Program #0033 for Monday, April 25, 2011: Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia

April 25, 2011

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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry

Today’s guest(s): Rocco Palmo of the Whispers in the Loggia blog.

Today’s topics: Catholic blogger and journalist Rocco Palmo on his blog, an upcoming Vatican meeting of bloggers, and his memories of Pope John Paul II.

1st segment: Scot said he hopes everyone had a wonderful celebration of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. It was a truly wonderful Triduum and a wonderfully bright Easter Day yesterday. One personal moment meant a lot to him. His 9-year old son and 7-year old daughter heard The Good Catholic Life last Wednesday when we discussed the beauty of the Easter Vigil. They asked him to go, saying they would take a nap if necessary to stay up late so they could see it for the first time. It was wonderful to share it with them!

The Blog “Whispers in the Loggia” first was published in December of 2004 by Rocco Palmo, a then-recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Political Science. Whispers was partly a response to the aftermath of the Clergy Abuse Crisis as one way to shed light on the true nature of the Church, instead of what Catholics and non-Catholics were reading in the secular press. Soon it was picking up thousands, then tens-of-thousands of readers. Now millions of people have read this blog about the life of the Catholic Church.

On today’s show, we’ll discuss this Blog, the upcoming Vatican conference for Bloggers, which happens a week from today, and as he prepares to travel to Rome for the Beatification of Pope John Paul II, we’ll discuss with Rocco the impact Pope John Paul II had on him and his views on his lasting impact in the Church and the world.

Scot welcomes Rocco Palmo. Scot asked him about the number of readers on the blog. He’s had a total of about 17 million readers over the past 7 years. He gets 5 to 6 million per year now.

Who reads the blog? There are a lot of laypeople, priests, and even some bishops. He gets emails from secular journalists as well. He runs on a shoestring budget, but he won’t go to subscription because he doesn’t want to put up barriers to people just coming to the site. He also doesn’t take ads. He said the Church in the US is polarized and any advertiser would be difficult to reach all. He prefer the purity of the content. He also likes that donations give readers the opportunity to contribute and show their appreciation.

That bishops and priests read his blog is significant. Growing up in Philadelphia, he had a reverence for bishops, priests, and religious, for the wrk of lifelong commitment they made. That he can give something back to them is very humbling.

Scot first began a fan in late 2005. He felt that it was a good aggregation of all current news about the Church. Scot knows many pastors who feel the same way. Rocco said he’s had a great formation in the Church and he’s also had a great formation in the media from his father who’s worked for a Philadelphia newspaper for 30 years. He wants to cover the news that isn’t just the most sensational.

In 2004, after graduation, he started the blog. Scot asked Rocco why he decided to start this. Rocco said he studied Vatican politics in college and found people were fascinated by the Church. He found people were responsive when he explained how the Church really works behind the scenes. The blog started as a catharsis for himself and friends. At the time, he saw little creativity in Church communications at the time. It started with 3 friends and it grew by word of mouth.

The first time he knew it was getting bigger was about six months later, after the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict. When he published a rumor that Cardinal Levada was going to be named Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, people saw he got it right and he got lots of attention from it.

He’s known for speculating on the appointment of bishops, but there’s not a lot of appointments out there right now. So he spends his time on more “fun” stuff.

Scot asked why insiders share information with Rocco. First, he said it’s important to figure out why someone is sharing that information, especially if they are having an axe to grind against someone else. Early on, he heard from people who were in a minority in Church leadership, were frustrated that the Church was too conservative with its communications. Now he’s seeing more people who are more tech-savvy and he’s seeing the Church becoming more media savvy.

He’s found that where he used to be able to sit on a story for eight or ten hours in the past, now the turnaround has to be quicker and quicker.

