The No Motto Saint Malachy Prophecy

The Saint Malachy prophecy has captured imaginations ever since it was first published in 1595.  The problem is Malachy lived from 1094 to 1148 – no one heard of it until just a few years before being published.  But does this prophecy of the Popes have anything to do with Malachy outside of attribution?  The answer is no from the learned who have studied the question.  The Wikipedia article and links provides sufficient information for all but the most of curious.  A brief distillation is provided before presenting additional commentary and analysis.

A Benedictine monk named Arnold Wion somehow came across the prophecy in 1590.  In 1595, Wion published it as part of his Lignum Vitae, a history of his order.  The prophecy comprised a list of cryptic Latin phrases (mottos).  The published version included the names of the Popes up to the publication date, and interpretations of the mottos up to the discover date of 1590 (Urban VII).  Wion attributed the interpretations to the historian Alphonsus Ciacconius.

A priest name M.J. O’Brien wrote a critical account in 1880.  He started the project “rather enthusiastically1 taking the positive view of a French ecclesiastic.  He concluded the opposite.  The main problem is with the mottos, which boarder on copy/paste with a papal history compiled by Onofrio Panvinio (Epitome pontificum romanorum a S. Petro…) and printed in 1557.

O’Brien also cited Claude-François Ménestrier, a Jesuit who thoroughly trashed the mottos in 1689.  The mottos match quite well up to 1590, but poorly afterwards.  Moreover, after changing some of the positions of the Popes, Ménestrier demonstrated the mottos could “with more propriety even, be applied to the popes in the new order.2  O’Brien wrote:


According to Wion, Malachy’s prophecy was a mere string of meaningless Latin phrases.  How did the supposed interpreter know with what pope to commence?  How was he persuaded to take up the antipopes?3


While O’Brien didn’t believe Wion was the author of the prophecy or involved in forgery, he also didn’t believe the claim Ciacconius was the interpreter.  He concludes:


These prophecies have served no purpose.  They are absolutely meaningless.  The Latin is bad.4


With that glowing assessment, let’s analyze the prophecy, starting with the general case.  Suppose there is a long list of future Popes.  Such a list couldn’t be published until after the last Pope was elected unless it was cryptic to some degree.  For consider conclaves: knowing the winner would raise havoc with the election process.

Some form of a cipher is thus needed that substantially indicates the actual Popes but without giving away the elections.  In other words, the list must match but fairly poorly.  For a precise theory, the loose concept of “matching” will be replaced by the statistical correlation function.  To exemplify with simple numbers, consider a list of one hundred mottos.  If the distribution was uniform, then each motto would correlate to each Pope with a value 0.01 whereas a perfect correlation between a motto and Pope would be 1.

Also, there is the correlation for papal candidates.  Take, for example, five candidates for a specific conclave.  Ideally each candidate should correlate with the motto yielding 0.2 as that wouldn’t reveal any information.  Thus, while a correlation of 1 is desirable, conclave correlations restrict it.

From this theoretical view, there is an optimum distribution of correlation values that preserve conclave integrity while yielding the best possible correlation with the mottos.  However, this isn’t a math class so such details won’t be evaluated.  But you should get the general picture.

O’Brien stated that Ménestrier “tears the prophecies to shreds5 by showing, for example, how a given motto could match even better with another Pope.  This actually is to be expected.  What matters is the correlation of mottos to Popes is statistically significant.  But Ménestrier wasn’t a statistician, which didn’t even exist back then6.  He was an expert in Heraldry: a discipline related to armorial bearings, which includes coats of arms, shields, helmets, and mottoes.

So by what criteria did the pre-1590 Popes match 95% of the time with the mottos?  “Birthplaces, family names, personal arms, and pre-papal titles”7 were the major ones.  For example, the first motto is Ex castro Tiberis: from a castle on the Tiber.  This matches Pope Celestine II's birthplace in Città di Castello, which is on the Tiber.  Ménestrier, being a Heraldist, was quite qualified for dissecting these interpretations.

