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Sunday 17 March 2013

The Papal Prophecies

So we have our second new Pope since I bought my papal wallchart on a visit to Rome in March 2005 (you may have to open the image in its own window and zoom in to view it properly). But will Francis I be the last Pope ever? Probably not – although that’s the gist of a prophecy supposedly made by an Irish Archbishop way back in the 12th century. I’ve just been reading all about it in a short ebook by Oliver Hayes entitled The Papal Prophecies: St Malachy and the Doom of the Popes. The case turns out to be an excellent example of something I’ve always believed – that most “prophecies” tell you more about the times in which they originated than they do about the future.

The book starts with a biography of Saint Malachy, who fought his way (literally) to the position of Archbishop of Armagh in the 1130s. While this is all interesting and exciting stuff, it isn’t actually very relevant to the prophecies that bear his name – since they were almost certainly written long after his death. It’s true there were vague rumours that Malachy had experienced some kind of prophetic vision during a visit to Rome in 1139, but nothing was known about the details.

Then in 1590 everything changed. A Spanish Dominican scholar named Alphonsus Ciacconius claimed to have discovered an ancient parchment, bearing a series of cryptic phrases in Latin, in the Vatican archives in Rome. This was during the renaissance period, when people were just starting to develop a genuinely forensic approach to the study of historical documents. Ciacconius was one of the few people at the time who was versed in the new science of palaeography – the dating of old writings based on the materials, style and language employed. He announced that the parchment and its cryptic Latin phrases dated from the middle of the twelfth century.

Ciacconius showed the manuscript to a fellow scholar named Arnold de Wyon, and between them they attempted to decipher its cryptic message. Eventually they concluded that it was Saint Malachy’s account of his prophetic vision, and that each Latin phrase corresponded to a future Pope. In other words, it was a list of all the Popes that would be elected after the time of Malachy’s vision in 1139. The “Prophecy of the Popes” was first published by Wyon in 1595, together with an interpretation of its meaning.

In total, the list includes 112 Popes – the first 74 of which date from after the supposed time of Malachy’s vision, but before the discovery of the manuscript by Ciacconius. These 74 Popes are represented by short Latin phrases that relate—often by means of a verbal pun or metaphor—to the name or place of birth of the Pope in question. For example, the first item on the list, “Ex castro Tiberis” means “From a castle of the Tiber”, and is taken to refer to Pope Celestine II, who was elected in 1143 and was born in Città di Castello – a fortified town on the banks of the River Tiber. The only British-born Pope, Adrian IV, corresponds to the fifth item on the list, “De rure albo”– which literally means “from the white country”, but can be taken as a pun on Albion, the ancient poetic name for Britain.

After Wyon published the list in 1595, people were eager to see how each new Pope fitted the corresponding prophecy. Although ways were found to match the prophecy to the actuality, it became more and more obvious that there was a qualitative difference between the pre-publication fits and the post-publication ones. Very few of the post-publication matches took the form of a simple pun on a name or birthplace. Instead, they often referred to the general state of affairs at the time the Pope was elected, or to some action taken by him during his incumbency. By the late 17th century the discrepancy had become painfully obvious, and a number of Catholic scholars—Louis Moréri among them—realized that everything focused down to the pivotal year of 1590. That was the year that Ciacconius “discovered” the manuscript and pronounced it to be a work of the 12th century... and 1590 was also the year the prophecies suddenly switched from being right on target to being vague and woolly.

There was a succession of three different Popes in 1590. Sixtus V died in August to be replaced by Urban VII, who died the following month and was replaced by Gregory XIV. The prophecies for Sixtus V and Urban VII are good matches, but the prophecy for the next Pope didn’t match Gregory XIV at all. Moréri quickly realized this was the single most important prophecy in the whole list – the only one out of the 112 that really mattered. All the rest were window dressing.

The key prophecy—for the Pope to follow Urban VII—said “Ex antiquitate Urbis”, meaning “of the old city”. While that doesn’t mean much in the context of the actual successor, Gregory XIV, it’s a perfect match for one of the other cardinals who was in the running at that particular conclave. This was Girolamo Simoncelli, who had been born in Orvieto – the Latin name for which was Urbevetanum, meaning “the old city”! Simoncelli was the candidate favoured by the King of Spain, Philip II... who just happened to be the rich patron of Alphonsus Ciacconius – the Spanish scholar who “found” the prophecies at just the right moment, and vouched for their authenticity!

It seems almost certain that the Papal Prophecies attributed to Saint Malachy were a 16th century forgery. Whether the culprit was Alphonsus Ciacconius or someone else, the aim seems to have been political – to strengthen the case for one particular individual being elected Pope at one particular conclave. But to give the manuscript credibility, it couldn’t stop there. So 38 further prophecies—of no real interest to the perpetrator—were appended to the list. But even they had to end somewhere. It just happens that, if you go through the list ascribing each consecutive prophecy to each consecutive Pope, then the very last item on the list corresponds to... none other than Francis I, who was elected Pope just a few days ago.

This final prophecy is wordier than any of the others, and appropriately apocalyptic: “Peter the Roman, who will nourish the sheep in many tribulations; when they are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people.” Fortunately for the general sanity of the world, the “Prophecy of the Popes” hasn’t received anything like the same attention as the doom-laden utterances of Harold Camping, or the Mayan calendar fiasco of last year. I guess that’s because the sort of people who are most likely to be interested in end-of-the-world predictions—namely Protestants and New Agers—are also the least likely to be interested in anything to do with Popes!

The Papal Prophecies is published by Bretwalda Books, which makes Oliver Hayes a sort of colleague of mine. In fact Oliver is the main author of the Bretwalda Battles series, to which I’ve contributed half a dozen titles of my own. My latest ebook is all about The Destruction of Hiroshima... which I try to put in its proper historical context, without the overlay of wise-after-the-fact hindsight that is often found in discussions of the subject.

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