Glad You Asked: What is the prophecy of St. Malachy?

On this episode of the podcast, Joëlle Rollo-Koster talks about the origins and historical context of this prophecy, and whether it’s something that Catholics should take seriously.

A thousand or so years ago, there lived an Irish archbishop named Malachy. And this archbishop supposedly had a series of visions about popes—past, present and future. According to the revelations in these visions, recorded in a document that was supposedly discovered around 1590, there would be only 112 popes between Malachy’s time and the day of the final judgment. Today, some people think that the prophecy refers to our times, and that Pope Francis is that 112th pope, cryptically designated in the prophecy as “Peter the Roman.”

But who was St. Malachy? Did he really have these visions and really record these prophecies? And why are some so fixated on the idea that Malachy’s prophecy, also known as the “Prophecy of the Popes,” refers to Pope Francis? 

On this episode of the podcast, guest Joëlle Rollo-Koster talks about the origins and historical context of this prophecy, and whether it’s something that Catholics should take seriously. Rollo-Koster is professor of Medieval history at the University of Rhode Island, College of Arts and Sciences. She received her undergraduate degree and master’s degree in history from the University of Nice, in France, and later earned her PhD at SUNY Binghamton. She has done extensive scholarly research on the papal city of Avignon.

You can learn more about this topic, and read some of Rollo-Koster’s writing, in these links.

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Rebecca: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic

Emily: And I’m Emily Sanna, managing editor at U.S. Catholic. On today’s episode, we’re going to discuss a Medieval prophecy that has gotten a lot of attention in recent years.

Rebecca: A thousand or so years ago, an Irish archbishop named Malachy supposedly had a series of visions about popes—past, present and future.

Emily: And in these visions, he supposedly received revelations about how there would be only 112 popes between his time and the day of the final judgment. Today, some people think that the prophecy refers to our times, and that Pope Francis is that 112th pope.

Rebecca: But who was St. Malachy? Did he really have these visions, and really record these prophecies? Is this something that Catholics should take seriously? And why are some so fixated on the idea that this prophecy is specifically about Pope Francis? 

Emily: Our guest on this episode, Joëlle Rollo-Koster, is going to help us figure out the origins, context, and significance of this controversial prophecy, whether it’s something the church takes seriously, and why so many Catholics have recently decided to take an interest in it. 

Rebecca: Rollo-Koster is professor of Medieval history at the University of Rhode Island, College of Arts and Sciences. She received her undergraduate degree and master’s degree in history from the University of Nice, in France, and later earned her PhD at SUNY Binghamton.

She has done extensive scholarly research on the papal city of Avignon.

Emily: Joelle, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast.

Joëlle Rollo-Koster: Well, thank you for inviting me. This is fun.

Rebecca: So can you start by telling us who Saint Malachy was and what we actually know about him from history?

Joëlle: Sure. Do I detect an Irish accent in you?

Rebecca: I don’t think so.

Joëlle: No? Because we are in Ireland! So when we discuss Saint Malachy, we need to differentiate between the existing person and his writings and then what was done with him in later periods. So what do we know? 

I am an historian, so I can only tell you what history knows about him. We know somewhat a lot about Malachy because a star of the 12th century wrote about him and that great man is St. Bernard or Bernard de Clairvaux, who was the founder of the Cistercian movement, who was also the founder of the rules of the Templar, who was a great inspiration for the second crusades after the fall of Edessa in the 1140s. So we know historically that there was a great friendship between this Malachy, being a bishop of the Diocese of Armagh in Ireland, and with somebody that we kind of know a little bit because Saint Bernard eventually wrote a life of Saint Malachy. 

And so in this life, we know that Malachy traveled, went to Rome, actually visited Saint Bernard in France and visited him twice, and the second time he actually died in the arms of Saint Bernard. According to what we know, the both of them were actually buried together, but then eventually, I’m sorry to say I’m French, but the French Revolution took care of their remains, by revolutionaries doing what they love to do. Meaning that they unearthed and they kind of took all of the bones, fragmented, reburied, and then eventually we lost track of where the bones are. But in any case, this is more or less what we know of the actual Saint Malachy. 

And interestingly enough, the person who wrote about him, Saint Bernard, when you have to think about an authoritative person writing about you, I mean, Saint Bernard is up there. So we know, as historians, we are always very careful of, I have to call it, the propaganda or the storytelling behind important people. But in this case, Saint Bernard is somebody of reputation. I think there is very little doubt that there was a genuine friendship between that bishop of Armagh called Malachy and Saint Bernard. They are contemporaries.