Moreover, Ménestrier was debunking vague prophecies in general.  In his long book, the section after Malachy was on Nostradamus.  Additionally, Ménestrier’s book, with equally long title, “The philosophy of enigmatic images: where it is treated with enigmas, hieroglyphics, oracles, prophecies, spells, divinations, lotteries, talismans, dreams, Centuries of Nostradamus, the wand,” has not been translated so mechanical translation was used, which leaves some parts unreadable.  Yet, a garbled commentary on meaningless phrases is almost appropriate here…

Ménestrier covers each motto in detail, and then concludes with “I have some faith in these,” before immediately continuing: “but it seems that so many impertinences, errors, anachronisms, distorts & confusion, do not suit Prophecies inspired by Heaven.”  The interpreter could be placed at fault, except the mottos strongly correlate to the interpretations via Panvinio’s papal history.

To make a point, Ménestrier then matches the first eight mottos to a different ordering.  He starts with the Pope before the first in the original list, adds the associated antipope, with the original first eliminated.  He then follows the list except the three antipopes are skipped.  The orderings are illustrated below.


Motto New Ordering Original List
#1 Innocent II Celestine II
#2 Anacletus II (antipope) Lucius II
#3 Lucius II Eugene III
#4 Eugene III Anastasius IV
#5 Anastasius IV Adrian IV
#6 Adrian IV Victor IV (antipope)
#7 Alexander III Callixtus III (antipope)
#8 Lucius III Paschal III (antipope)
#9 Alexander III
#10 Lucius III


From these “awfully vague and indeterminate” mottos, Ménestrier says his interpretation has “a more reasonable meaning than” the original, which is true enough.  The above result indicates the correlation distribution is uniform; in other words, random.

However, there are 74 pre-1590 mottos, which roughly translates to 5,500 compares.  Besides the original matching, he only made eight, a sampling too small for a decisive conclusion.  Ménestrier evidently thought he could have kept going, but without a formal understanding of probabilities, he probably didn’t see the general problem.

Interpreting all 5,500 combinations plus devising a correlation function that weighs all of the matching criteria is needed for a precise answer.  Though with the inherent arbitrariness, this would be difficult task, which of necessity must be very subjective.

Ménestrier did illustrate many of the mottos have poor selectivity: “From a castle of the Tiber,” “Enemy expelled,” “From the great mountain,” etc.  Yet, would any motto ever cover even half of the Popes?  Further, many mottos can be expected to apply only to a few Popes with a high reasonableness. 

The pre-1590 mottos have a relatively small set of matching criteria.  Not so with the remainder of the list.  And worse, the Latin words now take on different meanings as O’Brien pointed out8.  In the original interpretations, “Bonus” and “Fides” referred to family names: Ottobono and Caraffa.  But these and others subsequently reverted to their literal meanings of “good” and “faith” in the interpretations given to post-1590 mottoes, because few would match using the original meanings.

Permitting a separate correlation function, the whole gauntlet of new criteria would have to be applied with the same liberality to all of the post-1590 Popes.  This would be another difficult and subjective task, and seemingly harder, though providing a great opportunity for endless debate.  Yet, what would be the results?

For the simpler pre-1590 mottos, even accounting for the original interpretation problems, the 95% number would give way to a correlation value that reasonably can be expected as having statistical significance.

Indeed, there is some danger the correlation may have caused election shenanigans.  For, if the prophecy was accurate, it would be taken seriously.  Papal aspirants would change their coat of arms, divert rivers to flow near the city of their birth, whatever it takes; wherein the reality, with little doubt, would be more ridiculous.

Fortunately, the remaining mottos don’t pose that threat.  Their existential danger is if they would be statistically significant at all.  But say they are.  Isn’t the criticism the quality greatly degraded after 1590 still valid?  When considering conclaves, such a change makes sense.  Though unfortunately, that hampers discernment because a forgery and authentic prophecy could have this same characteristic.

Throughout history, there have been several prophecies (such as the month a Pope would die) that were suitably sealed, and only opened after the event.  The testimony and veracity of the guardian of the sealed envelope establishes its credibility (or also the Vatican who received a sealed envelope with the original document and not a copy as in the given example).

