Wednesday, November 03, 2021

The “Prophecies” of St Malachy

In Ireland, today is the feast of St Malachy, one of the great ecclesiastical reformers of the 12th century. He served for a time as Primate of Ireland in the very ancient See of Armagh, established by St Patrick himself, but later resigned that office, and ended his life as bishop of Down. The revised Butler’s Lives of the Saints sums up his career by likening him to St Theodore of Canterbury, who lived half a millennium before him, and gave a permanent form to the organization of the Church in England. His feast is also kept by various congregations of canons regular, since the reform movement of which he was such an important figure was very much concerned with restoring discipline to the lives of such congregations, and cathedral canons as well. He was a close personal friend of St Bernard, and actually died in his arms after a brief illness while visiting Clairvaux Abbey, on All Souls’ Day of 1148. Bernard was so convinced of Malachy’s sanctity that when celebrating his funeral, he sang the Post-Communion prayer of a Confessor Bishop instead of that of the Requiem Mass; he later wrote his biography, and for these reasons, the Cistercians also have Malachy on their calendar. Bernard’s judgment was formally confirmed by Pope Clement III in 1190; Ireland had, of course, a great many Saints before then, but Malachy was the very first to be formally recognized as such by a Pope.

A statue of St Malachy on the outside of Armagh Cathedral. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 4.0)
It is a pity that a man who fully deserves to be honored alongside his contemporaries like Ss Bernard and Norbert as a great Church reformer is now known principally as the putative author of a manifestly fraudulent series of “prophecies” about the Popes. In a happier world, the fact that Bernard says nothing about them would suffice to discredit them utterly. They consist of brief phrases in Latin which purportedly tell something about the men who will be elected Pope, from the Saint’s contemporary Celestine II (who reigned for less than 5½ months in 1143-44) to “Peter the Roman,” 111 Popes later. They were first brought to the attention of the world in 1595 by a Benedictine monk named Arnold de Wion, who attributed them to St Malachy without saying on what grounds, and indeed, without saying where they came from. It was not until 1871 that a French priest named Cucherat claimed, on the basis of no known evidence, that Malachy had delivered them to Celestine II’s predecessor, Innocent II, while visiting Rome to fetch the pallia of the two Irish metropolitans. They were then deposited in the Papal archives, and somehow completely forgotten for about 450 years. 

The general opinion of those who have studied the matter is that they were concocted to sway the conclave held in late 1590 after the sudden death of Urban VII, who was Pope for only 13 days, the shortest reign in Papal history. From Celestine II to Urban VII, they are extremely and obviously accurate, usually referring to the Popes’ family names. For example, before his election to the Papacy, Celestine II was called Guido de Castello, since he was from a town in Umbria called Città di Castello, which is on the Tiber river; the first “prophecy” is “de castello Tiberis - from the castle of the Tiber.” Starting in 1590, however, they become as vague as the so-called prophecies of another 16th century luminary in the field, Nostradamus. Pius VIII (1829-30), for example, corresponds to “vir religiosus - a religious man” (we should hope so!), and Pius XII to “pastor angelicus - an angelic shepherd.” Others are manifestly incorrect, such as Clement XIII (1758-69), a Venetian nobleman who corresponds to “Rose of Umbria.” This has given rise to some very embarrassing and convoluted explanations of how the “prophecies” fit their respective Popes. Clement XIII canonized one Franciscan, Joseph of Cupertino, and beatified two others, and the Franciscan Order was founded by an Umbrian...
It is certainly true that some of the purported prophecies do correspond plausibly in one way or another to their respective Popes, as they inevitably must, given their vagueness. Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) corresponds to “lumen in caelo - a light in heaven”, which may be seen as a reference to the comet in his coat-of-arms, and six Popes later, “flos florum - flower of flowers” may be seen as a reference to the fleurs-de-lys (an extremely common heraldic device) in the arms of Paul VI.
The Papal coat-of-arms of Pope Leo XIII
The tradition of taking a different name on election to the Papacy is sometimes said to have begun with John II in 533, who was previously called Mercury, and changed his name because he felt it was unseemly for a Pope to have the name of a pagan god. In point of fact, this was an anomaly, and would not happen again for almost half a millennium, when one “Peter Pig-mouth” (Pietro Bocca di Porco) was elected in 1009, and, deeming it inappropriate to be called “Peter II”, changed his name to Sergius IV.
What really established the tradition was the great reform movement that began in the mid-11th century, in which St Malachy would be so prominent. Starting in 1046, the Popes began reviving the names of their ancient and sainted predecessors such as Clement, Damasus, and Victor, as a sign that after the long decadence of the later-9th to mid-11th centuries, the Papacy was now returning to the glorious ages of the past. From 1046 to 1145, thirteen of the eighteen Popes were “second of that name”, followed by eight “thirds” out of eleven from 1145 to 1227. (The last Pope to keep his baptismal name, Marcellus II, died in 1555 on the 22nd day of his reign, sealing the custom with just a little bit of superstitious fear.) But of course, no Pope has ever chosen the name of St Peter, and there is a rather superstitious tradition that the last Pope will be the Anti-Christ, and call himself Peter.
The Preaching of the Anti-Christ, 1499-1502, by Luca Signorelli (1441 ca. - 1523); in the chapel of St Brice in the cathedral of Orvieto, Italy (1499-1502). The Anti-Christ is the figure on the podium slightly to the right of the lower middle, with the devil whispering in his ear; working in an era that hung less on every word and whim of the Pope than our own, Signorelli shows him with facial features like those of Christ, but distorted, since he is the anti-Christ, not the anti-Pope.
This is also reflected in (and perhaps arises from) the supposed “prophecies” of St Malachy, the last of which is “Peter the Roman”, qualified as follows: “In the last persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit Peter the Roman, who will pasture his sheep in many tribulations; and these being finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people.” However, the so-called prophecy does not say that there will be no Popes between “Peter the Roman”, which corresponds to Pope Francis (whose baptismal name is George, and whose family is from the north of Italy, not Rome), and the penultimate entry on the list. Therefore, when the current Papacy ends, if the world does not end as well, and Francis’ successor is elected, we will be left in the dark for the future... or rather, just as much in the dark as we have been all along.

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