Is the world only a Pope away from the End? Yes, if you believe a chilling 12th-century prophecy. Attributed to St. Malachy, an Irish archbishop canonized in 1190, the Prophecy of the Popes would date to 1139. The document predicted that there would be only 112 more popes before the Last Judgment — and Benedict XVI is 111.
The list of popes originated from a vision Malachy said he received from God when he was in Rome, reporting on his diocese to Pope Innocent II.
The story goes that St. Malachy gave the apocalyptic list to Innocent II and that the document remained unknown in the Vatican Archives some 440 years after Malachy's death in 1148. It was rediscovered and published by Benedictine Arnold de Wyon in 1590.
The prophecy consists of brief, cryptic phrases in Latin about each Pope. It ends with the 112th pope, named "Petrus Romanus" or "Peter the Roman."
According to the premonition, Peter the Roman would "feed his flock amid many tribulations, after which the City of the Seven Hills shall be utterly destroyed, and the awful Judge will judge the people."
Often highly enigmatic, several prophetical announcements in the document appear to have come true.
For example, Malachy prophesied the first pope on his list would be "from a castle on the Tiber." Celestine II, elected in 1143, was born in Toscany on the shores of the Tiber River.
Malachy predicted another pope would be "elevated from a hermit." Nicholas IV, pope from 1288 to 1292, had been a hermit in the monastery of Pouilles.
The 45th pope in the prophecy is described as coming "from the hell of Pregnani". Indeed, Pope Urban VI (1378-1389) was born Domenico Prignano and came from a village near Naples called Inferno (hell).
Most scholars consider the document a 16th-century elaborate hoax. Until 1590, when the prophecy was published, the mottoes were easily derived from the pope's family, baptismal names, native places or coats of arms.
After 1590 the epithets become much more vague. According to the Catholic Pages, "the inclusion of anti-popes would also appear to militate against the authenticity of the prophecies."
Yet, uncanny similarities also appear when reading the mottoes associated to modern-day popes.
For example, the 109th pope is described as "of the half of the moon." John Paul I, elected pope in 1978, "lasted about a month, from half a moon to the next half," the Catholic Pages noted.
As for his successor, the late Pope John Paul II, Malachy described him in Latin as "de labore solis," meaning "of the eclipse of the sun, or from the labor of the sun."
"John Paul II (1978-2005) was born on May 18, 1920 during a solar eclipse… His Funeral occurred on April 8, 2005 when there was a solar eclipse visible in the Americas," the Catholic Pages wrote.
Finally, "Glory of the Olives" is the motto for Benedict XVI, the 111th pope in the list. A branch of the monastic order founded by St. Benedict is called the Olivetans.
As for the doomsday pope, one would think we are quite safe: according to church tradition, no pope can take the name Peter II.
However, one of the favorites to succeed Benedict XVI is Ghanaian Cardinal Turkson. His first name is Peter.
This article originally appeared at Discovery News.
Top image: Constantine. Bottom image: A detail of the "Prophetia S. Malachiae Archiepiscopi, de Summis Pontificibus" by Arnold Wyon. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, & Irish Central.