THE apocalyptics are going apoplectic once again, this time thanks to the Irish saint Malachy, whose famous prophecies denote Pope Benedict XVI's successor as being the last Pope and the one who will preside during the final day of judgment.
Malachy's 112 short Latin paragraphs predict a list of future Popes from his lifetime in the 12th Century, right up to the very last incumbent.
Benedict's successor is described thus: "In the persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will reign Peter the Roman, who will feed his flock among many tribulations after which the seven-hilled city will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will Judge the People. The End."
Dramatic stuff for sure, particularly given that a "Peter" – Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana – is deemed to be among the front-runners for succession (Paddy Power has him as 9/4 favourite).
To make matters even more complicated, Malachy's prophecy is regularly blended with another prediction widely attributed to Nostradamus (though without much evidence) that the last Pope will also be black.
Malachy's prophecy is alleged to have been written down during a visit to Rome in 1139. Innocent II is said to have filed it in the Vatican's vast archives, where it remained until being "rediscovered" in the 1590s.
However, Catholic Church sources and historians have since stated that the Malachy prophecy was probably forged around this time – during a particularly turbulent succession battle for the papacy. It is thought that the document was "rediscovered" in order to promote the fortunes of one contemporary potential papal candidate by appearing to "prophesise him" into the job.
Even so, the forgeries have had some eerie resonances. Pope John Paul II, born during a solar eclipse, is dubbed: "From the Labour of the Sun", while his predecessor, John Paul I, who reigned for a month over one half-moon cycle, is described: "From the midst of the moon."
But when Cardinal Ratzinger looked likely to become Pope, Malachy sceptics pointed out that the favourite wasn't a Benedictine. The paragraph allotted for his papacy had stated: "From the Glory of the Olive" – interpreted as denoting the olive symbol of the Benedictine Order, and thus a Benedictine Pope.
And then Cardinal Ratzinger announced he would be taking the name Benedict for his papacy.