the biography of a bishop who died 146 years ago, but this is just the tip of Rocco’s geekiness when it comes to matters of the church. He can tell you the maiden names of bishops’ mothers. He likes to compete with friends to see who can do the best impression of various Catholic officials. On warm summer nights, his idea of a great time is to sit outside, drink beer, and argue with his friend, a Catholic bishop, over the correct way to translate the Holy Liturgy from Latin into English.

His precociousness showed early. As his mother pushed him around in a grocery-store shopping cart, two-year-old Rocco would yell out “Chocolate pudding!” and “Gatorade!” Fellow shoppers were stunned that a toddler in pull-up diapers could read, and they’d ask him to do it again. So he would. Loudly. “I hated shopping with him,” says Rocco’s mother, Julie Palmo. “It took me all day. I finally started leaving him at home.”

Julie does accounts receivable for a trucking company. Her husband Bob has worked in the circulation department at the Inquirer and Daily News for 28 years. They consider themselves smart, practical people. Both were stunned when their son turned out the way he did. “It’s like he’s been here before,” Julie Palmo says, “or like he’s from another planet.”

Rocco was eight when he seemed to find a receptacle for all his energy and intelligence. His aunt took him to the mass welcoming newly elevated Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua home from Rome. Rocco remembers the date: July 14, 1991. As Bevilacqua walked to the altar, he stopped his long entourage, knelt on one knee, and said hello to the boy standing in the third row. He asked if the boy wanted to become a priest.

“Uh, um, yes,” Rocco said. He thought to himself, “Man, this guy’s got a nice gig.”

Bevilacqua invited Rocco and his family to the bishop’s office on the top floor of the Pink Palace, the pink marble office tower behind the cathedral that houses archdiocesan administrative offices. Rocco and Bevilacqua started writing letters back and forth. “He was my mentor, my teacher, my friend,” Rocco says. “Only recently did I realize how unique that was.”

As a friend of the cardinal, Rocco had carte blanche to explore the entire archdiocese. Awkward and uncomfortable around kids his age, he reveled in talking to priests, and he discovered the church’s fundamental secret: Nothing is as it appears. In an institution dominated by men who cannot escape one another — they will work together literally until the day they die — arguments rage indirectly. Power works quietly. “I loved that the church is this beautiful, mysterious, complex thing,” Rocco says.

Most afternoons, Rocco avoided his classmates at Masterman and walked the few blocks to the cathedral to pray. Priests predicted that he would be a bishop before he turned 40. Soon, Rocco knew otherwise. “By age 15, I realized I don’t have it in me,” he says. “I can’t sacrifice the way priests do.”

He had vague ideas of becoming a journalist. When he was 17, Rocco began calling religion reporters to give background information about church news he’d gotten from his priest friends. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette started quoting him as a church expert. Yes, this was odd. Journalists prefer their experts to have titles, offices, business cards. But Rocco is nothing if not persistent, and the journalists found they couldn’t get rid of him. Also, this kid’s success rate in predicting the future seemed nearly clairvoyant. If a cardinal was planning a major address on abortion, Rocco knew a week beforehand what the major points would be. If Rocco said a bishop would step down in a year, the guy was gone in 11 months.

At the next Holy Thursday mass, Rocco suspected church officials might scold him for sharing internal church business with the media. They did something worse. Priests he’d known for years averted their eyes. Their greetings were cold. “Holy Thursday is always my favorite service, but I had to bolt,” Rocco says, standing inside the cathedral. “The word had gone out to shun me. After everything I’ve given. You know, it wasn’t the coolest thing to do in high school, to love all this. … ” He waves his hand at the painted walls of the cathedral. “It felt like a large part of me was being taken away.”

Then came Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham’s 2005 report on the priest sex-abuse scandal. Abraham found that Cardinal Bevilacqua was “aware that priests in the diocese were perpetrating massive amounts of child molestations and sexual assaults.” Bevilacqua protected abusive priests, she wrote, and systematically blocked victims’ attempts to win justice.

