The prophecy of Saint Malachy of Ireland

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Berlin · 2013  Uwe Topper topper

Part of this article was written in German in 1988, republished in Synesis nr. 106, 2011. It has been augmented in 2013 (here on the site) and translated into English in Febr. 2015

1. The occasion

Popes do not die so often. Each time one has faded away, speculation about the successor proliferates. This time it is particularly exciting because the fact that a pope retires had not yet happened in historical time. Yet another reason to look for predictions which boom like fireworks. One of them says the next pope won’t be happy: In p(er)secutione. extrema S (antae). R (omanae). E (cclesiae). sedebit ... ("while in extreme persecution of the Church he is enthroned") is the motto provided for him. And he will be the last if you take this prophecy seriously. The list of predicted popes contains only 112 names sometimes referred to as 113 because after 112 it adds a name (Petrus Romanus), which means nothing more than "Pope". Certainly, opinions are divided, but it's nice to think that 112 explicit pope names are contained in the list of Saint Malachy of Ireland because 112 is a sacred 'number (eight times 14). And 112 chapters had the Koran (before the two prayers were appended to the end).
The prophecy of Saint Malachy is always dug out since four hundred years when a pope dies and a new one comes. For those who are not informed let us regard the story of this list. (Those who are familiar with the prophecy can jump to section 4).

2. Where do I start with the sweet story?

Let us begin with the title character. Malachy was Primate of Ireland, Archbishop of Armagh in the 12th century. He retired out of modesty from his church post. On his way to Rome in 1139 he is supposed to have written the mysterious prophecy. Malachy is one of the rare gifted people who knew his death well in advance (Topper, Wiedergeburt, 1988; 2 ° 2008, p 382). As predicted by himself he died on November 2, 1148 in the arms of his friend Bernard of Clairvaux while in his monastery. Moreover, he must have lived a holy life, for his canonization took place before 1190 by Clement III, after Bernard of Clairvaux (the preacher of a crusade) had written his biography (1149), in which he - strangely enough - did not say a word about the prophecy of the Holy Man. The Remembrance Day for Saint Malachy is one day later, on November 3.
For us today, the (fictional) life of Malachy, whose namesake was a more famous prophet of the Old Testament, is less important than his prophecy which is still cited even by atheists. The list of popes predicted by him is downright amazing, and stimulates at least one‘s imagination. Has the man really had a glimpse of the future or has the Church created self-fulfilling facts by always consulting the list at any papal election? Or is the whole thing a funny fraud, as there are a whole series in this illustrious House?

3. The list of popes

The seer has assigned a motto in two terms to any future pope by which he should be recognizable, but of course only after his election. Thus, a motto may relate to the person of the pope, his name, his coat of arms or place of origin, on his actions or his character. In many cases, to the astonishment of everybody the meaning is subsequently obvious.
The first freely elected pope, elected by a handful of cardinals and the citizens of Rome, as is said, was Celestine II. He is number 1 on the list and began his pontificate 1143, about four years after Malachy had set up the list; he ruled "regardless of the Emperor of the Empire" less than half a year. His motto was: "ex castro Tiber" (from the fortress on the Tiber) which is fitting, because he came from Città di Castello on the Tiber.
His successor had the motto "Inimicus expulsus", which means something like: dispelling the enemies. Pope Lucius II family name was: Caccianemici, Italian for "dispelling the enemies."
The third was "ex magnitude montis" (by the grandeur of the mountain); it was Eugene III (1145-50) who was born in Castillo de Grammont ("big mountain"), the first to be characterized by his birthplace.
By this way all popes are divined, and almost always there are clear correlations between motto and person.
The extraordinary status of celebrity that has been given to the prophecy in the last few decades is because the list is coming to an end. The next pope will be the last. Additionally to the motto quoted above a long phrase is given: "He grazes his sheep in the midst of many persecutions, and when those are over, the city of seven hills (Rome) will be destroyed and the judge before whom everyone trembles, will judge his people. End (of the text) ".
It remains controversial who might be addressed here: Humanity as a whole or the Christian people, which means the Church? Today, we tend to believe that the final judgment can not be meant, according the Holy Scriptures nobody can predict the Last Day, not even the Son of God (see a long list of corresponding statements in the NT, both in the Synoptic Gospels and the Acts and in the Epistles. The judgment of the whore in the Book of Revelation is not the final judgment; see Topper 1993). A condemnation of the Church by the highest of all judges is certainly not an edifying interpretation, but nevertheless it is proclaimed dogma.

