Papal changeover revives debate on end times prophecies

(Photo: Ossevatore Romano handout)Pope Francis embraces Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo Saturday, March 23, 2013.

The retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the rise of Francis I to the papacy have prompted debate over their roles in end times prophecies.

Especially at the forefront are prophecies made by St. Malachy , an Irish archbishop and saint.

Since Benedict, the 111th pope, announced his resignation in February, there has been widespread discussion of Malachy's predictions by theologians.

His prophecies have also been a popular topic in the media and on Internet forums.

Malachy is said to have had a vision of 112 popes, beginning with Celestine II, while visiting Rome in 1139. His prophecies purportedly lay dormant in the Vatican archives until they were published by Benedictine monk Arnold Wion in 1595.

The 400 year gap between Malachy's vision and the publishing of his prophecies have led some to believe that the monk's account is a forgery.

Scholars who have studied Malachy's prophecies have been able to tie his descriptions of each pope on his list to the real men.

For example, Malachy wrote that the first pope in his vision would be born next to the Tiber River, which indeed was a true of Celestine II.

The pope who became Benedict XVI was said by Malachy to be the "glory of the olives." When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became pope, he chose the name of the founder of the Benedictine Order, a group known as Olivetans.

When referring to the final pope in his list, Malachy wrote, "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."

This description is thought by some eschatologists to be of a pope who will be present during the events surrounding the return of Jesus Christ.

These events include what is called The Great Tribulation and a final battle known as Armageddon.

Many theologians believe that Jesus Christ will come during the Battle of Armageddon. This final struggle between the forces of good and evil is mentioned in the Bible in the Revelation to John.

Jack Van Impe, an evangelical theologian who hosts a weekly U.S. television show on biblical prophecy said that Malachy's prediction could signal the advent of Armageddon.

"If the Catholic prophecy is right, and it's not my prophecy, we are right at that hour", he said.

Hal Lindsey, an evangelical author who has published numerous books and other media related to end times prophecies, said that Malachy's prophecies had been remarkably accurate up until the election of the Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new Pope.

However, Lindsey said that St. Malachy stumbled on his prediction concerning Francis.

"First, he wasn't from Rome as predicted," he said. "He wasn't even from Italy. And he didn't call himself Peter. He called himself Francis."

Lindsey notes that Malachy's predictions are "extra biblical", and thus not necessarily true.

Even so, Lindsey said he finds Malachy's prophecies interesting when combined with what he believes to be biblical signs of the end times present today.

The prophecies of Malachy are not official Catholic doctrine and the debate over them is not new.

Historically, a least two notable Catholics have given credence to Malachy's prophecies. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a contemporary of Malachy, respected him as a clairvoyant.

In the 20th century, Pope Pius X was convinced that Malachy's predictions were divine, his biographer, Rafael Merry del Val, wrote.

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