Someone asked if I would address the “Prophecy of St. Malachy,” and Monday’s eerie lightening strike on St. Peter’s Basilica shortly after Benedict’s resignation announcement. As I am limited on time, I will only sketch out a reply here.
I really got into this Malachy-thing in the late 1980s when someone I knew, who was big-time into end of world prophecies, scared the tar out of me one night by telling me the Malachy story with great dramatic flair.
In brief, St Malachy was a 12th century Irish bishop who, it is said, received a series of visions about the future of the papacy while in Rome where he was to receive his palliums from Pope Innocent II. I say, “it is said,” because this Malachy visionary story did not come to light for 400 years after his death. Always a suspicious sign, especially since Malachy’s illustrious biographer, Vatican insider St Bernard of Clairvaux, never mentioned this important detail.
In the late 16th century, a Benedictine monk named Arnold de Wyon claimed to have re-discovered this “lost” document in the Vatican archives and published what he said were Malachy’s 112 short, cryptic Latin phrases that describe each pope from Pope Celestine II (d 1144) on. And, by Wyon’s counting, B16 is #111.
The Catholic tradition has had is share of apocalyptic thinkers, especially since the Cistercian monk, Joachim of Fiore (who, btw, lived around the time of St. Malachy), offered a wildly apocalyptic and highly influential visionary picture of the Church’s “future.” Fiore’s work led to an explosion of failed apocalyptic predictions over the next 4 centuries, tied especially to the Franciscan order and the papacy. If you are interested in reading about this, which would help set the context for understanding Wyon’s approach to the Malachy prophecies, Bernard McGinn’s “Introduction” in his book on medieval apocalypticism is really good.
So what do I think of the Malachy prophecies? Well, like McGinn, I think they are a terrific study in the ways medieval apocalyptic literature was used by monastic communities to help effect reform in the Church; not as intentional deception, but, as with the Book of Revelation itself, as a literary strategy for communicating the real gravity of the Church’s mission to carry out in itself Christ’s spectacularly dramatic triumph over evil. Though the “end” will come one day, and Christ will judge all of history and all humanity, the Church has always been loathe to deal with codes and dates. Thank God.
As for the details of the prophecy, I would concur with Marcellino D’Ambrosio’s brief and critical analysis, found here.
As for the lightning strike? Well, as with the story of the violent thunderstorm accompanying the proclamation of the Dogma of Papal Infallibility by Pope Pius IX in 1870, it can be interpreted, if we can think like the ancients and read God’s voice through nature’s power, as a dramatic punctuation on the gravity of the matter at hand. Just think of the fact that in the book of Exodus the Law was given to Moses in the midst of a violent thunderstorm in the Sinai desert, serving as a sacrament of awe for those who were present.
The gospel according to Neal
So that’s my off handed take, for what it’s worth. Or, I could be wrong and the next pope could be Peter the Roman, last of the pontiffs, herald of time’s demise and forerunner of Christ’s dread judgment.
In the mean time, I will take the advice of desert father Abba Poeman. A disciple once questioned him, “Abba, what would you do if you knew that Christ was to return in glory this day?” Abba Poeman replied, “I would rise at the usual time and pray the psalms. Then I would share some bread with my brothers, tend to my garden and again return to pray until the noon hour…”
In other words, live faithfully every moment as if Christ were coming in glory, in the awe of lightning. The Vicar of Christ is daily God’s sacramental call for us to repent before the dread judgment.