But what is interesting is that when you hear about the prophecies of Malachy, Saint Bernard is absolutely mute about that and never discusses them, which for me is already a warning sign that you have to tread very carefully with those prophecies. That’s the best I can tell you about the historical person.

Emily: So where did these so-called prophecies come in? What did they say, supposedly?

Joëlle: Okay, so I’m going to try to be simple in a story which is quite complicated. Historically, the prophecies appear in the 1590s for a specific occasion, which is a conclave, and it’s a conclave which is going to eventually elect Pope Gregory XIV. So we’re in the 1590s. And here is a Benedictine monk who appears and who says, you know what? When I was rummaging through the Vatican archive, which in the 16th century are not what they are today, in any case, and not many people actually had access to the archive the way we have access today. But in any case, this Benedictine monk was called Arnold Wion, and he says, I have rediscovered the prophecy of St. Malachy. And what would those prophecies be? It’s a series of something like 112 snippets, which are then going to be associated with specific names of popes.

And supposedly what the prophecies say is that there are going to be some 112 popes and then after that, we have something like the second coming. So what this Benedictine monk did is follow up in a very old ancient tradition that medieval historians call millenarianism or millenarism, which is a tendency following maybe the apocalypse of St. John’s, the last book of the New Testament, basically looking at all of the signs which are going to lead us to believe that the second coming is coming. 

And so millenarism as the word which we use–in French mille means a thousand, which means that usually those prophecies work over a time span of a thousand years. We all, I mean, I’m assuming a lot of us lived through the year 2000 and we all know that there was a millennium in 2000. And some people were expecting the end of the world with webcams over the Eastern walls of Jerusalem, expecting the new coming. So these things are very common. It’s actually very interesting because you find them in Catholicism, in Protestantism, and in religions outside of Christianity also. So it’s something very common. 

So what Arnold Wion did is that he took up, I would say, almost a literary genre which has always been quite popular at all times in history and at all times of Christianity. He built on this and he wrote that we will have or we had and we will have. So there is a part which is past and the part which is future in his prophecies. And he called for 112 popes and he writes that after the last one we will have a new age, if you want. Interestingly enough, hindsight is great because when you write that in the 1590s, you give a bunch of names, starting with popes in the 1140s. And I can give you some very specific examples.

So for example, let me find a medieval one. The prophecy says, “the man across the Trastevere.” So the Trastevere, that’s suburb in Rome on the other side of the Tiber. So then you have to click, click, click, think a little bit. “Okay, who would be a pope who would have a link to the Trastevere?” And then you come up with a name of a pope who had been, for example, a cardinal of, I don’t know, like Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. And then you say, this is who he’s talking about. So it’s all based on clues. So the clues are very good for all of the popes before his lifetime. Again, this is why I’m saying hindsight is great. But then the moment we get forward in time, this is when you really have to scratch your head as to, okay, where is he going? And for example, for him, the last pope would be something like Peter the Roman, okay?

So people who are trying to argue today that Francis, who is of Italian descent but does not have any “Peter” in “Bergoglio,” in his name, are trying to make link between that Peter the Romans and if we assume that Francis would be the last pope, where is the relationship to Peter the Roman to Francis of his life, which could actually make him the last pope of the prophecy. 

I hope I’m being clear, but it’s not simple. So, long story short, most historians argue that Arnold Wion, the Benedictine monk who so-called rediscovered the prophecies in the 1590s is more or less a fraud and basically wrote them. So of course he was very good for everything preceding his lifetime because he actually had all of the names of the previous popes. He becomes more dicey for the popes which are going to come after him. That’s all I can tell you. That’s all the historians can tell you.

Rebecca: There’s an understanding that Saint Malachy himself did not write these prophecies, that they’re forgeries.

Joëlle: Yes. I’m going to try to be diplomatic as best as a French person can be, and we’re not famous for being diplomatic. The scientific community of historians, after careful analysis, decided that these are forgeries. But there is always something tremendously attractive in wanting to believe in prophecies. And you know, you can always find that link wherever you want, which is going to say, aha, but you see, for example, Benedict XVI, he says that there is a relationship with olive branches, but wait a second, the branch of olive, of the olive trees, is a sign of the Benedictines. So I mean, you can play with it. It’s a little bit like statistics and numbers. You can have them say whatever you want to a certain extent. But the scientific community, I’m sorry to say, has debunked the true character of any type of truthful prophecies.

