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Paging 'Peter the Roman': Debunking the Prophecy of St. Malachy

By Gerald Korson
March 10th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

We can rest assured that the cardinal-electors won't be giving these so-called "prophecies" as much as a fleeting thought in their deliberations. This forgery didn't sway the conclave in 1595, and it won't be a factor in 2013, either. I'd even be willing to wager on that - if it were not an excommunicable offense.

HUNTINGTON, IN (Catholic Online) - With all the intrigue over the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the upcoming conclave, there has been a renewed public interest in the so-called Prophecy of St. Malachy.

Surely you've heard of it before. Malachy was an Irish bishop of the 12th century who allegedly received a revelation and subsequently wrote a series of brief cryptic phrases describing the 112 popes who would succeed the then-current pontiff, Innocent II. As luck would have it, the pontiff who is elected in this month's conclave would be the last in the series at No. 112.

But it's really nothing to get worked up about, as credibility is a serious issue here. These prophecies are about as reliable as the Mayan Calendar.

When the Prophecy of St. Malachy was first published by a Benedictine monk in 1595, St. Malachy had been dead already for 447 years. There is no record of anyone ever as much as mentioning the prophecy before that time. Furthermore, the monk, who incorporated the alleged prophecy in his book about the history of the Benedictine order, included notations indicating the names of the 74 "popes" who supposedly fulfilled the first 74 prophecies. That list in itself is erroneous; in several instances, it leaves out legitimate popes in favor of antipopes, those false claimants to the papacy who surfaced at various troubled moments in the history of the Church.

The mysterious phrases of the supposed prophecy - including specimens like "Sign of Ostia," "snaky man," and "the fruit of Jupiter will help" - seem far more explicit and accurate when applied to those 74 popes (and antipopes) who reigned between Innocent II's immediate successor, Celestine II, and the year 1590. After that, the majority of these papal descriptions make little or no sense in relation to the corresponding heirs to the Chair of St. Peter. Usually the attempt is made to connect the prophecy to the pontiff's name, family, place of origin, or symbols on his coat of arms, but it usually takes quite an imagination to make that leap.

The relative accuracy of the papal descriptions leading up to 1590 and the complete lack of historical evidence that the Prophecy of St. Malachy even existed before that time leads most historians to consider it a forgery. The theory goes that the prophecy was conveniently compiled in 1590 in order to influence the papal conclave of that year in favor of Cardinal Girolamo Simoncelli, who as bishop of Orvieto (from a Latin word meaning "old city") would have been a perfect match for the prophecy of Pope No. 75, Ex antiquitate Urbis ("from the old city").

If that was the ruse the forgers had in mind, it didn't work, as the cardinal-electors went for a reluctant candidate named Niccolò Sfondrati, who became Pope Gregory XIV in December 1590 after a two-month conclave. (Interestingly, although he reigned less than a year, one if his first official acts was to forbid, under pain of excommunication, all wagering on papal elections and the duration of pontificates.) Still, St. Malachy fans today rationalize Gregory as a fulfillment of the prophecy, noting that Sfondrati's father was born in Milan, and Milan is an "old city" in its own right. So there.

Consideration of our popes of recent memory illustrates the difficulty even true believers face in making these prophecies stick. "Shepherd and sailor" is said to apply to Pope John XXIII because he hailed from Venice, a port city. "Flower of flowers" is claimed to fit Pope Paul VI because of the fleur-de-lis on his coat of arms. Pope John Paul I, "of the half moon," is said to have been elected on a night when there was a half-moon in the sky. "From the labor of the sun" is a stretch for Pope John Paul II, who came from the East (Poland), from which the sun rises. Pope Benedict XVI is "the glory of the Olive"; the Benedictine order (of which Pope Benedict was never a member) was once known as the Olivetans.

Which brings us to Pope No. 112, "Peter the Roman." Here, St. Malachy and/or the forgers give us a full-blown prophecy:

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. The End.

Now if only it were that simple. A cursory scan of the list of papal electors reveal several cardinals whose names include Peter, Pierre, or Pedro, all of whom would qualify as "Roman" by the simple fact they are prelates of the Church of Rome. (And if the cardinals were to buy into the Prophecy of St. Malachy but wish to forestall the destruction of Rome - "the city of seven hills" - and the Final Judgment for as long as possible, they might want to consider selecting the youngest and healthiest Peter among them. I'm just sayin'.)

We can rest assured that the cardinal-electors won't be giving these so-called "prophecies" as much as a fleeting thought in their deliberations. This forgery didn't sway the conclave in 1595, and it won't be a factor in 2013, either. I'd even be willing to wager on that - if it were not an excommunicable offense.

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Gerald Korson is a career Catholic journalist with more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer, including nine years as editor of Our Sunday Visitor national newsweekly (1998-2007). In addition to OSV, he has been published in numerous Catholic print and online journals including The Catholic Answer, Lay Witness, This Rock, Columbia, The Catholic Voice, Catholic San Francisco, The Montana Catholic, Extension, Catholic Almanac, Mercatornet, Catholic Pulse, and Catholic Online. He and his wife, the parents of 11 children, make their home in Indiana.

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