The decision by Pope Benedict XVI to renounce the papacy has sparked a new wave of intense interest in a centuries-old prediction supposedly made by an obscure 12th century Irish saint. According to the prophecy, there is only one pope remaining. If that is not dramatic enough, his time as head of the Church will witness the end of the world.
The source of the prophecy is supposedly none other than a great Irish saint, Malachy O'Morgair, the Archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, who died in 1148. "The Prophecies of Malachy" are reputed to be an account of the Irish saint's visions of every future pope, from Pope Celestine II (reigned 1143-1144) to the last pope, Peter II.
These visions allegedly took place while the holy bishop was in Rome in 1139 to consult with Pope Innocent II.
The text describes each of the 111 or 112 successive popes with mystical mottos that give a clue as to their character or era until the end of the world during the reign of Petrus Romanus, Peter the Roman. St. Malachy reputedly gave his manuscript to Pope Innocent II to assure him that the line of pontiffs would continue unbroken until the end, as the Holy See was at the time struggling with many temporal and spiritual crises.
The prophetic pages were then placed in the Roman archives, where they were forgotten for 400 years.
Are they genuine?
The view of virtually every reputable historical scholar is that the "Prophecies of Malachy," while a bit of historical fun, are, in fact, not a legitimate work by St. Malachy, nor are they even correctly dated to his time in the 12th century.
According to the respected 17th-century Jesuit scholar and historian Claude-François Menestrier, the prophecies were fabricated around 1590 in the days leading up to the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Urban VII.
The forger was likely a member of the entourage of Cardinal Girolamo Simoncelli, bishop of Orvieto, who wished to enhance the cardinal's chances of election as pontiff. The motto seemingly given by Malachy for the next pope after Urban VII was Ex Antiquitate Urbis ("from the city of antiquity"), an allusion to Orvieto (or Urbs Vetus, "old city," which was also Cardinal Simoncelli's birthplace).
As it was, the "discovery" of the mottos did not secure the cardinal's election, and Cardinal Niccoló Sfondrati, a native of Cremona, was elected and took the name Gregory XIV. The list of papal mottos was then first published by a Benedictine monk, Arnold de Wyon, in his book Lignum Vitae, in 1595.
What followed was a fierce debate as to whether they were genuine, and a fascination with them that has endured to the present day.
Every effort made by scholars to locate the original manuscript has failed. In addition, there is an inexplicable lapse of 400 years between the time when Malachy would have presented the prophecies to Pope Innocent II and their being found just in time to influence the 1590 conclave.
The life of Malachy is very well documented, thanks chiefly to the efforts of his dear friend St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in whose arms he died. Bernard wrote a biography of the Irish saint and made absolutely no mention of any papal visions, despite other claims that Malachy sometimes manifested a prophetic gift. The Irish saint allegedly foretold, for example, the day and hour of his own death.
Sometimes on target
What is it, then, about the "prophecies" that continues to grip the popular imagination? After all, the vision consists merely of a tedious list of 111 or 112 Latin phrases or mottos purportedly related to the popes succeeding Pope Celestine II.
Key to the ongoing interest is the fact that, despite the skepticism of scholars, some of the mottos of the popes match their corresponding pontiffs with remarkable precision.
Not surprisingly, the phrases from Pope Celestine II to the popes just before Pope Gregory XIV are far more accurate than the ones that follow. But some of the mottos for later popes are still intriguingly on target.
For example, the Latin phrase for Pope Pius VII was Aquila Rapax ("rapacious eagle"). This seems to be a reference to Napoleon Bonaparte, the ruthless French emperor whose symbol was the eagle and whose adversarial relationship with the Church dominated this pope's pontificate.
Many of the earliest mottos on the list obviously referred to a pope's coat of arms. In modern times, this appears to be the case as well for Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), whose coat of arms includes a blazing star. His motto: Lumen in Coelo ("light in the sky").
Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) was pontiff during the horrible devastations of World War I. It was also during his pontificate that the Russian Revolution took place, beginning an all-out assault on the Christian faith by communists in that country and elsewhere. Pope Benedict XV's motto: Religio Depopulata, "religion laid waste."
Quite accurate, too, was the motto for Pope Blessed John XXIII, Pastor et Nauta ("pastor and sailor"). He was a truly pastoral figure and patriarch of the great maritime city of Venice.
In most cases, however, mottos for the popes beginning in 1590 seem to fit one of two categories: Either they are general enough to apply to any number of pontiffs, or they require tortured explanations to be matched to the corresponding men.
Illustrations of the first type of motto are the ones matching Popes Pius VIII (1829-1830) – Vir Religiosus, "religious man" – and Innocent XIII (1721-1724), De Bona Religione, "from a good religious background (or family)." Examples of those not easily applied are Canis et Coluber ("dog and serpent") and Rastrum in Porta ("a rake in the door").
The last popes
What about the mottos of the last three popes before the coming Peter II, who would correspond to those occupying St. Peter's chair in our day?
They are given the mottos De Medietate Lunae ("of the half moon"), De Labore Solis ("sun in labor" or "sun eclipsed") and Gloria Olivae ("glory of the olive"). The accepted order of the list means that the popes in question are Popes John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Needless to say, many efforts have been made by proponents to explain the connections between the mottos and the most recent popes. A few of the earlier mottos seem to be connected either to the time when a pope was born or the day when he assumed office. So some have argued that these mottos apply well to Pope John Paul I, who became pope under a half moon, and Pope John Paul II, who was born during a solar eclipse.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, they contend, took the name Benedict XVI because he wanted to emulate the peacemaking pontiff Pope Benedict XV, to bring the world an olive branch, the ancient sign of peace. The olive is also a symbol of one branch of the Order of St. Benedict (sometimes known as the Olivetans), so this motto and pope are connected in that way as well.
Then there is the most famous prediction of them all: The final pope, "Peter the Roman" (Petrus Romanus), "will feed his flock among many tribulations; after which the seven-hilled city will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people."
Provocative as the last words may seem, they were not actually included in the original list published by Arnold de Wyon. They appear for the first time only in the 1820 edition of the Lignum Vitae. Prior to that, there were only 111 mottos.
So the 112th phrase was apparently added by editors who were Olivetan Benedictines and who wished to include the traditional claim by the Order of St. Benedict that before the end, a pope would come from the Benedictines and would lead the Church in its struggle against evil.
Thus the most spectacular claim of the prophecies was not even part of the original version.
Whether or not we believe the prophecies of Malachy, one thing is certain: We will find out soon enough whether Pope Benedict XVI will indeed be succeeded by "Peter II" as the last pontiff before judgment day.
As a final bit of food for thought, one of the Cardinals considered a leading front-runner for election – the so-called papabili – is an African named Cardinal Turkson. His Christian name just happens to be Peter.
Matthew Bunson is editor of The Catholic Answer and "The Catholic Almanac" and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University.