From Karl Keating’s E-Letter, an email sent to readers/subscribers of Catholic Answers
KARL KEATING’S E-LETTER
May 31, 2005
DID ST. MALACHY PREDICT BENEDICT XVI?
Dear Friend of Catholic Answers:
Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Justin Martyr, commonly considered the first
apologist for Christianity.
He was born of pagan parents around the year 100, studied philosophy, and
eventually converted to Christianity. He taught in several cities, including Rome,
where Tatian, another apologist, was his pupil. Justin was denounced to the
authorities and was beheaded in 165. His major works are the "Apology" and the
"Dialogue with Trypho the Jew."
Justin Martyr is one of the patrons of apologists, and his name is mentioned
regularly at our Masses here at Catholic Answers.
ST. MALACHY’S PROPHECY
During the interregnum following the death of a pope we see a flurry of
interest in the prophecy of St. Malachy. The interest seems to grow each time a pope
passes from the scene because, according to some interpretations of the
prophecy, the line of popes is about to end.
Since the Church will last until the end of time, and since Christ will not
suffer his Church to be leaderless, the implication is that the ending of the
papal line coincides with the Last Days.
Deal Hudson, the former publisher of "Crisis" magazine, titled the April 28
edition of his e-letter "St. Malachy Predicts the Election of Benedict XVI." Did
Malachy’s prophecy purportedly lists all of the popes from his time until the
end of the world. Each pope is listed not by name but by a few Latin words that
indicate a personal attribute, a symbol of his place of origin or of his
family, or some other detail from his life. According to the list, Benedict XVI is
the penultimate pope–or maybe not.
The confusion arises from the way the last pope on the list is described: "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."
What is unclear is whether Peter the Roman is supposed to reign immediately
after the next-to-last-listed pope or at some indeterminate later time, with any
number of popes serving between our present Pontiff and Peter the Roman.
But set all that aside. Consider the prophecy as a whole. Although Malachy
lived in the twelfth century, the prophecy attributed to him was unknown until the
sixteenth century, when it was "discovered" in a Vatican archive, where it
supposedly had lain forgotten for four centuries. One problem is that none of
Malachy’s biographers make any reference at all to the prophecy. In fact, there is
no mention of it by anyone prior to its "discovery."
A bigger problem is the aptness of the papal descriptions. Those popes who
reigned between Malachy’s time and 1590 are described with great accuracy. After
1590, the descriptions become obscure. In many cases devotees of the prophecy
have been unable to explain how a particular description could refer to the pope
to which it corresponds. Many post-1590 descriptions simply make no sense.
Catholic scholars, following the lead of a Jesuit researcher of the seventeenth
century, say that the prophecy of St. Malachy did not originate with the saint
at all but is a forgery worked up to influence the conclave that elected
Gregory XIV. It would have been easy for a forger to make up descriptions of popes
who lived before his time, but he would have had to rely on creative obscurity to
describe popes of succeeding centuries.
Some modern-day Catholics put great stock in the prophecy regardless, based on
what they see as eerily accurate descriptions of the last few popes. Here is
how Hudson put it:
"The prophecy for Paul VI ‘Flos Florum’ (‘flower of flowers’) and his coat of
arms contained three fleurs-de-lis (Isis blooms). The description of John Paul I
was ‘De Medietate Lunae’ (‘the half moon’). He was baptized Albino Luciani
(‘white light’), was born in the diocese of Belluno (‘beautiful moon’), became pope
when there was a half moon (Aug. 26, 1978), and died after an eclipse of the
moon. John Paul II was prophesied under the title ‘De Labore Solis" (‘from the
labor of the sun’), and indeed he was born during an eclipse of the sun on May
There is less here than meets the eye. When we say that someone was born during
an eclipse of the sun, what do we mean? I think everyone would say that if you
were present at the birth, you could have stepped outside and noticed the
eclipse. The eclipse would have been visible from the place where the birth
But this is not what happened at the birth of Karol Wojtyla. Yes, there was an
eclipse of the sun on May 18, 1920, but it was visible only from a small
portion of the southern hemisphere. No one in Poland could have witnessed it. See
Astronomically, a bit more can be said about John Paul I, who "became pope when
there was a half moon." Indeed there was a "half moon," but not on the date of
his election. He was elected on August 26, and the "half moon" occurred on
August 25. See http://aa.usno.navy.mil/cgi-bin/aa_moonphases.pl?year=1978&ZZZ=END
Maybe what was meant was that the conclave occurred during a "half moon." Okay,
let’s grant that, but then let’s also grant that this would not have been a
distinctive event. Although I have not bothered to look up each one, it must be
the case that many conclaves have witnessed a "half moon," what astronomers
actually call a "quarter moon." (The moon’s phases are called "new moon," "first
quarter," "full moon," and "last quarter.")
Each month there are two "half moons": the first and last quarters. You can do
the arithmetic yourself, but it turns out that an average-length conclave has
about a one-in-three chance of seeing a "half moon."
Another thing about John Paul I. Hudson said he "died after an eclipse of the
moon." This pope died on September 28, 1978. An eclipse of the moon occurred
twelve days earlier. Lunar eclipses are not rare: They usually occur between two
and four times a year. See
One always can say that a pope died "after an eclipse of the moon." Everyone
who ever has died has died "after an eclipse of the moon"–sometimes as long as
half a year after, but after nevertheless. When we use "after an eclipse of the
moon" as a clue to the identity of someone, surely we mean "immediately after."
That was not the case with John Paul I.
Now let’s turn to the current pope. The description that corresponds to
Benedict XVI is "Gloria Olivae," "the glory of the olive."
"Guess what?" asked Hudson. "The Order of St. Benedict had a branch called the
Olivetans," and the name chosen by our current pontiff is, of course, Benedict.
What does this prove? Not much, I’d day. First of all, the descriptions in St.
Malachy’s prophecy are supposed to concern pre-election facts about the popes.
In theory, one could determine the identify of the next pope by considering the
description that corresponds to him.
But this would have been impossible with respect to our newest pope. Joseph
Ratzinger never was a Benedictine and never was connected with the Olivetan
Benedictines. "The glory of the olive" would not have led anyone to suspect that it
described him (unless, perhaps, the cardinal was fond of martinis, but I have
seen no evidence of that).
Hudson says that "the uncanny accuracy of St. Malachy’s last four predictions
has fueled another round of apocalyptic curiosity." I would not dispute the fact
that there has been plenty of curiosity, but I would deny that there is
"uncanny accuracy" in the descriptions of the last four popes.
As I noted, the one that corresponds to John Paul II ("of the labor of the
sun") is interpreted to mean that he was elected under an eclipse–which he was
not. And the one that corresponds to Benedict XVI suggests his pre-existing
connection with the Benedictine order, and he had no such connection.
(In fact, until the last conclave, believers in the prophecy said that the pope
described as "the glory of the olive" would be a Benedictine monk. That’s how
sure–and how wrong–they were.)
What should we make of the prophecy of St. Malachy? I think we should come to
the same conclusion reached by that seventeenth-century Jesuit scholar and by
scholars since: The prophecy is not from St. Malachy and does not give us real
information about the popes of the last four centuries and certainly not about
the popes of our own time or of the future.
Until next time,
If you are a devotee of the prophecy of St. Malachy and feel the need to tell
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