At first it was not sure which pope should be allotted which number because anti-popes might be counted or dismissed from the list. However, after the publication of the list in1595, all previous popes had received their assignments; the last anti-pope resigned in 1449. The inclusion of anti-popes was probably necessary because of competition disputes at the time of the discovery of the list (1590). The order of sequence today is in any case out of doubt.
The last six entries fit extremely well the popes of our time, you may judge by yourself:

No. 107: "Pastor et nauta", i.e. Shepherd and navigator, traveler. This applies well to John XXIII, first pope who undertook long journeys in the world and who in his appearence resembled more a shepherd than his ascetic and most intellectual predecessor. So the coincidence of pope and motto was admitted unanimously. The following popes made no exception:
No. 108: "Flos florum" i.e. flower of flowers, Lily. Pope Paul VI was a very subtle man, pure like a flower; his family armour (that of the Montini) contains three lilies.
No. 109: "De medietate lunae", i.e. halfness of the moon. John Paul I reigned less than a month, like a crescent.
No. 110: "De labore solis", i.e. from the labour-pains of the sun. The sun may have been selected here in contrast to the previous motto "moon". It actually fits well to a successor who wore virtually the same name: John Paul II (Wojtyla). He came from the east, the land where the sun is born, and ruled powerful and long, as befits the sun in contrast to the waning moon.
No. 111: "Gloria olivae" means olive branch, a peacemaker, appropriate to retired pope Benedict XVI (Ratzinger), and all believers have indulged in this beautiful motto.
No. 112: "In p(er)secutione extrema" means, as already quoted: in extreme persecution.

One might construct from the long addendum to the current motto (as cited above) that a 113th pope might follow, who then would have to bear the name of Peter, as the (legendary) first Bishop of Rome, but most interpreters reject this because it would break the scheme of mottos. Real names are never mentioned in the list, so it makes up to 112 popes.

4. The source

It is not completely sure when the first publication of the list appeared. Usually the book of Onofre Panvinio of 1557 is considered as the oldest evidence: "Epitome Romanorum Pontificium". This is a collection of pope names up to no. 69 with a coat of arms and a motto allocated in each case. Panvinio (1529-68) was one of the best historians of his time, he used real documents such as coins and inscriptions as sources; he published more than 18 books and wrote many more in his short life of 39 years. In his "History of the Popes" he often gives the family coat of arms, a motto, and some speeches for each pope. He also reported who had chosen the respective pope. It has been discussed whether this papal history was the basic material for the creation of Malachy‘s list, or vice versa. It can be said that the 41 popes on Malachy’s list which Panvinio still couldn’t know, turn the list into a prophecy.
The so-called original text probably was written by the Dominican monk Alfonso Chacon (Giaconis) in 1590. The document now generally held to be the reference of the list is called "Lignum vitae et ornamentum decus Ecclesiae" (tree of life, jewelry, and ornament of the Church, Volume II) by Arnold of Wion in Belgium printed in 1595. Under the heading Dunenses in Hibernia (Down in Ireland), page 307 onwards, the well-known list of popes appears as the last entry under the letter D, where next to each motto up to no. 74 an explanation is added in Latin, and up to no. 77 also the respective official name of the pope.
Exactly 95 years later, 1690, there is a reprint of this book. The selection of these two dates gives rise to suspicion because in 1595 and 1690 respectively an Easter cycle of five times of 19 years ended as reflected in calendar stones and comments (see Ulrich Voigt).
We are now certain that a church man invented the prophecy and attributed it to some Saint Malachy of Ireland using a previously projected list of popes (probably that of Panvinio), stretching from 12th to 16th century. A curious question remains: How is it that at least since that time the hit rate is relatively high? Those critics who believe that the list was a fake, allege that the accuracy of the statements after 1590 was significantly lower than for the popes before that date. This should be expected if the prophecy is concocted. I cannot confirm this after examining the list. The opposite impression, namely that the younger mottos fit even better, is also maintained, for example by Igartua (see below). This would indicate that the description and order of individual popes who should have reigned before the 16th century, was in certain details modified after 1590 so that they no longer fit today's list; the later popes could not be tempered with as there exists too well known historical evidence.

