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The Last Pope?

by Steve Elwart


People in the administrative arm of the Roman Catholic Church, called the Curia, say that pope benedict XVI is in poorer health than is publicly known.

That the Pope is in frail health is not surprising—the Bishop of Rome will be eighty-five years old this year. In fact, given his age and his work schedule, it is surprising that Benedict is still as active as he is. Yet, the Pope no longer meets individually with visiting bishops and he has started using a moving platform to keep him from having to walk the length of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Rumors are swirling among Vatican watchers that the Pope may even resign this spring when he turns 85. This, however, seems doubtful since all the rumors seem to stem from a single, unsourced, article in the Italian Daily, Libero. If Benedict does resign, he would be the first pope to willingly do so in 700 years.

The Papabili

Whether he resigns or not, the state of a pope’s health is always a subject of conversation among Vatican watchers and world leaders. The main topic of conversation is about who will be the next pope. These candidates are called “Papabili,”1 a Latin term which literally means, “popeable” or “one who might become pope.”

According to modern Catholic Church law, a pope is selected only from the College of Cardinals who meet in conclave2 to select the successor. A Papabile must be a cardinal, so the list of Papabili is fairly short, usually four or five men. Throughout modern Catholic Church history, the man who emerges from the conclave to lead the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide has sometimes been a surprise. Those that people may think will be pope many times are not elected. There is a saying in the Vatican, “He who enters the conclave as Pope, leaves it as a cardinal.” The present pope was thought to be a Papabile, but considered a long-shot since he was 78 years old when elected pope—the oldest man to be elected pope since Pope Clement XII (1730–40). John XXIII, John Paul I, and John Paul II were all elected pope, but not considered Papabili.

While there has been a great amount of speculation in modern times about who would be the next pope, many Catholics are watching closely the next conclave for they believe that whoever succeeds Pope Benedict XIV will be “The Last Pope.”

The Prophecy of St. Malachy

St. Malachy (Maelmhaedhoc Ó Morgair) lived in 12th century Ireland and was the Archbishop of Armagh, now a town of 14,000 in Northern Ireland. Attracted to the monastic life, Malachy established the first Cistercian abbey in Ireland in 1142. He also reformed the Irish Church and aligned it more closely with Rome.

What St. Malachy is more known for is the so-called Prophecy of the Popes, which is attributed to him. The prophecy is a list of 112 short phrases that supposedly describe each of the Roman Catholic popes beginning with Pope Celestine II (elected in 1143) and concluding with the successor of Benedict XVI.

This last pope is described in the prophecy as “Peter the Roman,” whose reign as pope will see the destruction of the city of Rome.

The prophecy did not hold much interest among Catholics up until the mid-20th century because it seemed as if it would be a long time before the world would see the election of “The Last Pope.”

The Succession of Recent Popes

Until the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-58), the average tenure of recent popes had been approximately 20 years. This changed in 1958 with the election of Angelo Roncalli who took the name John XXIII. Elected when he was 77 years old, John XXIII was considered a “caretaker pope” who would keep the papal throne warm until the College of Cardinals could decide on a longer serving pontiff. He served for four years, but put the Catholic Church on a new course by calling the Second Vatican Council.

Giovanni Montini was elected to replace John XXIII on his death and called himself Paul VI. His reign lasted 15 years. Albino Luciani followed and took the name John Paul I, combining the names of his predecessors. John Paul I’s reign lasted one month and his death was clouded in controversy.

John Paul I was succeeded by Karol Wojtyła, who took the name John Paul II. Fairly young in papal terms when he was elected (58 years old), his was the second-longest pontificate, lasting 26 years, 168 days; only Pope Pius IX (1846–1878), who served 31 years, reigned longer.

Interest in the Prophecy of the Popes increased as John Paul II’s health declined and Vatican watchers were shocked when Joseph Ratsinger, a cardinal of advanced age, was unexpectedly elected Pope Benedict XVI.

