The Popeacolypse? Really?


Another day, another prophecy of the end of the world based on dubious sources.

So, as already noted, the Pope is stepping down from his office at the end of this month, and if the cardinals can get their act together fast enough there will be a new pope before Easter. However, there is the allegation that this pope will bring about the end of the world!

While apparently the document this idea is based on has been around for centuries, this is the first I have heard of the Prophecy of the Popes, said to have been written by Saint Malachy. According to the document, starting with Pope Celestine II there would be 112 popes, after which comes the return of Jesus and all the great stuff in the Book of Revelation. Proponents claim that the list of popes named by Malachy has been accurate, so it is a revelation to behold, and thus the end times will be in our lifetimes. You can look at the original list here.

So first off, is the document from Saint Malachy, or is it a bunch of malarkey? First, note that Malachy died in 1148, but the prophecy was rediscovered in 1595. Those who do biblical studies have seen this too many times; a long-lost prophecy just coming to light. But what really seems to show that the list is a forgery is that it is accurate about who would be pope between the 12th and 16th centuries but not after. Monks centuries ago already noted its failures to predict well after 1595, and the current use by proponents of the prophecy are quite strained.

Let’s compare how well the prophecy does before publication and how well it does after. The first on the list was someone that inhabited Tifernum, which is where Celestine II was born. The 32nd on the list says the pope’s name used to be Benedict and who had arms with waves; Pope Bonaface VIII was born Benedict and had waves on his coat of arms. There are some clear connections in these “prophecies”, so the author had knowledge (divine or otherwise) of details of these popes prior to 1595.

However, once we get past the publication date things go downhill. The names of popes stop after Clement VIII (who was pope from 1592 and 1605), so it seems the author doesn’t really know who was running the show after the time of publication. There are still apparent plays on pope mottoes, but they are badly strained. For example, the motto of “from good religion” related to Innocent XIII because several member of his family had been pope–rather strained. Number 88 on the list is said to be the “rake in the door”, and somehow that is supposed to mean Innocent XII (originally named Antonio Pignatelli); the best attempt at connecting the rake to him was that he was known as del Rastrellorastrello meaning “rake” in Italian, but there is no good evidence that this is even true.

Basically, there is a clear connection with the motto and name of the popes before 1595, but there is no name or clear connection with popes after this time. It looks like a forgery, just like most every document in this genre. It is almost the norm that a work makes itself look prophetic by claiming it comes for an ancient source, that it correctly describes or predicts events that were known t be true before it was “discovered”, and then it is questionably accurate at best after the discovery date. One biblical version of this comes from the Book of Daniel: it basically is correct about the history of the Middle East and Judea up to the time of the Maccabee revolt in the 160s BCE, but then it is only prophetic and correct with a lot of special pleading. And because of all that gerrymandering, it works of Daniel may not have dated the end of the world but instead lead to the creation of the chronology (or chronologies) of Jesus’ lifetime as I have argued.

So, should you be worried about this prophecy? Oh, like how everyone was supposed to be worried about the Maya doomsday? Or about Harold Camping’s prophecy of the end times back in 2011 (and an earlier attempt as well)? Or how about every single prediction of the end of the world in one’s lifetime? Some people never learn. Guess they just have to hope they are getting closer every day. (And no, the Higgs won’t do it either.)

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