“In extreme persecution, the seat of the Holy Roman Church will be occupied by Peter the Roman, who will feed the sheep through many tribulations, at the term of which the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the formidable Judge will judge his people. The End.” — Saint Malachy, 1139 A.D.
This cheery bit of foreknowledge comes courtesy of a 12th-century Irish bishop, Malachy, who, while visiting Rome, had a vision of all the popes who were yet to reign. There were 112 in total, beginning with Celestine II in 1143 and ending, in Malachy’s telling, with “Peter the Roman,” whose papacy seems to coincide with the destruction of the church and the end of the world.
With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the first pontiff to step down in almost 600 years, Malachy’s prophecy has garnered renewed attention — not least because, on Malachy’s list, Benedict was number 111.
Which means, if you care to believe a reasonably well-substantiated prophecy that has endured almost 900 years (allowing for some generous interpretations over the centuries and Internet wackdoodlery in the modern era), Peter the Roman is on deck.
Malachy’s prediction has been juxtaposed with the vision of Pope Pius X, who served from 1903 to 1914, and who claimed to have foreseen another pope, also named Pius, fleeing an apocalyptic scene: “What I have seen is terrifying! Will I be the one, or will it be a successor? What is certain is that the pope will leave Rome and, in leaving the Vatican, he will have to pass over the dead bodies of his priests! Do not tell anyone this while I am alive.”
So, as we await a new leader for the largest denomination of the world’s largest religion, at least one saint and one former pope advise that things are about to get bumpy. If “Peter the Roman” is indeed elected, and if he chooses the name Pius (which would make him Pius XIII), watch this space.
One wonders, however, if there is an appetite for more prophesied destruction these days. In early 2013, our view of dire predictions is particularly jaundiced, as we expected to be clawing through the rubble of the colossal, millennia-old “oops” that was the Mayan Apocalypse right about now.
After 9/11, people flocked to the prophecies of Nostradamus, supposing the 16th-century French seer had somehow presaged the tragedy. The closest he came was: “In the year 1999 and seven months, the great King of Terror will come from the sky. He will bring back the Khan of the Mongols. Before and after Mars rules happily” (Century X, Quatrain LXXII). As you can clearly see, apart from getting the date, names and actual events wrong, Nostradamus called it perfectly.
Having read every word published by Nostradamus and watched every History Channel show about him (which invariably amount to lengthy interviews with that one Nostradamus expert who looks just like him, complete with cornered hat and long beard, apparently having foreseen an age when that ensemble is back in fashion), I regretfully conclude that he predicted nothing whatsoever — at least, not in any form that is of practical value in the present.
As always with these things, one has to squint and tilt one’s head, stand on one foot, re-arrange the letters and read it backward by the light of a full moon while gargling with yak’s blood for it to seem as though the prediction came to pass. Oh — and it only ever works in hindsight. After the fact, people fall all over themselves to cram ancient gibberish into the news of the day.
It’s not that I don’t believe in prophecy. I do. But most of us suck at it (President Romney, please call your Oval Office).
This is likely because most people’s predictions amount to their utterly human, deeply flawed best guess, informed by some measure of wishful thinking. The prophet Jeremiah warned of those who make predictions without proper sourcing: “They speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord” (Jer. 23:16).
And how often, really, does God speak specifically to one person, divulging the future, for the edification of all mankind? Yes, yes, God speaks to each of us all the time in subtle ways, but this is different. We are talking about the Creator of the Universe addressing one of his billions of children, saying, “This will happen at such-and-such a place, at such-and-such a time — be sure to dress accordingly.”
Perhaps St. Malachy was the recipient of such a divine word. My bias is that if God were selecting a vessel for a lengthy tale, he’d choose an Irishman. Even so, if the word is true, what good does it do us? Will we listen? Are we even able to comprehend its true meaning?
Over the centuries, prophets of every religion have been ignored, mistreated and killed in nasty ways straight from the ballad of Brave Sir Robin. And when their message does eke through, people are swift and relentless in locking prophetic words into their own vision of how the world ought to be, as though celestial knowledge were bestowed for the sole reason of validating their personal opinion.
Indeed, the astounding lack of humility with which signs and wonders are interpreted by both secular and religious people makes reasoned debate all but impossible.
On the secular side, consider the venom of environmentalists, academics and various politically correct commissars toward anyone who hesitates to swallow the scroll of their “climate change” prophecies, for just one example.
As to religious interpreters, take your pick. Apart from the unpleasantness throughout the Middle East, in some measure predicated by differing views of dusty auguries, more benign examples can be gleaned from Christians who are convinced that their narrow reading of scripture is the one, true version. In my lifetime, I have heard public figures from Ronald Reagan to the pope to Maury Povich proposed as candidates for the Antichrist.
In the books of Daniel and Revelation — the Bible’s foremost sections regarding the End of Days — and throughout the Gospels, one sentiment is repeated in numerous forms. To paraphrase: “You don’t know when the end is coming, so don’t even bother trying to guess.”
Jesus put it more succinctly: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32) and “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42), as two of many examples.
So — what, then? If true prophecy rarely happens and if, when it does, people mangle and squabble over it, and if we cannot even know when to duck, how can Malachy’s prediction be of any use?
The cardinals who will gather to choose the next bishop of Rome before Easter are learned men, well aware of the prophecy of St. Malachy. Since I do not seem to be invited to the conclave this time, I shall have to wait and watch for the white smoke like everyone else. My guess, made without any claim to otherworldly insight, and without a hint of self-interest (since I am not in the running — though if the cardinals opt for a Presbyterian pope, I’m up for it), is that they will choose either Cardinal Tarcisio Pietro Bertone of Italy or Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson of Ghana.
But whoever is elevated, and whether he calls himself Pius the Thirteenth or Hank the First, he will face challenges in piloting the bark of St. Peter. In this, the sentiment of St. Malachy’s prediction is surely true but unremarkable. If, however, Malachy’s vision bears out more fully and an existential crisis is imminent, the church and the world will require a leader inspired by God. Let us pray that the cardinals, and the pope they elect, will be granted such wisdom.