But we have lots of other medieval prophecies, again, based on this genre. And my assumption is that when Arnold Wion went and wrote those prophecies, he was copying the various Vaticinias, which are the name of the prophecies, which had been in existence and circulating pretty widely with the Franciscans in what we call the Joachimite movement since the 13th century. So our good Benedictine had lots of inspiration basically to ground his own material in.

Emily: So can you talk a little bit about these other prophecies, are people still aware of them in a way that they’re still aware and talking of this prophecy of St. Malachy?

Joëlle: So, you know, it’s interesting because by virtue of teaching medieval history in a state, Rhode Island, which is, I would say, somewhat pretty heavily Catholic, sometimes students ask about that, but at least for the younger generation, there seems to be a loss of touch with what maybe our parents or grandparents were more familiar with. So throughout time and certainly since the Middle Ages, and I would say embedded in Christianity, you have what I call a millenaristic movement. You have the apocalypse of St. John, which is heavily enshrined in the mind as being a prophecy.

And when you look at the media, when you look at movies, for example, you have quite a few movies which play on those types of millenarian prophecies. But the biggest chunk of prophecies, if we consider that unfortunately Malachy did not create any prophecies, the biggest chunk is going to be the 13th century, specifically having to do with the birth of those reform movements, reform monastic movements, and what you call the apostolic poverty movement, specifically of the Franciscans. 

And when you talk about Joachim de Fiore or Jean de Flor, you’re talking about a movement which is kind of trying to be a social reformist movement, but specifically ecclesiastical reformist movement, who really want, of course, want a better world, but also want a return of the church to the apostolic church, to a new beginning, which a new millenarian movement would bring. And that new beginning would be a return to apostolic poverty and all of those things. That’s the simplest way to a kind of cleaning up of the church, of the medieval church, which by the 12th and 13th century is heavily involved in the political world. So there is a kind of a cleanup and the millenarian movement, specifically the issue of apostolic poverty is going to create a lot of issues. And this is somewhat what those movements are going to try to create, or at least to instigate.

Rebecca: So why do people, why do historians think that these prophecies were composed at all in the first place? Specifically, what was the rationale behind this concoction of the prophecy of St. Malachy?

Joëlle: So you want me to do the history of the Christian world in the Middle Ages. I would say, I think that you cannot detach this, the movements of prophecies from the personality of the pope, from the papacy and to what the papacy is in the Middle Ages. Again, the majority of believers and non-believers think that the papacy that we have today has always been like this, but it has not. 

So the medieval papacy, early medieval papacy, up to basically what Paolo Pradi called the papal prince, so up to the 16th century, is something which is tremendously politicized and tremendously manipulated. And most of the prophetic movement are attached to the nominations of specific popes during papal nominations and papal elections, which are tremendously unorganized. I don’t know, that’s the best way I can represent it. People think that you have a bunch of cardinals all locked in a room, which is the conclave. Well, the Conclave was created in 1274. So it’s very late in medieval history. And what the Conclave was doing was responding to all of the issues and all of the political strifes which had been happening for the nomination of a new pope. And this is why people were so engaged in the new pope is because there was a lot of contention. So therefore I’m going to write a prophecy. No, I’m going to write a prophecy. I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that. It was a way of competing to have the best candidate coming up. Historically that’s more or less why it’s created. Again, the one who created the pseudo-Malachy prophecies, we are pretty sure did it for the election for a specific candidate.

When you look at the Joachimites and the prophecies, the Battisigna of the 13th century, well, the science is that there is going to be an angelic pope and then there is going to be the end of the world where we have a pope who is very famous with the only pope before the modern period  who resigned and that was Pope Celestine V. And we are in 1294 or 1295. So here we have a pope resign, which is something absolutely unimaginable in the past, it had never happened. So that has to be a sign that something tremendous is going to happen. That something tremendous is going to be the election of Pope Boniface VIII.

And then there is going to be a struggle with the King of France and then the papacy is going to move to Avignon. So there is literally a strong link with electoral nominations of popes and prediction. And what we try to do is have the best pope. But again, the nomination of a pope in the past, before the 15th century, is far from being a straightforward, easy thing.