2nd segment: When Rocco was 8 years old he had a significant encounter with Cardinal Bevilacqua in Philadelphia. He was fascinated when the Cardinal was elevated to the office in a consistory and he had many questions about the Church that no one could answer. So he went to a Mass with the cardinal and got to meet him. For over a decade, the cardinal became a mentor and a second father in his life. He always said yes to Rocco and to anybody he met. He would maintain relationships with people he would encounter randomly in life.

Scot said people must ask Rocco all the time about whether he has a vocation to the priesthood, but he has discerned he does not now. Rocco said there is something unique that laypeople can bring to speaking publicly about the Church.

10 years after he met Cardinal Bevilacqua, he got to meet Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. It was an ecclesial culture shock in Denver, so different from his experience in Philadelphia. He saw thousands of kids at a youth event on fire for their faith, and he’d never seen anything like it. He’d spent most of his formative time around people much older than him. He realized that he couldn’t be who he is as a priest.

Scot asked Rocco how the blog has helped him grow. Rocco said it’s shown him how much growth he still needs. He came to it as a cocky college kid and now knows how much has to learn. He realizes he doesn’t have all the answers. He feels God’s presence in many of the stories that come his way and the people he encounters. He’s got a sense of horizontal communion in the Church, which hasn’t always been the case everywhere in the Church.

What are his favorite blog posts? None of them have anything to do with the appointments of bishops. In August 2007, he wrote about a Philadelphia man named Danny Parrillo, a Catholic school teacher and a friend of his. At the age of 55, he told Rocco that he felt a calling to the priesthood. He entered seminary in the Diocese of Camden, and in his second year at the seminary he died in a car accident. Rocco felt that if there was a story he was born to write, this was it. He got 5,000 responses to that post. There were 5 bishops at the funeral and 2,000 total people.

3rd segment: The Vatican is gathering 150 Catholic bloggers from around the world next Monday, May 2, the day after the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Rocco said as much as the Catholic blogosphere reflects the totality of the Church’s life, Rome wants to have a long view of the Church, but also to bring everyone together. It is also a listening exercise and they are coming at it with very good faith. It’s an acknowledgement that they need to listen and learn how this works, and to work with those who are doing it.

Pope Benedict on each World Communication Day has talked about the power of new media and has reached out to young people to use it to evangelize the “digital continent.” One of the primary means going forward for evangelization will be people sharing their faith through their networks. Rocco said the rise of the Internet has changed everything and traditional media in general is struggling. We have a much more segmented audience: reaching out to the wider, but also energizing the base of the Church. It’s not just blogs, but also Facebook and Twitter and smartphone apps. It reaches out to connect to people where they are. For an institution used to speaking with one message, this is a pioneering step.

Rocco said that while 150 slots were available, the Holy See got 800 requests to attend. These are people who had a shot at being in Rome for the beatification. He was impressed that there are people representing six language groups going to be present. Everyone will learn a lot from each other; the bloggers from the Holy See; and the Holy See from the bloggers. There are now 20 blogging bishops in the US.

He hopes to say to the two councils putting on the conference, “Let us help you.” Much Church communications today works as if they have all the answers. But they often don’t understand the digital continent.

4th segment: Rocco will be present at the beatification of Pope John Paul II on Sunday. It will be beyond emotional for him to be present for the event. For so many young people, he was a father to us and a great model of fearlessness and of following Christ. He’s seen John Paul II four times. The first time was at Giant Stadium in 1995. There were 90,000 people getting soaked in a torrential downpour and no one wanted to be anywhere else. Threats had been made on the Pope’s life, but he refused to be carried in an armored car to the altar.

Another favorite story, in 1985, in Los Angeles, when Tony Melendez, who was born without legs, played guitar for him at a public event, the Pope jumped from the stage and ran to embrace him.

One of his great gifts to the Church in the US was an evangelical boldness, a fearlessness and confidence. He showed the way to bring everyone to the heart of Christ by going out to them.

From Rome, he will be blogging whatever happens and in Rome with two million pilgrims, anything can happen.

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