The allocation of the popes to the mottos of Malachy may at first sight look doubtful, but its sequence is another reason for marvelling. The fact that a single motto might be true is within the range of chance, but that several dozen mottos consecutively fit in correct order is quite amazing. The mottos by no means are vague and misty, like in prophecies often is the case, even if criteria of selection are very broadly defined and remain open in each case. I think it possible that at papal elections the upcoming motto is taken into consideration.
Renaissance 16th century had no lack of prophets and doomsday preachers. Pedro Buenaventura temporarily had 20,000 followers and had to be fought by the Church. In contrast, the written prophecy of Malachy never had been banned nor censored though passed over in silence at some instances. However, famous Catholics have at all times commented this text, as well as opponents; I want to list some names:
In the 17th century: Cornelius A. Lapide in his famous commentary on the Apocalypse (1620); the Jesuit Heinrich Engel Grave (1610-70); Sartorius; Graff; Papebroeck, the famous Bollandist; Menestrier.
In the 18th century: Fabricius; Palatius; Tanner; Benito Feyjoo (1676-1764).
In the 19th century: the chronologist F. K. Ginzel; Ballerini; Adolf von Harnack, the famous Protestant theologian; Sommervogel; Ulysses Chevalier.
And in the 20th century: Hildebrand Troll (1961); the Englishman Thurston; Frenchman Vacandard (1926); Thibaut.
Part of this list I found in the scholarly work of the Jesuit and well-known writer Juan Manuel Igartua "El enigma de la profecia de San Malaquias sobre los Papas" (Barcelona 1976). He quotes a lot from a book by Joseph Maitre, "La prophétie des Papes attribuée à S. Malachie" (2 volumes, Beaune 1901 and 1902) who names 125 commentators. An opponent of the prophecy, Victor Dehin, has assembled some 400 books and articles on this prophecy. Instructive is also Victoriano Domingo, "Y dijo el Ángel: No habrá mas tiempo. Los vaticinios de San Malaquias" (Barcelona 1971) as well as Raoul Auclair, "La prophétie des Papes" (Paris 1969).

