Predictions of a ‘black pope’, and our demise, are greatly exaggerated

Jonathan deBurca Butler explores whether an Irish saint and Nostradamus really did predict the current pope

PERHAPS only sex, money, and in Ireland, property, fascinates the human mind more than doom. Prophecies resembling the one above have, through the centuries, been given credence by otherwise right-thinking people.

On the day Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became pope, social media sites such as Twitter were brimming with reminders and references to prophecies and predictions that this papacy would be Rome’s last. “Isn’t top Jesuit known as ‘the Black Pope’ and didn’t Nostradamus/Malachy predict that last pope will be ‘black’,” tweeted RTÉ broadcaster John Creedon, with, it should be said, his tongue firmly in his cheek.

George Hook went one better: “Most scholars would agree that the prediction about the black pope relates to him being the head of the Jesuits rather than his skin colour.”

‘Scholars’ if you don’t mind.

The head of the Jesuit order is known as the Black Pope. The name may have come from the black vestments Jesuits wear but other sources suggest it might be an old Protestant nickname which referred to the Jesuits’ alleged zeal. Whatever its origin, the fact remains that Pope Francis is not ‘the Black Pope’ as he is not the head of the Jesuit order.

Those predicting the end of the world would do better to keep their eye on 76-year-old Adolfo Nicolás Pachón of Spain, the current superior general of the Jesuit Order.

But let’s, for a second, back up the Pope Mobile. Whether the ‘black’ in ‘Black Pope’ refers to skin colour, nicknames or the colour of the pope’s underwear is irrelevant due to the pertinent fact that neither Nostradamus nor Malachy ever said anything about a black pope.

The non-prophecy seems to stem from an epistle to Henry II of France in which Nostradamus writes: “The great empire will be torn from limb, the all-powerful one for more than four-hundred years: Great power given to the dark one from slaves come.”

Does ‘dark one’ refer to skin colour? Does ‘great power’ even refer to the papacy? Nobody knows and for that reason that ‘prophecy’ has also been interpreted as referring to Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.

For his part, St Malachy says nothing about a ‘dark’ or ‘black’ pope, although he did make prophecies about popes. The Irish saint is said to have had a vision while on a visit to Rome in the early to mid-12th century. In his vision he foresaw the future history of the papacy. The Prophecy of the Popes was allegedly written down and then hidden until it miraculously made an appearance in 1590 and was published.

Somewhat strangely, the information relating to popes elected prior to 1590 is remarkably accurate, while that relating to those elected after 1590 is less so. If they are to be believed as genuine, some interpretations suggest that we are on Malachy’s pope 112 and therefore his last.

“Peter the Roman, will pasture his sheep in many tribulations, and when these things are finished, the city of the seven hills, will be destroyed and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The End.”

Some people have even grappled to link the new pope to the name Peter. The links have been tenuous if not somewhat pathetic. That the new pope chose to name himself after St Francis of Assisi, whose father happened to be named Peter, is hardly reason to go underground with tins of baked beans and your favourite TV box set.

For the most part it’s laughable if not always amusing. But when such craziness is taken as gospel — itself an amusing metaphor for truth — it becomes dangerous as seen in the King and Obama examples above.

This was something that the members of Monty Python lampooned in The Life of Brian from where our opening quote was taken. The scene involves a half-naked crazy-man talking to a willing crowd.

The seer, played by Terry Gilliam, ends his prophecy by telling an enraptured audience of about six, that “the whooooooore of Babylon will ride forth on a serpent”, before his speech is cut off by another orator who is twice as mad but better dressed. But a preacher is only as crazy as his audience.

Malachy and Nostradamus may well have been as mad as a bag of hammers, but to put words into their respective mouths is the greater madness.

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