Is it a forewarning of great tribulation to come? Or an obvious forgery with no more accuracy than a strip-mall tarot card reading? Since the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, both fringe and mainstream media outlets have buzzed about the Prophecy of the Popes, a list of short Latin phrases that predict personal attributes related to the next 112 pontiffs, beginning with its vision-inspired creation in 1143.
The Prophecy not only foretells the characteristics of those who would succeed St. Peter, but the end of the Catholic Church, or maybe even humanity itself, with the election of the 112th and last Pope, who will preside over a final judgment and the destruction of Rome.
So why is a 900 year old prophecy suddenly in the news? Because Benedict XVI is purported to be number 111 on the list. Meaning the end of the world might be as close as the next Papal Conclave.
Long a fixture of conspiracy mongers and apocalypse predictors, the Prophecy has recently gone mainstream, with articles about it popping up all over legitimate news sites. And despite the fact that it’s almost certainly an outright forgery and most Catholic scholars have been skeptical or downright hostile toward it, a dogged belief in its veracity still exists. It seems that virtually every discussion of the next Pope includes some reference to “the Last Pope.” But what does it mean? Is it something we should be concerned about, or just this year’s version of the 2012 Mayan hoo-ha?
The Prophecy of the Popes was first published in a book called Lignum Vitae in 1595 by Arnold de Wyon, a Benedictine monk who “discovered” the list of cryptic predictions, which he claimed were written by St. Malachy, the Archbishop of Armagh. Malachy had traveled to Rome in 1139, and while there, according to de Wyon, he experienced a startling and detailed vision of the Papacy of the future and wrote down a short Latin phrase for each Pope, corresponding to some aspect of their origin or work.
The prophecies themselves are just a few words, such as the first, Ex caſtro Tiberis (from a castle on the Tiber), or the 50th, Ceruus Sirenæ (Stag of the siren). However, for the final Pope, Malachy wrote a long, apocalyptic statement, which translates from Latin as:
In the extreme persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit. [sic]
Peter the Roman, who will nourish the sheep in many tribulations; when they are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The end.
Malachy gave the Prophecy to Pope Innocent II, who deposited it in the Vatican Secret Archives until its discovery and publishing by de Wyon. It gained legitimacy because the phrases matched up with each Pope from the time of Malachy, but Catholic scholars quickly deduced it was a contemporary forgery, and didn’t give it much more thought.
But to those who believed in the Prophecy, each subsequent Pope seemed to fulfill the words written for them. And there are a number of disconcerting similarities, whether it was Gens peruerſa (corrupted nation) for Paul V, who presided over numerous scandals and excommunicated the entire government of Venice in 1606; or Religio depopulate (religion destroyed) for Benedict XV, watching as Communism rose and Europe tore itself apart in World War I.
So, given the chilling accuracy of the predictions, it would seem a foregone conclusion that despite the skepticism, St. Malachy’s vision was correct, and the resignation of Benedict XVI signals the beginning of the end and the end of us all, right?
For one thing, Malachy never mentioned his vision to anyone, and neither does Malachy’s biographer, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who did document a number of Malachy’s other alleged miracles. Just not the one involving the end of the world, apparently. There’s no evidence that Malachy had anything to do with the Prophecy, other than having his name attached to it 400 years after he died. The original document that de Wyon “found” has never been seen, so there’s no real proof he “found” it in the first place. There’s even evidence that the entire document was written in an effort to bolster the Papal candidacy of an Italian cardinal gunning to succeed Urban VII in the 1590’s.
But the most damning evidence that the Prophecy is a forgery is the Prophecy itself. It’s eerily accurate up until the point that it’s not accurate at all. After 1590, the year they were “discovered” by Arnold de Wyon, the phrases become so vague and open to interpretation that they could apply to any Pope or leader, or anyone at all, really.
Here’s a fun experiment: pick a President and one of the Prophecies, starting at 75, and see if they match up. I used the random number generator at random.org to give me 11, James K. Polk and 106, Paſtor angelicus, or angelic shepherd (ascribed to Pope Pius XII). And wouldn’t you know, a quick perusal of President Polk’s biography tells me he was born in a farmhouse (there’s your “shepherd”) and played a vital role in the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought the land that would become California, home of Los Angeles, the City of Angels, into the United States.
I’m sure if I repeated this exercise ten times, I could find ten correlations that are just as tenuous. Just for fun, I did it again and got 35, John F. Kennedy and 80, In tribulatione pacis, or in the trouble of peace, which seems obvious. It’s the same technique used by any fortune teller, tarot card reader or psychic: make proclamations about the future that are so vague and non-specific that they could refer to virtually any possible event in a person’s life.
Another reason why nobody should believe Benedict XVI is the 111th Pope on the list is the fact that he actually isn’t. The common interpretation of the list isn’t even consistent with Catholic doctrine, since listed among the “112 Popes” are ten antipopes. An antipope is, by definition, a rival claimant to the Holy See, and as such, not legitimate. While there hasn’t been an antipope in almost six centuries, they used to be quite common. There was a period of time known as the Great Western Schism, from 1378 to 1418, where there were two distinct Papal lines, and even a third for a time – leading to numerous antipopes and much confusion.
Those popes in the rival lines, while they’ve been included in the Prophecy, aren’t considered Popes by the Church, and some later Popes would later take the same names as certain antipopes. So really, Benedict XVI should be 101 on the list, not 111. And just to show the malleability of the Prophecy one last time, line 101 reads as Crux de cruce, or cross from cross, a phrase that could aptly describe a Pope who, as a younger Bishop, was given the nickname “God’s Rottweiler.”
But what about the mysterious and evil Petrus Romanus, Peter the Roman himself? Prophecy believers are already buzzing with the news that Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson is a heavy favorite to be elected by the College of Cardinals. Wouldn’t this obviously fulfill the Prophecy? Maybe, even though Cardinal Turkson isn’t Roman, or even Italian. And he certainly wouldn’t take the name of Peter were he to be elected. No matter who is named Pope when the white smoke appears over the Vatican, the conspiracy mongers will simply shoehorn him into the Prophecy and go on believing what they already believe.
Finally, those who ascribe apocalyptic power to the Prophecy of the Popes, despite the overwhelming evidence that it’s simply a forgery with St. Malachy’s name slapped on it, should probably go right to the source and heed the words of Matthew 24:36:
But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Edited to Add:
Habemus Papam! On March 13, 2013, the Papal Conclave elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to be the new Pope. He took the name Francis, likely in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. Neither Francis are named Peter, nor are they Roman. As of this writing, both Rome and humanity have yet to be destroyed.