5. Calculations

How incredibly imaginative and meticulously certain calculations regarding the end of the world have been carried out by theologians is generally known. Our prophecy illustrates this excellently.
An important basis for all end-time predictions is the kingdom of one thousand years, for 1000 years are to God as one day (Psalm 90: 4), and vice versa (2 Peter 3: 8). In the Revelation of John (20: 2-7) the one thousand years kingdom is mentioned six times. The chronologists used this computational approach. The six days of creation correspond to 6000 years, which is the span of human history in this scheme. The first third of 2000 years lay between Adam and Abraham, another third between Abraham and Jesus, and the last third is our historical time from the Passion of Jesus (31 AD) to 2031 which in this count is the end. These ideas run through all theological writings from Augustine (De Civitate Dei 20, 7) and Jerome (letter to Cyprian, 8 - 418 AD) to Irenaeus and Origen (Contra Celsum) and up to the learned Moses of Gerona and the Rabbi Isaac. Even pagans as Hydaspes and Trismegistus and the Sibyls propagate this type of numerical values.
Another series of numbers runs like this: In the Book of Revelation, the Antichrist as prince of imperfection is assigned the number 666; Lamech, the father of Noah in Genesis, has an age of 777 years; to Jesus the numerical value 888 is applied (according to the value of the Greek letters of his name). The List of Malachy begins in 1143 and probably was planned to cover the time until the year 2031 (31 as death year of Jesus plus 2000) which makes exactly 888 years. The Center, 444 years after the beginning of the list, comes to 1587 and thus falls exactly in the middle of the reign of Pope Sixtus V. He is number 73 on the list and his motto is perfect: "Axis in medietate signi" , i.e. axis in the middle of the sign. This is also true for his coat of arms, which is bisected by a diagonal bar. Igartua (1976, II, VII) discovered this but he did not realize that the publication of the list occurred exactly when it was for the first time possible to fix the middle of the total time and of the reign of the pope, to wit: after his death in 1590. The list of Chacon is said to have appeared in 1590.
The partition of a line or series of numbers after the golden ratio is a common popular device in literature since Virgil: the total distance relates to the bigger part like this one to the rest. Now the golden ratio cuts the list at number 69, the last of the popes in Panvinio‘s list. His motto is "de fide Petri" (from the loyalty of Peter), whereby the name Peter is meant here not as papal name but as concept of the papacy. It is the only motto that contains the word Peter apart from the long explanation at the end of the list. The rest of the golden partition leads to no. 42, "Apostolica de cruce" (from the apostolic cross), and the golden ratio of the remainder takes us to no. 96, "peregrinus apostolicus" (Apostolic pilgrim, Pius VI in 1800), the only two mottos of the list containing the term apostolic. This is so striking that it must be intended. This demonstrates the list is consciously constructed and therefore not an inspired prophecy but rather a chronological work.
This seems evident: Pope no. 69 reigned when Panvinio published the list; Arnold‘s book had been released in the reign of Pope no. 73, the centre of the list. It seems that one wanted to install a pattern into the history of the popes. The time was appropriate, because the entire chronological scheme was still not fixed, the work nearing completion, so the intent to influence it with the help of this list was still promising. Soon after you would have had to include the popes before Malachy (that is before Celestine II) which at the time of Panvinio was neither possible nor desirable.
Cornelius Lapide (1620) who probably knew this developed a slightly different scheme according to the understanding of his time: He estimated the span of reign of the popes of Malachy‘s list up to his own moment by seven years per pope, and for the future by around 13 years, and so arrived at the year 2050 as end. Interestingly, this calculation of the time limits of reigns to the present day is true, which can only mean that the list of popes before 1590 was invented according to a different scheme than that for the future. The break in 1600 is to be regarded as the difference between "prophecy" and "history".

6. Result of this analysis

Scrutinizing the list of Malachy we have laid bare a method how a historical document was manufactured, and thereby gained insight into the operation technique. The 16th century is the central axis of the chronological operation. A mainly unreal history is established retro for more than four hundred years, linked for this purpose to an invented person like the church official Saint Malachy who will be crowned as saint leaving a prophecy. The text thereof does not appear anywhere until the moment when the urgent need to construct a possible symmetrical or otherwise numerically concise course of history arose. It was fulfilled by the creation of a "historic" past exemplified by a list of popes. The new list of popes is assigned to the invented person and continued into the future with a binding timeline overlooking 888 years, a sacred number. In order to keep the newly invented chronology open for possible future changes, the list is declared a non-binding "private revelation". So the Church can decide otherwise if needed. Although several scholars very soon had unmasked this concoction, the real deceptive intention was never exposed, namely the four hundred years "history" of the Church with popes and saints before 1590. On the contrary, many theologians and even opponents discussed the document and elements of it as pertaining to reality (popes in the 12th century!). Thus it became a historic document instead of a ridiculous anecdote. The actual debate in internet and other media over the prophecy shows once again how ecclesiastical history can be tailored from irrelevant designs.


Auclair, Raoul (1969): La prophétie des Papes (Paris)
Domingo, Victoriano (1971): Y dijo el Ángel: No habrá mas tiempo. Los vaticinios de San Malaquias (Barcelona)
Wion, Arnold de (1595): Lignum vitae et ornamentum decus Ecclesiae (Rome)
Igartua, Juan Manuel (1976): El enigma de la profecia de San Malaquias sobre los Papas (Barcelona)
Panvinio, Onofre (1557): Epitome Romanorum Pontificium (Rome)
Topper, Uwe (1988): Wiedergeburt. Das Wissen der Völker (Reinbek bei Hamburg)
(1993): Das letzte Buch. Die Bedeutung der Offenbarung des Johannes in unserer Zeit (München)
Voigt, Ulrich (2009): Zyklen und Perioden (Likanas, Hamburg)

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