The current apocalyptic zeitgeist was made all too clear by the recent hoopla over the turning of the Maya calendar, so it was inevitable that the morbidly paranoid would glom on to the papal resignation—just as they did the Vatican's opening of the Knights Templar archives a few years back. The Irish Central on Feb. 11 provides some fodder, recalling the prophecies of Saint Malachy, a 12th century bishop of Armagh, who supposedly predicted the names of all future popes—accurate up to this point, supposedly. And after Benedict XVI, he wrote: "In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church there will reign Peter the Roman, 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." Gee, thanks.
The account adds its own take on the "Peter the Roman" prediction: "Experts say it could refer to an Italian pope who would take Peter's name." These "experts" are of course unnamed, and an Italian pope wouldn't exactly be unprecedented.
Alas, the elements in the Church who take such arcana seriously are now in charge. We noted at the time of Cardinal Ratzinger's ascension to popehood eight years ago that he had been the official Vatican pointman for mystical loopiness, like the Third Secret of Fatima. The Irish Central quotes one unnamed "report" (which appears to have been lifted from the Catholic Pages website) thusly:
"In 1958, before the Conclave that would elect Pope John XXIII, Cardinal Spellman of New York hired a boat, filled it with sheep and sailed up and down the Tiber River, to show that he was "pastor et nautor," the motto attributed to the next Pope in the prophecies."
We could be petty and point out the incorrect use of quotation marks, but the more relevant point is that Cardinal Spellman didn't become Pope (thank goodness). So what does this say for the accuracy of the prophecy? And has anyone heard that Pope John XXIII, who was in fact elected that year, had sailed up and down the Tiber? Or was the "pastor et nautor" jazz simply proven random wackiness? Just asking.
The more authoritative New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia page on prophecies concerning the popes does not say that Malachy's purported prophecies predicted the names of the future popes, but that they "indicate some noticeable trait of all future popes from Celestine II, who was elected in the year 1143, until the end of the world." (Emphasis added.) The traits are "enunciated under mystical titles," totalling 112. The entry goes on to list some examples that are supposed to impress us with the "wonderful appropriateness" of Malachy's titles, but we note with chagrin that John XXIII is not among them. How many such examples are cited? Three. Out of 112? Not a great average, we say. And, in fact, even these three are so vague as to be practically meaningless. E.g. Pius X was "Ignis ardens" (Burning Fire) because of his "zeal." (How many lackadaisical popes have there been?)
Additionally, the Catholic Encyclopedia's own List of Popes page informs us that the number of pontiffs from Celestine II to Benedict XVI is exactly 100. So where does the 112 figure come from? Are we still 12 popes away from the end of the world, or is someone pulling a fast one?
Anyway, we still want to know if John XXIII had ever been a sailor (nautor). The Sligo Heritage website takes a stab at it: "Spellman, of course, lost out to Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who prior to his election, was patriarch of Venice, known for its canals and gondolas." Um, we hate to rain on your parade guys, but we say unless he actually piloted a gondola, that doesn't count. Even then, it would just barely count. Ask a sailor.
The Irish Central concludes: "So will Benedict's successor be the last pope? The Irish seer of the 12th century has said it will be so. Time will tell."
Well, there's a reason to hope the successor won't be Italian (or named Peter). After John Paul II died in 2005, we noted hopes that the cardinals would choose the first African pope in 1,500 years—or the first Latin American one ever. Now they have another chance to do so—undermining the apocayptoids and reactionaries. Alas, it doesn't seem likely: after eight years of Benedict, the apocayptoids and reactionaries are more entrenched than ever. (Apart from the Crusades and the Inquisition and so on…)
Of course the underlying reason for the general apocalyptic zeitgeist in society at large is an intuitive awareness of global climate destabilization and the nuclear threat. If only people would concentrate on these real problems, instead of weird reified symbols like the end of the 13th Baktun or the prophecies of Malachy or whatever. The most frustrating thing about it is that such superstitous foibles are not merely a distraction from real problems—they have the potential to become real problems in themselves, as when apocayptoids get all freaked out and do stupid shit, like the 1979 siege of Mecca (a key moment in the emergence of radical Islamism). Recent verbiage from the fast-mainstreaming Israeli extremoid right threatening to blow up the Dome of the Rock is especially unnerving. The deeper the eschatological obsession gets, the more dangerous the world's unfortunately very real nuclear weapons become. An unpleasant irony.
See our last post on the politics of the Vatican.