Here’s the piece published on National Review Online today…expanded a bit.

In the year 1140 an Irish bishop named Malachy visited Rome with a group of monks. They climbed the Janiculum Hill to thank God for the safe completion of their journey. While there (as the story goes) Malachy had a vision in which he “saw” 111 popes to the end of time.  Each pope was chronicled with by a short, cryptic epigram in Latin. What makes this ancient tale interesting is that with the retirement of Benedict XVI the last pope on Malachy’s list is about to be elected.

This where it gets interesting, because the Irish seer was given a prophecy that the last pope on his list was also the last pope before the return of Christ. His prophecy for the last pope was longer than the others and contained an alarming vision: it reads:

During the last persecution of the Holy Roman church there shall sit Peter of Rome, who shall feed the sheep amidst the many great tribulations, and when these have passed, the City of the Seven Hills shall be utterly destroyed and the awful Judge will judge the people.”

Conspiracy theorists and Nostradamus nuts love poring over the prophecies of St Malachy straining to make sense of Malachy’s cryptic messages. Wide eyes and gasps of wonder have been emitted when the name of Ghanaian Cardinal Turkson’s name as mentioned as a front runner. His name’s Peter!! And he studied in Rome!!! In Ghana they call him “Peter of Rome”!!!

But Odilio of Argentina might get elected. That wouldn’t stop those who want a good conspiracy theory. Whatever pope is elected you can be sure they will find some sort of link to the name Peter. His middle name will be Peter or he will have been called Rocky in high school or maybe once he watched the movie Rocky, or they’ll simply say, “Every pope is, in effect, “Peter of Rome” it was meant symbolically.”

This rather elastic approach is what they did with the epigrams for each pope. John Paul II’s epigram was “the labor of the sun” so they dug around until they discovered he was born on a the day of an eclipse and they found a medieval poem (but never published the reference) that referred to an eclipse as “the labor of the sun”. Or, the epigram for  Benedict XVI was the rather obscure phrase, “the glory of the olive”. Vatican wags had often joked before the election that this meant Cardinal Martini would be elected because what could me more glorious for an olive than a dry martini? After Benedict’s election the prophecy hounds pointed out that there is a famous Benedictine monastery called Monte Oliveto, and the Benedictine crest has an olive branch in it (but they don’t actually show a picture of that crest) Anyway, the connection is in the name he chose. St Benedict is the glory of Monte Oliveto and the Benedictines who love olive branches. It’s totally clear right?

So Benedict XVI was second to last on the list and now the final pope. Peter the Roman, is about to be elected. It’s all very exciting to think that the second coming and the end of the world is nigh! Just when we were all so disappointed when the Mayan calendar end of the world thing fizzled out…

But hold on a minute. We might have to interrupt this program with something called facts.

The problems are manifold. First of all, the prognosticators behave like all conspiracy theorists and prophecy lovers: Begin with the theory or prophecy and make the facts fit. Kind of like Cinderella’s ugly sister trying on that glass slipper.

The second problem is something called evidence. Although St Malachy was a historic figure from the twelfth century there is no mention of his prophecies before 1590, and surprise! surprise! the prophetic mottos for the popes are quite accurate for the period between 1150 up to the late 1500s. Then they become obscure and inaccurate. Kind of fishy. Maybe like the whole thing was written about 1590 or so when the prophecies were purportedly discovered? And then there is the problem that Malachy’s original document is not extant. It sort of disappeared–like those Mormon golden tablets written in ancient Egyptian that Joseph Smith had to read with special spectacles which also mysteriously disappeared.

In addition, the seer Nostradamus lived in the late 1500s, and there was a fashionable fascination at that time for prophecies expressed in cryptic language. Scholars have judged the prophecies of the 12th century St Malachy to be a rather poor sixteenth century forgery–probably produced to influence a papal election at the time.

So you can probably sleep peacefully tonight. The end of the world is probably not nigh.

On the other hand…why not prepare your soul just to be on the safe side!