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Benedict XVI: the Penultimate Pope (Or So Says the Prophecy of St. Malachy)

Joël Sprung - published on 02/22/13

How much credence should we give to this late sixteenth century text, according to which the next Pope would reign during the end times?

It is all the rage on the web! The so-called Prophecy of St. Malachy is an eschatological text discovered in 1590. At that time, it was attributed to St. Malachy of Armagh, an Irish bishop from the early twelfth century. The prophecy contains a list of pontificates from Pope Celestine II to the last Pope of the Church, dubbed ‘Petrus Romanus’ (‘Peter the Roman’). According to this list of 112 popes, Benedict XVI is the second to last Pope, meaning his successor (who will be elected in the coming days) would be the final pontiff, whose reign heralds the end of time. The last entry in the prophecy, which refers to this Pope, reads:

“In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit Peter the Roman, who will pasture his sheep in many tribulations, and when these things are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful Judge will judge his people.”

This pseudo-prophecy fascinates conspiracists and enriches the sellers of fantasies with each new conclave, both as an oracle predicting who the next Pope might be as well as a chilling apocalyptic story. Yet this ‘prophecy’ is not recognized by the Church, and most experts assume it is an apocryphal text written at the same time as its discovery in the sixteenth century. Its ability to fascinate also has to do with the ambiguity of the Old Testament prophet Malachi, who prophesied the ministry of St. John the Baptist and the Messianic time (particularly what we read in the Church for the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple). Apocrypha of this kind, which may be more or less esoteric, are not rare –there exist magical texts, for instance, that were attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas so as to benefit from his authority.

Here, it is possible that the purpose of the text was to exert political influence – the result of the conclave of 1590, for example. Thus, the correlation between descriptions and popes in the text is easy to find until the conclave. By contrast, for the following descriptions – many of which are taken from the Bible (especially Sirach) – are fully interchangeable and have no predictive value. It is only with painstaking and often farfetched efforts of interpretation that we can find some vague connection between a pontiff and the corresponding description.

Attraction to this kind of text, generally without any real concern to know its intentions, can be indicative of a relationship with religion that has more to do with paganism and superstition than faith. Of course, the Church believes in the gift of prophecy, and even teaches that by baptism we become priests, prophets, and kings. In short, through our acceptance of revelation and our union with the Word of God in the sacraments, we become properly disposed to receive and transmit prophecies. However, as the Apostle Paul said, prophecies are aimed at building up the Church; they are not intended to satisfy a curiosity about the future, which would belong rather to a lack of hope. Particularly with regard to the end of time, it is important to remember the words of Jesus in the parable of the foolish virgins and the wise virgins: “be careful, because you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt. 25:13). It is in this sense that the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us:

“God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints. Still, a sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it” (CCC 2115).

The end of time is a mystery, and though it may be announced by signs, this mystery spurs our hope. This does not preclude that a prophecy could refer to the end of time; on the contrary, the Book of the Revelations of St. John does so, as do the words of Jesus himself. But in the New Testament, as elsewhere in the prophecies of the Old Testament, the focus is not so much on the time of a future event, but on the signs of this event. In addition, these signs are not intended to make us recognize this decisive moment on the threshold of the end of time, but to teach us about the nature of the announced event, to make it intelligible so as to guide our conversion.

The word ‘prophecy’ means, etymologically, “to see from far away”; and although it often involves the future, it does not do so exclusively. There are prophecies for the present and even, strange as it may seem, prophecies about the past (e.g., the Book of Genesis). Indeed, prophecy is about the teaching of hidden things, and its purpose is to raise men up to God and edify the whole Church. This is what makes the gift of prophecy so desirable to men of faith:

“Pursue love, but strive eagerly for the spiritual gifts, above all that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to human beings but to God, for no one listens; he utters mysteries in spirit. On the other hand, one who prophesies does speak to human beings, for their building up, encouragement, and solace. Whoever speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but whoever prophesies builds up the church. Now I should like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be built up. Now, brothers, if I should come to you speaking in tongues, what good will I do you if I do not speak to you by way of revelation, or knowledge, or prophecy, or instruction?” (1 Cor. 14:1-6).

It becomes apparent, then, that the important thing is not to be fascinated or to satisfy our curiosity, but to grow, especially in the knowledge of God and in communion with the Word. If we do not let ourselves teach and convey the Good News, we often tend to project our own imagination onto a future event – in this case, the end of the world – which often has the effect of precipitating catastrophe rather than heralding hope, and we use this reading to interpret the symbolism of prophecies with the effect of corrupting their end meaning.

To put so-called predictions of the future in their proper place, we must remember that Jesus, like John before him, already announced to his disciples that the coming of the Kingdom was near (Mt. 3:2, 4:7, 10:7; Mk. 1:15; Lk. 10:9, 21:31), and swiftly sent his apostles to do the same for all nations. Some of his contemporaries actually witnessed to the expectation of an ‘imminent end’ with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 A.D., which had been prophesied by Jesus. This marked the “beginning of the end” for many Christians. Now we know that twenty centuries have passed since then, and we realize that it is not time that matters; the historic event of the fall of the Temple is much more enlightening to us as a providential sign a posteriori of the new Temple, which is fulfilled in Jesus, than of a particular point in history. Similarly, when Jesus announced the coming of the Kingdom to his disciples, it seems obvious that this proximity was more spiritual than temporal: for them, as for us today, it was a question of realizing that we had to govern our own will with the unprecedented freedom God gave us in our liberation from sin and the knowledge of faith.

The prophecy of St. Malachy has nothing to do with the criteria of a true prophecy. It is natural to focus on the name and qualifications of the person who will be the next Pope, just as a family can legitimately inquire as to who will be his new adoptive father. It is in confidence and hope that believers are invited to view the future, to be prophets at the service of the Word of God in the here and now, as we await the coming of the Kingdom.

Pope Benedict XVI
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