The pilgrim in question was one of our own – St Malachy, Primate of Armagh. He went to Rome in 1139 to petition the then pope, Innocent II, to recognise Armagh and Cashel as being suitable to become metropolitan archdioceses. While in Rome, Malachy received his vision, the parade of the popes starting with Celestine II, Innocent II’s successor, all they way to the successor of Benedict XVI, whose reign will begin around St Patrick’s Day this year.
Malachy described his vision of the popes in pithy Latin phrases – pastor et nauta (pastor and sailor), flos florum (flower of flowers), and so on. All except the last man. The last pope Malachy explicitly named as Petrus Romanus, Peter the Roman, about whom Malachy makes the longest, and most devastating, of all his remarks: "In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church there will reign Peter of Rome, who will feed his flock amid many tribulations; after which the seven-hilled city will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people. The End."
The End, indeed. And this is where it gets interesting. After he received his vision, Malachy’s prophecy was never heard of again for four hundred years. Malachy returned to Ireland, and died nine years later.
The prophecies were first discovered in 1590, in time for that year’s conclave. The story was that, after receiving his vision, Malachy presented the list of his successors to Innocent II, as a consolation to Innocent during a particularly fraught time for the church, what with anti-popes in Avignon and crusades and all the rest of it. Innocent placed the list in the Vatican archives for safekeeping, and there they stayed for the four hundred years until their reappearance in 1590.
Sceptics – and they’re out there – contend that Malachy’s prophecy was hidden for four hundred years because it had yet to be written. As ever, there were shenanigans taking place at a conclave, and a nephew of Pope Julius III fancied the job when it became vacant in 1590. His name was Girolamo Simoncelli and the fact he was from Ovieto, which means old city, made him completely papabile if the next man up had been described in the prophesy as “ex antiquitate urbis,” from the antiquity of the city.
Simocelli didn’t get it the triple tiara though. Niccolò Sfondrati was crowned Gregory XIV instead. The Sfondratis were nobles of long-standing in Milan which, you could argue, is more semantically fitting as from the antiquity of the city, rather than from the antique city. If you were so inclined.
One of the arguments in favour of forgery is that the match between the popes before 1590 is quite obvious while it’s something a stretch for the popes after then. But that’s not accurate – some of the anti-popes are listed and some are not. If you were forging in 1590, surely you’d chose to leave them all in or leave them all out?
It’s also a thing that the list of modern-day popes isn’t a bad fit at all for the prophecy. Of course, when you’re taking a phrase and trying to hook it back onto someone you’re being lead in a particular direction rather than seeing all of the facts. And again, we’re talking about a prophecy from a time when they still dunked witches.
But still. It’s interesting that the thing has persisted for so very long. There is a story that refuses to die that Cardinal Francis Spellman, a former Archbishop of New York, was a big fan of the prophesies of St Malachy.
Aware that the next man up after the death of Pius XII in 1958 had been described as “pastor et nauta,” shepherd and sailor, Spellman is alleged to have hired a boat, filled it with sheep and sailed it up and down the Tiber, all in the hope of a rub of the relic.
Angelo Roncalli was crowned John XXIII instead. John XXIII convened Vatican II, the famous pastoral summit of the sixties. Before being crowned pope, Roncalli was Patriarch of Venice, a town noted for boats and maritime activity.
John XXIII was succeeded by Paul VI, who sported a fleur-de-lis on his papal arms. Malachy describes him as “flos florum” – flower of flowers.
John Paul I’s papacy lasted 33 days. Slightly longer than a half-moon (“de meditate lunae”), but a pretty short spell nonetheless.
John Paul II was born during a solar eclipse. His tag is “de labore solis” – of the eclipse of the sun.
Benedict’s XVI description in the prophesy is “gloria olivae,” the glory of the olive. The olive is the symbol of the Benedictine order.
And now, Peter the Roman. Whatever about the Roman part, it’s deliciously interesting to note that one of the early favourites to succeed Benedict XVI is the current President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, His Eminence Cardinal Peter Turkson.
I don’t know about you, but I’m dressing for showers of frogs, locusts and assorted pestilence from here on in.
FOCAL SCOIR: If anyone is degenerate enough to bet on a conclave, my tenner is going on Angelo Scola, former Patriarch of Venice and current Archbishop of Milan, at 8/1 or so. That’s good pedigree in a papal election and, like Kerry in any given year, the Italians want their birthright title back.