The announcement of the renunciation of Pope Benedict and the preparations for the conclave have once again brought to light the so-called “Prophecy of the Popes,” sometimes attributed to St. Malachy.
At every papal election, these “prophecies” are trotted out, with the attendant tortured explanations about how their trite, nebulous descriptions fit whoever the pope in question is. During this election some have been especially alarmed that the prophecies end with the next pontificate. It is good to give this issue a brief consideration in the light of history and our contemporary situation, particularly as they relate to our vocations as families in this Year of Faith.
St. Malachy himself was an Irish bishop of the 12th century, who desperately wanted to reform the Church in his country, which was then in a woeful state. He travelled to Rome to seek the Archbishop’s pallium from the Pope, and perhaps acquire some reforming Bulls which would empower him to correct and admonish the Irish Church. On this journey he became fast friends with one of the most influential men in Europe at that time, St. Bernard.
Bernard helped Malachy to obtain increased authority over the Irish church from the Pope, but alas the Irishman died on the return journey in 1148, expiring in the famous monastery of Clairvaux in the presence of Bernard himself. The great Cistercian was so moved by Malachy’s holiness, that he himself wrote the biography of the Irish Bishop. Due to Bernard’s patronage, Malachy was eventually canonized by the end of the twelfth century.
It is useful to note two things here. First, Malachy is a real saint, and is a patron of those who earnestly desire reform and purification in the Church. We should invoke him regularly in these difficult days. Second, there is no evidence, either from St. Bernard’s life of Malachy, or from any other medieval source that Malachy authored anything like a “Prophecy of the Popes.” History is absolutely silent for 400 years, a silence that — to the historian — speaks louder than words.
The Prophecy of the Popes was “discovered” in the Vatican Archives in the 1590s, unsurprisingly during a period of multiple consecutive conclaves. It is extraordinary that the Archives, which had been under the diligent care of text-hungry Humanists for nearly 150 years, had somehow missed this singularly important document. After its publication the original text disappeared, a fact as remarkable for its carelessness as for its convenience. The issues above are enough to discount the story even before considering the internal evidence.
That the prophecies are attributed to St. Malachy are an example of Pseudonymity. The author adopted the name of a real saint — but one who was not too well known — to publicize his texts more widely. The “Prophecies of Joe the Curial Bureaucrat” did not have quite the same ring to it. Pseudonymity was a common tactic in the pre-modern world, but was quickly falling out of favor. One needs only recall the Gnostic gospels as an example (“A gospel by Thomas the Apostle? I’d better read that!”) Further, this was an age that was hungry for prognostications, the most famous of which were those of Nostradamus. Astrology and divination of all sorts fascinated even some of the greatest minds of the period. In that sense the “prophecies” are perfectly suited to their time.
When one begins to consider the contents though, the problems multiply. A person who picks up the “prophecies” will be astounded at how spot-on accurate they are until one arrives at 1590. After that they turn into short, vague utterances that a local horoscope page would be embarrassed to print: “Undulating man,” “Religious Man,” “from a good religion.” These are a selection of the absurd post 1590s entries, which many have correctly called unworthy of the name “prophecy.” To take one egregious example, the phrase “Farm Animal” was supposed to apply to the brilliant light of learning, Benedict XIV. I am surprised the author did not include “Tall Dark Stranger” in his list.
The prophecies can be an innocent pastime and source of great fun, such as the story of Cardinal Spellman at the 1958 conclave. The new pope was supposed to be “Pastor et Nauta” (Pastor and Sailor — another staggering prophetic utterance). The night before the conclave Spellman was supposed to have acquired some sheep, put them in a rented rowboat, and gave them a few pulls up and down the Tiber. Entertaining stories, but the “prophecies” also have a darker side.
Our forger eventually got bored around entry 112. Safely out of range of his lifetime, he brought the work to a quick end with an obligatory apocalyptic reference to Peter II (Peter the Roman). Unfortunately for us, we are currently on entry 112, leading to an efflorescence of worry and warnings to get ready for the end times. The only positive thing I can say about this is that finally — after our next pope has ended his reign — we will hear no more about this issue. When the new pope is announced however, many will try feverishly to shoehorn that person into the mold of “Peter the Roman.” (Is his Baptismal name Peter? Does he like “Rock” music? Is he “Roman” Catholic?)
These are indeed uncertain times, and we are worried for the place of Christianity in the world and in our homes. The most prudent thing to do in such a situation is to continue the work of the Church, to be witnesses of the Incarnation in our lives and to put away morbid speculation and outrageous prophecies which often become an excuse for us to thumb our noses and turn our backs on a world that is so much easier to criticize and condemn than to change. Christian families must fast and pray together for the good of the Church, holding strongly to the Deposit of Revelation “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Pray for the Cardinals, pray for Benedict, pray for the new Pope, and live one’s life as an example to the world.
No new salvific revelation is coming, and no new “prophecy” will change the revelation of the Word of God Himself, who is Christ. We have been living in the “end times” since the Ascension of the Son of God, and we pray for His coming daily, but no man “knows the day or the hour” (Mt 24:36): most certainly not the authors of papal campaign literature from the 1590s.