Rumours, innuendo and lies have plagued many Papal elections since St Peter was first handed the keys to the Kingdom, however modern technology has ensured that Pope Francis arrived on the scene with far more intrigue than most.
Many readers will have heard of the alleged prophecies of 12th Century Irish Archbishop St Malachi, who is purported to have, in a vision, been privy to a series of short, cryptic Latin phrases representing the next 112 Popes.
According to St Malachi’s “prophecies”, Benedict XVI was the 111th and now Pope Francis will conclude the list.
The Irish Saint’s prediction for our current leader is a grim one, “In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit Peter the Roman, who will pasture his sheep in many tribulations, and when these things are finished, the city of seven hills (Rome) will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The End”.
It’s not the most encouraging welcoming note one could receive as they take on the responsibility of over one billion Catholics, but fortunately our new Pope will give no credence to the well-publicised predictions.
he Church has already done her homework and concluded long ago that the “prophecies” are a 16th century forgery.
The list was first published in 1595 by a Benedictine, Arnold Wion, claiming that St Malachi’s “vision” had been recorded in 1139 and then disappeared into Vatican secret archives, before re-emerging in 1590.
A number of Church historians have since agreed the high level of accuracy before the 1595 publication compared to the high level of vagueness and inaccuracy after it, is evidence the list was created around the end of the 16th century.
Pope Francis, therefore, despite any other concerns he may have, can at least go to sleep at nights without being haunted by thoughts of end times for the Church.
He may, however, not want to completely dismiss the 16th century fabrication, especially in context of far more recent predictions concerning the Church.
On Christmas Day in 1969, a little known German theologian outlined his own assessment on the future of the Catholic Church during a radio broadcast.
Mankind was at a turning point in history, he said, and the Church was fighting against a force which intended to annihilate it definitively. The theologian’s name was Joseph Ratzinger.
He predicted that the Body of Christ on earth would be undermined by the temptation to reduce priests to social workers and the Church’s work to a mere political presence.
During his speech, which came shortly after the socially and morally revolutionary tumult of 1968, while the ramifications of Vatican II were emerging and secular influences were fervently desiring to “liberate” themselves from the “shackles” of religious and social institutions, Ratzinger said, “From today’s crisis will emerge a Church that will have lost a great deal”.
Structures that had been built in times of prosperity would be lost and numbers would decrease, he stated; he Church would “pretty much have to start all over again”.
Ratzinger, however, then suggested “when all the suffering is past, a great power will emerge from a more spiritual and simple Church”.
He believed there would be small groups and movements arising and a minority who would make faith central to experience.
“It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute”, he said.
So perhaps when the late 16th century “prophecy” was being fabricated, the Holy Spirit was already, unsuspected by the forger or forgers, at work.
Perhaps the Church, as we know it now, will come to an end and we will be given the opportunity to start over.
Our new Pope has taken the name of Francis, symbolic perhaps of the great 13th century saint who was called by God to “rebuild My church”.
Pope Francis, himself, has been described as a man of simplicity, with a heart for the most vulnerable.
He may not have taken the name “Peter”, as predicted by the 16th century list-makers, but perhaps he will bring with him something akin to the simple, humble and pure spirit of our very first Pope.
A young Joseph Ratzinger predicted over 40 years ago that Catholics remaining faithful to the Church during turbulent times would become beacons of hope for those who have ignored or abandoned Her.
He predicted that those who had lost their way would see the “small flock of faithful as something completely new… as a source of hope for themselves, the answer they had always secretly been searching for.”
These words would have resonated in the hearts of both St Peter and St Francis of Assisi and perhaps too, they will echo throughout the reign of our newly elected Shepherd.