One of the stories getting some media attention due to the death of John Paul II is the prediction of popes by St. Malachy, an Irish saint who was born in the year 1094.
According to the popular interpretation of Malachy’s prophecy, there are only two popes to follow John Paul II before the end of the world. This is an intriguing story that I first heard of about ten years ago, and I have done some reading on Malachy and his prophecies in the interim.
First of all, Malachy was a mystic who made several prophecies, some of them concerning his native Ireland. According to one prophecy, Malachy foresaw the struggles between Great Britain and Ireland and predicted that the tribulations between Protestants and Catholics would last for “a week of centuries.” This phrase is commonly interpreted to mean 700 years.
What is known today as “The Troubles” in Ireland can be traced to the mid-1500s, when Queen Elizabeth I put down the rebellions of Irish Catholic chieftains following the establishment of the Church of England. If Malachy’s prophecy is correct, that means there are over 200 more years of strife between the two faiths before religious peace is restored to Ireland. At that time, the prophecy predicts a harmonious reconciliation between the faiths. We can only hope and pray that part is true.
Obviously, it will take more than two popes to shepherd the Roman Catholic Church for 200 years. So what are we to make of St. Malachy’s prophecy regarding the succession of popes?
The Catholic Encyclopedia points out that “Peter the Roman” is prophesied to be the last pope, but the prophecy does not state that the “The Glory of the Olive” pope, supposedly in line to follow John Paul II, will directly precede the last pope. Prior to Peter the Roman, there is a possible gap in which the next pontiff may be succeeded by any number of popes that were not specifically named by Malachy.
“By their fruits, you shall know them” is a biblical guideline for judging the authenticity of prophecies. Religious strife has flared for over five centuries between Irish Protestants and Catholics; so far, Malachy has been correct on that prophecy. In the 110 popes to follow Malachy’s time, his lyrical predictions have been remarkably applicable to each pope.
To cite the three most recent examples, Paul VI was called “Flower of Flowers,” and his coat of arms included three iris blossoms. John Paul I was predicted in stunning detail. Known as “Of the Half Moon” in Malachy’s prophecy, the first John Paul was baptized Albino Luciani, or “white light.” He was born in the diocese of Belluno, meaning “beautiful moon,” and became pope when the moon was exactly half full. John Paul II was identified as “From the Toil of the Sun.” He was born during a solar eclipse, and his native land, Poland, is to the east of Rome, where the sun begins its travels around the globe. John Paul II was by far the most widely traveled pope in history, traversing the world many times in his “toils.”
No one knows when the last day will come. We have Our Lord’s word on that (Matt 24:36). So whether the last day arrives after two more popes, or after 200 more years of religious strife in Northern Ireland, the best we followers of Christ can do is to live each day as well and fully as our grace allows. In this way, we follow the Master's directive not to be concerned about the future. As Our Lord so wisely noted, each day has trouble enough without borrowing from unknown tomorrows.