Archive for February 11th, 2013

St. Malachy and Apocalypses

I suspect over the next few weeks we’ll hear a lot about the Prophecy of the Popes. Per legend, St. Malachy prophesied a list of all future popes until the end of the world. It’s going to get a lot of play because, per the list, Benedict XVI is the second to last Pope. The next Pope is Petrus Romanus, Peter the Roman, who will “nourish the sheep in many tribulations,” and at the end of his papacy, “the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The end.”

Alright, the prophecy of St. Malachy is likely complete bunk. There are no written references to it until 1590, 450 years after Malachy’s death. But even with the authorship of Malachy highly dubious, the list did still reach well beyond the 16th century and there’s been a cottage industry in trying to morph later popes to fit the pithy two to three word descriptions given. John Paul II was “the labor of the sun” because he was born the day of a solar eclipse. Paul VI was the “flower of flowers” because his coat of arms features the Fleur-de-lys.

This is the power of vague prophecy. So long as enough people want to believe that past humans could predict our present (which is fun to believe, because it infers present humans can predict the future), there will be those willing to twist and turn a few vague words into grandly important statements. Most of the lines in the Prophecy of the Popes are two to three words long, and, with the exception of that last bit about Petrus Romanus, mention no one by name. The mental gymnastics required to fulfill some of the prophecies are fantastic. For example, the 100th pope in the prophecy is “From the baths of Tuscany” (when I say one or two words I mean in the original Latin). This is the Wikipedia explanation of why Gregory XVI fits: “Pope Gregory XVI belonged to the Camaldolese Order, which is said to have begun with two monastic houses. The first of these houses was Campus Maldoli, and the second was Fonte Buono, meaning ‘good fountain’ in Italian.” Nothing tying him to Tuscany, save that Tuscany speaks Italian.

I don’t need to tell you how prophecy works, how vagueness is a feature and not a bug, and that’s ultimately not what this post is about.

So let’s say you’re a member of the College of Cardinals. And, for whatever reason, you believe the Prophecy of the Popes. What do you do? It’s an unusual position in the best of times, to be one of the handful of individuals on the planet given a vote to elect a man who will have such a wide impact on the world, for better or worse. But to be in a position where you think you’re electing the last pope. Ever. The one who will be seated when, based on your interpretation, the church, the city of Rome, or perhaps the entire planet is destroyed. Given the ages of many Cardinals, each election they approach is likely the election of the last pope for the individual, but for the world as a whole?

What do you do?

It’s questions like these that fascinate me about apocalyptic literature, whether prophecy or fiction. According to Wikipedia’s List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events, and article I enjoy enough to justify two Wikipedia references in one blog post, I have survived the apocalypse 68 times since I was born. Heck, I’ve survived Harold Camping predictions of the Rapture alone no less than six times. What draws people into the belief that they are living in the end times, and how do they react to that. And, assuming this reaction isn’t a tragic mass suicide like Heaven’s Gate, what happens when the date of the apocalypse comes and goes?

I have, in the back of my head, the concept for a story where an entire society, perhaps an entire planet, counts years down rather than up. I don’t know where the story goes, but I know it’s set in the last few weeks of that countdown. What is that atmosphere? Is it the same atmosphere as a movie like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World where there’s a very concrete apocalypse incoming versus a vague sense of dread?

Apocalypses, man. Am I right?

There’s a broader theme behind the apocalypse in literature. It’s the ultimate mortality. It scales up all of our fears about death and spreads them out over an entire population. From a purely logical perspective, there are few differences between ones own death and a global apocalyptic catastrophe. Either way, one moment you’re alive, the next moment you’re dead. But that’s not quite right. There’s something so much more horrifying about the notion that you’re not the only victim. There’s no one carrying on, keeping things going, no next generation. It just…all ends. And that’s tough to wrap the brain around. Yet it’s been a concept haunting humanity. If one person could die, if one city could die, could everything die? It’s not worth stressing out over on a day-to-day basis, down that way lies madness, but it does turn into a powerful narrative tool.

So be on the watch for Peter the Roman to ascend, though I suspect there will be any number of “reasons” why the next Pope should be considered such. Watch the skies for asteroids. And be careful of any impending raptures.

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