“Reading that report was like swallowing nails,” Rocco says. The sex scandal, combined with his personal shunning, strained Rocco’s connection to the church. But the anchor held. “Bevilacqua taught me that no matter what happens in my life,” says Rocco, “there’s always a place for me in the church.”

Rocco attended Penn, where he studied political science. He had a dorm room, but there were many nights when he went home to his parents’ rowhome in South Philadelphia. And he continued calling journalists about the church. He started Whispers in December 2004 with a readership of three close friends. “And I was fine with that,” he says. “The church is what I love. I felt that if I didn’t write about it, I’d go crazy.”

ROCCO SITS IN THE DARK basement of his parents’ house, typing and cackling. “Oh, this is good shit,” he says. A tipster just called with news that Emmanuel Milingo, a renegade married archbishop from Zambia who performs exorcisms and claims he can heal the sick, will announce tomorrow that he’ll come out of hiding to give a press conference in Washington. “People are gonna freak!” Rocco says.

He sits in his normal writing position, curled up in a rocking office chair with his laptop on his knees. Typing this way is begging for carpal tunnel syndrome. But Rocco can’t use his desk because it’s buried under stacks of unopened, unpaid bills and a ceramic statue of the baby Jesus.

Money is a perpetual problem. He refuses to post advertisements on Whispers, since ads from liberal or conservative newspapers might alienate readers in the opposite camp. To cover his $200-a-month cell phone bill and $50-a-month Internet connection, he writes for the Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly. He also has a paper route. Still, Rocco isn’t just going broke. He is broke. Every day he gets calls from collection agencies, and he’s close to defaulting on his student loans. “Every day I wake up and think, ‘This would be a good day to quit,’” he says. “But then I start checking my e-mails, and I’m sucked right back in.”

Five years ago, of course, all of this would have been impossible. Before blogs, someone interested in writing about the church needed institutional backing — doing PR for the church itself, maybe, or becoming a rookie newspaper reporter. Today, with a cell phone and a laptop, Rocco is suddenly his own newspaper: publisher, editor, reporter, accountant, janitor. He writes up to 10 posts a day, seven days a week.

The tip he’s working on this morning came from a priest, one of hundreds he’s become friends with around the world. He’s also friends with 50 bishops. And thanks to confirmation from more sources at the Vatican, Rocco is able to post the news he heard — that the faith-healing archbishop from Zambia is coming out of exile.

It’s this kind of post — using rumors to predict the future — that really angers church PR people. Because inevitably, some rumors are false. “His blog is not from someone who has ever worked inside the church,” says Susan Gibbs, a former Philadelphia archdiocese spokeswoman who now does church PR in Washington. “That lack of experience leads to lots of errors.”

It’s true. Palmo has no journalistic training, no editor, and he writes very fast. Sometimes he gets stuff wrong. But sometimes, even when you’re wrong, you’re right. The Catholic Church has yet to grasp the granddaddy truism of postmodernism: The medium is the message. Whether something actually happens or not, the fact that people are whispering about it is news.

There are signs that maybe some in the church hierarchy are starting to get it. During a recent conference of the U.S. bishops, some attendees were slipping out of meetings to feed Rocco updates. They like Rocco because he speaks their language. What they haven’t yet embraced, though, is Rocco’s modern philosophy, in which being straight with people and admitting when you screw up is the best way to mend broken trust. Instead, dioceses around the country are still getting caught hiding priests’ personnel files from police. Many priests blame the media, instead of their own leaders, for the sex-abuse scandal. Maybe a church that still has a Holy Office of the Inquisition just isn’t ready to communicate with the modern world.

And Rocco? He knows he can’t continue working 15, 18 hours a day with no income. Maybe he’ll break down and accept ads on his blog. Maybe he’ll get a job. Maybe he’ll figure out a way to rope together all his contradictions, to be an independent thinker and an obedient Catholic, an arch observer of politics and an endearing, sincere lover of the church.

Whatever happens, he’ll continue to have faith in the institution that both saved him and shunned him. “The church has been around for 2,000 years,” he says. “The fact that humans haven’t wrecked it yet means it must be divine.”

Christopher Maag is a freelance journalist for the New York Times, Time magazine and Mother Jones.