We Want Answers: Vatican Whisperer Rocco Palmo on Pope Francis

The “Whispers in the Loggia” blogger on the papal visit, the Church in Philadelphia and what will happen if he comes face to face with Francis.

Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Your blog, Whispers in the Loggia, is one of the best sources of news and insight on the Vatican. How is it possible to do that job from Philadelphia? Well, the Church is more than Rome. It’s a lot of what I call “jet lag without the travel.” You know, making morning calls at 2:30 our time. Every event, every text, is available online. Especially with the logistics of papal visits and whatever, even a lot of the folks who cover the Vatican from Rome end up not going to the events but watching them on the Vatican feed. So I’m basically doing the same thing, just 3,000 miles away. The people I need to talk to over there, I’ve got their numbers.

Still, you’ve got to be pretty happy that the Pope’s actually coming to town. Oh, ecstatic, ecstatic. And especially this pope. Because this guy has just reinvigorated, as a complete surprise, the Church, the Church’s witness, the Church’s message. There hasn’t been much focus on it, but the papal visit here is coinciding 10 years to the week with the first grand jury report. The whole reason the World Meeting of Families and the papal visit are coming is because the consensus in Rome is, “Philly is too big to fail.” And these famously loyal and faithful people, who have endured so much, deserve a happy day.

I’m a liberal agnostic who welcomes what he sees from this pope — but he’s really not a liberal agnostic, is he? Nothing in the teaching of the Church has changed. The ban on women priests will remain, the ban on contraception will remain. But out of nowhere, somebody who was always a very somber, very dour person in Argentina has become this smiling, beaming global phenomenon. It’s not a question of the substance, but a question of the tone.

It’s sometimes suggested that conservative Philadelphia Archbishop Chaput is chafing against the direction in which Pope Francis is taking the Church. If anything, you know, Chaput was Francis before Francis. I mean, this is someone who sold the Archbishop’s residence within the first hundred days of arriving here. He doesn’t get credit for that. And again, these are the same things for which Francis is bearing all this acclaim.

Chaput wasn’t named a cardinal before this visit, though, and that was seen as a snub. It’s not so much a snub of the current Archbishop. There’s a sense that the demographic center of the Church in this country has shifted, but also a sense that — and hopefully the visit will change this — this is no longer one of the centers of Catholic life in the United States. That’s the whole reason we got a cardinal in the first place.

The Philly Church, as you mention, has had a rough decade. … Brutal. Brutal. The worst decade that any American diocese has had in the last century, worse than Boston or anywhere in the world.

What kind of reception do you think Pope Francis will get here? Enraptured. For generations, for a long time, people are going to be telling their kids, their grandkids, “I saw Pope Francis when he came to Philly.”

What will that mean for Philly? The golden era of this city — it’s no accident that those were also the golden days of the Church here. Strong communities made a strong Church. If the Church here fails, the city fails. The rebuilding, the renewal, is not just a project for Catholics; it’s a project for all of us together, because when the Church wins, all of us win.

And what will it mean for you? You’re going to have to mop me up if I get to meet him.

Originally published in the August 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.