So this is one of the ways of explaining those prophecies. But then if I go back to one of the Vaticinia, you have two sets of Vaticinia, which are the 13th century prophecies. One has a very strong Byzantine influence, and that Byzantine influence is calling for a Byzantine emperor to come and rescue the church.

So you can see that here again, we have issue of leadership and trying to find the best leader. If it cannot be a pope, then let’s go back to the time of Constantine the Great and let’s see if a Byzantine emperor can do something for us. So that gives you an idea. But again, the papal nomination is messy business. Until the conclave and the rules of the conclave, that you lock a room with keys, which comes from 1274.

Emily: So your own research focuses on the era when the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon. How can understanding that time period and what was going on then help us understand some of the disputes over the papacy today?

Joëlle: This is not a simple question. Number one, I’m pleading with the audience to understand that nothing is fixed and nothing is solid and nothing is entrenched. The papacy before the Avignon papacy was very mobile. Why? Because Rome was in the hands of aristocratic clans. So those big names are like the Orsini, some people will go by their name or they should be proud. You have the Orsini, the Saveli, Frangipani, Caetani, the Colonna. Those are the big names of the Roman aristocracy. If you have a Colonna elected pope–and usually the election of a pope is a big political machination where the aristocratic families go and push for their own candidates, usually of their own family–the Orsinis are going to try to push the Colonna out of position. So picture Rome as being a big hot mess, throughout the Middle Ages, of factions.

And then eventually we’re going to have a pope called Boniface VIII, who is going to really have a very serious understanding of his own position. Who is going to be fighting with the King of France called Philip the Fair, or Philip the Fourth. We also have a very high conception of his position as King of France, and the both of them are going to be fighting.

For example, Philip the Fair was going to attack the Templars and lead to the dissolution of the Templars. So there is a fight between Boniface VIII and Philip the Fair. Philippe the Fair is going to send troops down to Anagni where the Pope was. They are going to act pretty violently toward the Pope. The Pope is going to die in 1298, I think. No, it’s later. It’s like 1303 or 1304. And the next conclave, the next pope elected is going to be a Frenchman. And that Frenchman is going to be Bernard de Gaulle, who is going to become Clement V. And he’s going to decide that he doesn’t want to reside in Rome because Rome is just too crazy. So he’s going to stay in a papal state, but that papal state is in France in the Conta Venissan. 

So what did that teach, what did that bring to the modern period? That there is a long history of malleability, that things changes, that nothing is fixed, and that the papacy has always adapted to any type of new condition, okay? It’s not that the papacy in Rome, historically,

Throughout the Middle Ages, if we take a thousand years of history, maybe the papacy was a total of 200 years in Rome, or it was in Viterbo, in Avignon, in Agniani, in Montefiascone, in all of the places. So it’s not something, I think there is something very pacifying for the modern mind to think, you know, this is immutable, this is fixed, this is very comforting that in a world which is changing, here we have that institution which has not changed. I don’t want to debunk that, but this institution has evolved a lot and the papacy has evolved with its time. The same way as Francis is trying to evolve with his time, the medieval papacy was trying to evolve. Things got bad in Rome, okay, we’re moving to Avignon. When things are getting better in Rome, okay, we will move back, you know, and we just deal with it.

But an understanding that the papacy evolved historically and knew how to live with its time, or the pope knew how to live with his time, whatever you want to call it. I don’t know if that satisfies you, but that would be my way of explaining it.

Rebecca: Yeah, and kind of along those lines, you know, after Benedict XVI resigned, there was a lot of talk about how, this is going to be a problem having two popes at the same time. Could you cast some historical light on that? Wasn’t there a time when there were actually three popes at the same time?

Joëlle: So historically, we have had many times throughout the Middle Ages when we have had two popes, and then three. So you have two different issues. We have very often two popes because the papacy and the College of Cardinals was fighting with the Holy Roman Emperor.

So I don’t want to have to redo again the entire history of the medieval papacy, but we all know about Charlemagne. I’m assuming Charlemagne is somebody that people are familiar with. Well, Charlemagne was the first Holy Roman Emperor crowned by a pope, by Leo III. So that created a very strong attachment between a Holy Roman Emperor and a pope, which means that when things got bad, they got together and one supported the other, but very often one fought against the other. And throughout the Middle Ages, we have a lot of conflicts between the pope and Holy Roman Emperor, specifically over the nominations of bishops. 

