When you’re covering the selection of a new pope from your parents’ East Coast basement, there are challenges.
First, there is the whir of the laundry room three feet away as you’re trying to get through on your cellphone to your cardinal sources in Rome. Then there’s the issue of spotting the white smoke that will spew from the Sistine Chapel chimney when the cardinals inside make their pick.
It’s not that there aren’t benefits to working from your family’s basement. When Rocco Palmo’s many readers learned last month that Pope Benedict XVI had retired, it was only after Rocco’s parents banged on his bedroom door that morning to alert him to post the news online.
Palmo, the ultra-wired, emotive boy wonder of Catholic journalism, is not even in Rome for the Super Bowl of his beat. Readers of his gossipy blog, Whispers in the Loggia — a first-read each morning for many priests, bishops and other church insiders — wouldn’t foot the bill. So Palmo is not among the 5,000 journalists at the Vatican. Instead, he’s still in his home office, in his parents’ South Philadelphia basement.
And he is an emotional roller coaster about it.
The week when Pope Benedict announced his resignation, the chatty 30-year-old was raring to get on a plane. “Please,” he said when asked whether he was Rome-bound, “this is what I live for.”
By early March, the freedoms of 21st-century digital journalism had collided with the financial realities of European travel. “This is where the rubber hits the road for me,” he said. “People are calling me from Rome saying, ‘You have to get here or you’re not going to make anything of yourself.’ ”
By this week, Palmo was on the upswing again: “I am so glad I stayed back. I predict there will be one giant cellphone dead zone around St. Peter’s.”
But readers of Whispers in the Loggia — and there have been 1.1 million of them so far in 2013, according to Palmo — are used to drama. And they like it. Part of the lure of the blog — the first independent Catholic Church-watching site when it launched in 2004 — is the knowledge that you’re reading the words of a devout, deeply plugged-in U.S. Catholic who lives and breathes this stuff. Someone who treats the picking of a new bishop in Springfield, Mass., like the Iowa straw poll. Someone who writes sentences such as, “Buckle up and get your brackets ready, gang, because here comes the ultimate March Madness: The Conclave!”
Readers respond to Palmo, thinking of him more like a member of the family than a reporter.
When he blogged emotionally this past summer about his grandmother’s death, cardinals said Mass for her. When he blogged (again, emotionally) about the collapse of his hometown archdiocese in financial and sexual scandal, Palmo was told by church middle management to keep his yap shut. And then he was offered a spot on the new archbishop’s advisory board.
So, since Palmo’s readers didn’t cough up enough cash to send the University of Pennsylvania political science graduate to Rome, his absence itself has become a story.
His hometown paper this month sent its culture writer to chronicle Palmo canceling his flight to Rome. “The hotels!” said Palmo, exclaiming about room rates to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The media people going over are getting hosed!”
Sometimes he speaks of the media as if he’s part of the crew (his father worked at the Inquirer) and sometimes not. It’s a fine line.
Palmo briefly considered the seminary and wrote in college about the Vatican as a geopolitical force. He compares himself to a sports beat reporter — someone, in his view, who can root a little.
“You travel with the team; it doesn’t mean you’re on the field. But you can’t come in hating your home team. You have to respect the rules of the game and understand how it works. If you don’t know the DH rule, forget it. I’m going to say it when we lose 13-zip.”
It’s his love of the church that fuels his many priest and bishop sources, who knows he will never divulge their names.
“He gives voice to what people are whispering,” said Monsignor Charles Antonicelli, pastor of St. Thomas Apostle Church in Northwest Washington, who met Palmo through friends. “There are many bishops I know who go to this Web site first thing in the morning. He has good sources, here and in Rome.”
And Palmo, who looks younger than his age and typically wears jeans and T-shirts, talks about the cardinals in a protective, respectful tone. In the days after Benedict retired, he declined to grill them about a successor.
“I can tell they aren’t ready to think about it yet. They can’t mentally process the conclave,” he said.
That decision — to sometimes treat sources and the church in general in a protective tone — can put him at a disadvantage at a time when the world wants to see cardinals pushed for details. Although Whispers is one of the best-read church sites, it is devoid of names, lists and speculation about who might be pope.
“It’s just so tenuous,” Palmo said. “The conclave might go for 10 ballots; a lot could change. It’s a crapshoot, and I’m not going to embarrass myself. And I don’t want to put pressure on the electors. It’s not my place to impose.”
To some, this is the ethical approach.
“Most of what is going on now is speculation and, to his credit, he is not indulging,” said Michael Sean Winters, a D.C.-based Catholic writer.
But for people who follow Palmo, the pope news is just half the drama. The question the conclave drives home is: Can this guy survive as America’s top church chronicler in his parents’ basement? What will happen to Whispers?
These are questions that have apparently engaged the Curia.
“Even Vatican officials have said, ‘Listen, Rocco, you need to do subscriptions,’ ” Palmo said.
And it’s not that he doesn’t want to.
“Look, I’d love to grant my folks their freedom,” he said with a half-laugh. “God knows they’ve earned it.”