Catholic blogger to receive honor at Aquinas
May 06, 2010 (St. Louis Post-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Rocco Palmo's life has been infused with four major blessings -- his large Italian family, journalism, baseball and the Roman Catholic church.
All four will coalesce Friday as the 27-year-old blogger, who lives in and works from his parents' home in Philadelphia, receives an honorary doctorate from the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. His parents will be there as Palmo gives the commencement address to the seminary's 77 graduates. He'll also watch his beloved Phillies take on the Cardinals this week.
"Rocco has shown that someone with his background -- a Christian commitment, but also his abilities and background in journalism -- can use the blogosphere in a very powerful way in terms of communicating the message of the church," said the Rev. Richard Peddicord, president of the Aquinas Institute.
Aquinas has never awarded an honorary degree to a journalist, and the only other journalist who has given Aquinas' commencement address was Peter Steinfels of The New York Times in 1993.
In awarding Palmo an honorary doctorate, the 84-year-old Dominican seminary is making a statement about the changing relationship between journalism and the Catholic church. The award for Palmo's work on his blog Whispers in the Loggia is also an expression of how American Catholic leaders hope to encourage a younger generation to engage their faith through news.
"Palmo has done something no mainstream journalist has ever done -- scooped announcements by the Vatican of new U.S. bishops or archbishops," said Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association. "That's a formidable task and one that requires serious reporting skills."
Palmo's reporting skills were founded on a lifelong love of journalism. His father has worked on the business side of the Philadelphia Daily News, managing its circulation for 35 years, rising at 3 a.m. most mornings to oversee the day's press run.
Early on, Palmo felt himself leaning toward the priesthood, guided along by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, the former archbishop of Philadelphia whom Palmo calls "my rabbi."
But as thoughts of the priesthood faded, Palmo -- a wiry, garrulous man with a strong Philadelphia accent and a prominent Roman nose -- began imagining how to combine his interests in Catholicism and journalism. After he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, he couldn't find the perfect job in mainstream journalism. A religion reporting colleague encouraged him to start a blog.
Whispers in the Loggia refers to the way news spread within church corridors in the 2,000 years before the Internet. Like many blogs, it started as a way for one person to tell the world about his own interests. Today, more than 5,000 posts later, Palmo says his site draws between 15,000 and 40,000 unique visitors a week. For many who are employed by the church, including its leaders, Whispers is a must-read.
"I do look at it with some regularity," said St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson. "It's a good source of information I wouldn't have otherwise."
Ann Rodgers, religion reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said that when Palmo started attending the annual meetings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, an event traditional reporters have covered for years, "he was like a rock star. I had archbishops asking me to introduce them to Rocco."
Despite Palmo's dedicated fan base, the overall picture for Catholics using new media to get their information about the church is small. According to a fall survey by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 28 percent of Catholics said they'd read a religious magazine or newspaper. Only 5 percent visited a website for a Catholic parish in the last six months, and 3 percent visited their diocese's website. An even smaller percentage visited a religious news website.
Age may be the issue. According to CARA, only about 15 percent of Catholics between 18 and 29 attend Mass every week. On top of that, Catholic media is heavily print-oriented: 99 percent of the 275 Catholic Press Association members are magazines and newspapers.
With those numbers as the backdrop, a group of bishops plans to meet with Catholic media professionals next month at the Catholic Media Convention in New Orleans to discuss the direction of communications in the Catholic world.
"They need to integrate all forms of media in their communications to reach people who use all those forms of media," said Timothy Walter, executive director of the Catholic Press Association.
Still, Palmo -- who started his blog in 2004 -- said he was encouraged that many dioceses now were recognizing the importance of using social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, video, and perhaps soon, mobile applications for smart phones and gadgets such as the iPad. He said the Diocese of Knoxville was well ahead of the rest in implementing a vision of new media for Catholics in the area.
"Our diocesan paper is only published twice a month, so I figured, why not update the website to be interactive, attractive -- a way to teach and update the news," said Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika, a St. Louis native.
Stika blogs and has used video of himself on the diocese's website -- conveying everything from a welcome-to-the-baseball-season message to a news conference about removing a priest from ministry because of allegations of sexual misconduct.
"I can't be everywhere in our diocese at one time," he said. "But I can say to people, 'If you want more timely news, go to our website.'" The St. Louis Archdiocese has also revamped its website with video, updated news headlines, a blog and integration with Twitter and Facebook.
Would Carlson -- nearing the end of a busy first year on the job -- start a blog?
"I could be convinced," he said.
Palmo said the role he and other new media publishers played was different from traditional journalists' covering the church for their secular newspapers.
"I want the church to succeed," Palmo said. "But I won't say something brilliant happened when it hasn't. I'm not a spokesperson for the church."
Palmo said the toughest thing he's had to do was publish a 2006 letter of no confidence from the priests of the New York Archdiocese to Cardinal Edward Egan, then the New York archbishop. The letter said the priests' relationship with Egan had been "defined by dishonesty, deception, disinterest and disregard."
In fact, Palmo's specialty is something the church tries to protect against. In the last year, he broke the news of the appointments of the archbishops of New York, Miami and Los Angeles before traditional news outlets. Palmo not only beats traditional media outlets, but they often rely on his expertise as an analyst in their own stories.
Mitchell Landsberg is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who wrote the paper's story about the Vatican announcement last month that Archbishop Jose Gomez would be the next archbishop of Los Angeles. Landsberg said that Palmo had scooped the paper but that some other Catholic bloggers -- Michael Barber at The Sacred Page, and Kevin Knight at New Advent -- also were early to the news.
The search for the new leader of a diocese is both prescribed and secretive. Few people know all the pieces of the puzzle during the meticulous process, and anyone who does is bound by a Vatican oath of silence called a "papal secret."
That oath is broken under penalty of excommunication, which is why Palmo's scoops of new assignments are so impressive to secular newspaper reporters who cover the Catholic church.
"A great many of his sources are anonymous archbishops and bishops who know they can talk to him, and feed him stuff," said Rodgers, "and they don't have to worry about their names showing up."
Palmo said that when information he gathered was not public, "I can't put a name on it.
"In the outside world, there's planned leaks," Palmo said. "Here, if I put a name to it, someone would lose their job, or worse."
Palmo's financial situation reflects the overall problem with blogging for a living, and points to the tension in American journalism between traditional outlets and their online components.
His work is online, a place where journalists have struggled to commercialize news. As a result, he is forced to ask readers to contribute towards things such as his travel expenses for reporting trips, and his cell phone bills, which are substantial.
Craig Persinger, a lawyer from Marion, Ind., has never met Palmo, but Persinger said he had offered the blogger a plane ticket to cover Gomez's "Mass of Welcome" in Los Angeles on May 26.
"The lay faithful of this hierarchical church we're in don't get a peek behind the curtain to see the human and political sides of our church," Persinger said. "That part of the church is full of human interest stories, and Rocco covers that better than anyone."
Palmo said "breaching the wall of security" surrounding official church information "is the easy part."
"The hardest part is trying to make a full-time living off it," he said. "I have a girlfriend, and I'd like to give her a ring someday, but at this point, I'm waiting until I can clear out of my parents' house."
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