A bishop is somebody who holds temporal power, he holds land, but he also has a spiritual charge. So, who names a bishop? Of course, everybody knows today that a bishop is an ecclesiastical charge, so therefore, it’s ecclesiastical powers who name a bishop. Not in the Middle Ages. Most medieval bishops were named by temporal rulers, by kings, by emperors. So we have reformation movements in the 11th century where the popes are going to say to the Holy Roman Emperor, “Stop. You need to stop nominating bishops. It’s my job.” And then, well, there is going to be a lot of fighting and then a lot of Holy Roman emperors are going to be excommunicated. But what usually is going to happen when they fight, when the struggles between the pope and the Holy Roman emperor are really going to explode and get really heightened, is that the Holy Roman emperor is going to say to the pope, “You know what, I don’t want to listen to you, and I’m going to elect a new pope.”

So we have tons of examples between the 11th and the 14th century when Holy Roman emperors actually named a counter pope. The church had the tendency to use the word antipope, which is a word I don’t like to use because for the people who named these people, this antipope, they were actually the pope. You know, my antipope is your pope and my pope is your antipope, which means they are all real pope for whomever is following him. 

So the investiture controversy and the political fight between the Holy Roman Emperor and the papacy created a lot of double papacies, 11th, 12th, 13th century. And then we have the great Western schism, which is when after the papacy had moved to Avignon, regular papacy, and then we have seven popes and then we move back to Rome and then we have an election. And that election is somewhat exciting with a lot of the Roman mob kind of, you know, trying to manipulate the elections. And in any case, there is one pope elected in 1378, his name is Urban VI. Everything is fine until the moment when he kind of loses it. And after he loses it, the cardinals are going to kind of get very nervous thinking that, what did we do? And this guy is kind of losing it. 

And you know, I was speaking three days ago at a big medieval conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan, over the issues that medieval treatises and political scientists talk about what to do with the bad king. But nobody ever said, what do we do with a bad pope? And what the schism created is that we have a man who obviously literally had a fit of madness after he became elected, and cardinals understood that they had to do something. So they deposed him and they elected somebody else. And it’s going to take 45 years to have a solution to that crisis because of course the pope who was deposed said, “No way, I am the true legitimate pope.” The pope which was elected against him says, “I was legitimately elected,” which means that we have the creation of two popes, two courts, one is going to move to Avignon, one is going to stay in Rome and each country is going to follow their own pope. 

We are in the Hundred Years War, so of course, if France follows one pope, you can be sure that Great Britain is going to follow the other pope. So that’s the way Europe got divided and great councils, specifically the Council of Constance in 1414, 1417, are going to be what and that great Western schism. And after the Conciliar Movement and after the Council of Constance, we kind of lose the double or triple elections. But it is true that during the great Western schism, there was a first try at solving the schism. They deposed both popes, the one in Rome and the one in Avignon. They elected a third pope, but the one in Rome and in Avignon said, no way, I’m not stepping down, which meant that we had a pope in Rome, a pope in Avignon, and a pope in Pisa. That’s a lot of popes.

Rebecca: So that really does put our contemporary debates into a better perspective. And this is one last question about that. What would you say to the people who think that this prophecy of St. Malachy refers specifically to Pope Francis?

Joëlle: Well, I would try to explain that I am an historian, and I believe in facts. And I need historical evidence. For me, there is no historical evidence that Malachy ever did any prophecies. So therefore I cannot have any belief that there, we have been expecting the end of the world for many years. We were expecting it in 2000, you know, it didn’t happen. When I look around me and I look at the world today, I can say it could happen, you know, at any time. So if you want to believe in it, I would say go ahead and believe in it. 

But then I would say, if you are interested in these prophecies, go back to the Joachimite movement, go back to the 13th century prophecies, where here we have a lot of scholarly work around those prophecies. And I would say go back to read St. John, the apocalypse of St. John. At least then you’re reading a biblical text. But as a historian, I cannot fall prey to something which I cannot defend with historical scientific evidence. But the Vaticnas, the 13th century prophecies, number one, we have beautiful manuscripts. So a quick search online, a search in Google for prophecies, 13th century, Joachim de Fiore is going to bring you there.

And you will see some beautiful manuscripts and some very entertaining and exciting prophecies. And then you can try to see if you can decipher them. But I don’t know anybody. I was born very close to the place where Nostradamus lived in the south of France. And question mark, that’s all I can tell you.

Emily: Thank you so much for being our guest today. I feel like we both really learned a lot about the papacy in general and St. Malachy.

Joëlle: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.