According to the Malachy Prophecy, whoever succeeded Benedict would be the Last Pope. (The Catholic Church discounts the Prophecy, saying that they have no connection with Malachy except their erroneous attribution to him.) The prophecies connected with the most recent popes are as follows:

• Pope #263 – John XXIII (1958-1963) — Pastor et Nauta (pastor and marine). Prior to his election he was patriarch of Venice, a marine city, home of the gondolas.

• Pope #264 – Paul VI (1963-1978) — Flos florum (flower of flowers). His papal coat of arms displayed three lilies.

• Pope #265 – John Paul I (1978) — De medietate Lunae (from the midst of the moon). Albino Luciani was born in Canale d’Ogardo, diocese of Belluno, (beautiful moon). Elected pope on August 26, his reign lasted about a month, from half-moon to half-moon.

• Pope #266 – John Paul II (1978-2005) — De labore Solis (of the eclipse of the sun). Karol Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920 during a solar eclipse. There was also solar eclipse on April 8, 2005, the day of his funeral.

• Pope #267 – Benedict XVI — Gloria olivae (The glory of the olives). It was originally thought that this pope would be from the Order of St. Benedict (the Benedictines were known also as the Olivetans.) Traditionally, the olive branch has been associated with peace, but in both the Old and New Testaments it also has been ascribed as an emblem for the Jews. Putting the two together, some commentators believed that the reign of this pope would be a peaceful one during which, according to the Catholic Church, the prophesied conversion of the Jews will take place. People who believe in the prophecy believe that the current pope, by taking the name Benedict, fulfilled the prophecy.

• Pope #268 – The Last Pope — In persecutione extrema S.R.E. sedebit Petrus Romanus, qui pascet oues in multis tribulationibus: quibus transactis ciuitas septicollis diruetur, & Iudex tremêdus iudicabit populum suum. Finis. (“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.”)

Proponents of the prophecy say that it is interesting that at least one pope had a similar mystical vision to the “Last Pope” part of the prophecy. During a papal audience in 1909, Pope Pius X claimed he had a vision of the pope leaving Rome, and in leaving the Vatican, he will have to “walk over the dead bodies of his priests.”

What Does the Bible Say?

While many may hold the Prophecy of Malachy to be true, there is a far more authoritative source to tell us what is coming in the end times. Revelation 4:1 introduces a section of Scripture that detail “things which must be hereafter.” What follows are prophecies of the end times. We have not yet reached the Tribulation, the revelation of the Antichrist, or other end-time events. What we do see is a preparation for those events.

Jesus said that the last days would be preceded by several things: many false Christs would come, deceiving many; we would “hear of wars and rumors of wars”; and, there would be an increase in “famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in diverse places. All these are the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:5–8).

Today’s news is full of false religions, warfare, and natural disasters. We know that events of the tribulation period will include all that Jesus predicted (Revelation 6:1–8); the events of today are only a prelude for greater trials ahead. Paul warned that the last days would bring a marked increase in false teaching. “In later times, some will abandon the faith, and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). The last days are described as “perilous times” because of the increasingly evil character of man and people who actively “oppose the truth” (2 Timothy 3:1–9 and 2 Thessalonians 2:3).

What is important is how we live our lives in preparation for Christ’s return. What witness are we giving to the world to help non-believers accept the saving grace of Jesus Christ?

How Then Shall We Live?

The return of Christ is always presented in Scripture as a great motivation to action, not as a reason to cease from action. In 1 Corinthians 15:58, Paul sums up his teaching of the rapture by saying, “Be steadfast, unmovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord...” (ISV) In 1 Thessalonians 5:6, Paul concludes a lesson on Christ’s coming with these words: “Therefore, let’s not fall asleep like others do, but let’s stay awake and be sober.” (ISV)

The apostles understood that Jesus’ imminent return meant they must busy themselves with God’s work. They lived life to the fullest, as if every day were their last.

We, too, should view every day as a gift and use it to glorify God.


Notes:

1.    In the Latin, Papabile is singular, Papabili is plural.
2.  The conclave has been choosing the pope for almost 1,000 years and is now the oldest ongoing method for choosing the leader of an institution.

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