In the year 1140, an Irish bishop named Malachy visited Rome with a group of monks. They climbed the Janiculum Hill to thank God for the safe completion of their journey. While there (so the story goes), Malachy had a vision in which he “saw” 111 Popes to the end of time. Each Pope was chronicled with by a short, cryptic epigram in Latin. And with the resignation of Benedict XVI, the last Pope on Saint Malachy’s list is about to be elected.
The prophecy for the last Pope contained a alarming vision: “During the last persecution of the Holy Roman church there shall sit Peter of Rome, who shall feed the sheep amidst the many great tribulations, and when these have passed, the City of the Seven Hills shall be utterly destroyed and the awful Judge will judge the people.”
Conspiracy theorists and Nostradamus nuts love poring over the prophecies of Saint Malachy, straining to make sense of his cryptic messages. The epigram for Benedict XVI was “the glory of the olive,” so after his election the prophecy hounds pointed out that there is a famous Benedictine monastery called Monte Oliveto. He chose his papal name after Saint Benedict. Saint Benedict is the glory of Monte Oliveto. It’s totally clear right?
It’s all very exciting to think that the last Pope is about to be elected, so the second coming and the end of the world is nigh.
The problems, however, are manifold. First of all, the prognosticators behave like all conspiracy theorists and prophecy lovers: Begin with the theory or prophecy and make the facts fit.
The second problem is something called documentary evidence. Although Saint Malachy was a historic figure from the twelfth century, there is no mention of his prophecies before 1590, and, surprise, surprise, the prophetic mottos for the Popes are quite accurate up to the late 1500s. Then they become obscure and inaccurate. In addition, the seer Nostradamus lived in the late 1500s, a time when there was a fashionable fascination with prophecies expressed in cryptic language. Scholars have judged the prophecies of the twelfth-century St Malachy to be a rather poor 16th-century forgery — probably produced to influence a papal election at the time.
So you can probably sleep peacefully tonight. The end of the world is probably not nigh.
On the other hand . . . why not prepare your soul, just to be on the safe side?
— Father Dwight Longenecker is the author of the Screwtape Letters-type Lent book The Gargoyle Code.