The current case is partly similar.  Providence could have decreed the prophecy remain hidden until the prescribed time.  Thus, the mottos before 1590 are more accurate, followed by the conclave friendly mottos.  The glaring dissimilarity is there was no sealed envelope, only the murkiest of stories.  Furthermore, a large study investigating the probabilities has apparently not been undertaken.  Finally, would God even reveal something that requires a multiplicity of broad interpretations plus statistical analysis to verify?


Mottos, Begone!

As an introduction to the mottoless interpretation, here is a contemporary prophecy.  A vision was received by Nancy Fowler of the Conyers (Georgia) apparitions fame.  She saw the disturbing image of army personal manning a homeland trench.  Years later, she saw the same thing on television, but now the whole picture.  The “trench” was a sandbag dike the National Guard was patrolling during a flood.

Nancy’s interpretation of war being waged on this soil was quite different from the reality.  Jesus subsequently told her something like: “Let that be a lesson for you.”  Indeed, an authentic prophecy reveals something, but necessarily what that something is.

O’Brien attributes to Wion the strange belief that the mottos were “a mere string of meaningless Latin phrases.”  It would be pure contradiction to interpret them.  But as Wion was given the interpretations, well, there they were.  It’s worth reiterating the two points O’Brien made in the full quote.  Namely, which Pope was the first in the list and why did it include the antipopes?  Resolving that, however, is not insurmountable.  With the high degree of matching, a few trial and errors would quickly converge provided the interpreter wasn’t a Ménestrier, who could find more possibilities if motivated.

So, from this contradiction (and other perceived ones), O’Brien asserts the prophecy is “absolutely meaningless.”  But there is another possibility: get rid of the interpreter!  Treating the mottos as simple placeholders, the prophecy becomes the number of Popes.  Or more precisely, it predicts the last Pope before the period leading up to the end of world via Peter the Roman.  Moreover, since the end of the world cannot be revealed, this is the only orthodox interpretation possible. 

As it turns out, this prophecy is most remarkable for it accurately reveals the beginning of world’s end.  And the last Pope before the end, drum roll please, is Benedict XVI.  Well, that was boring…  Of course, it is the next Pope that is beginning of the end, which Francis’ pontificate fulfills with flying colors, like all in the rainbow.

However, the precision, the precise detail, comes from the Garabandal prophecy that names the last Pope before “the end of times – the period before the Era of Peace.  Only then comes the “end times” that directly involve the Anti-Christ.  Thus, Garabandal (together with La Salette) gives the precision that the “the end of times is the start of the final drama culminating with Our Lord’s Second Coming.  And Garabandal’s last Pope before “the end of times,” another drum roll, is Benedict XVI.  Hmm….  (see here for details)

As with all things, Garabandal has its detractors.  Some claim Garabandal is demonic because the visionaries frequently walked backwards while in ecstasy.  This corresponds to declaring 4 Kings 20:11 is a satanic verse since God caused the sun to move backwards.  It suffices to say, anyone can readily consult competent sources to verify the credibility of Garabandal, which is very solid.  Though after the major prophecies come to pass (the Warning, Miracle and Permanent Sign), the prophecy of four Popes will seem quite quaint.


Arnie’s Luck and the Three Primes

The no motto prophecy is a remarkable prediction; or is it merely a conniving coincidence?  If making a late 16th century forgery, the obvious year for the end of the world is 2000.  The required number of Popes could be calculated based on the duration of the average papacy.

From historical data, the average is about 7.5 years.  But different periods have different averages, and a few short pontificates quickly reduce the average.  In fine, the average depends on the range being averaged: the variance is large.  There are several factors to consider that makes the “average” only a guess.  Yet, the 7.5 number is quite reasonable: it yields 54 Popes which is 17 too many.

The actual average is about 11 years.  But estimating even 9 years and no anti-popes would be an accomplishment, though this still has an excess of 8 Popes.  The bottom line is guessing exactly would be somewhat lucky, but not an astronomic improbability that would authenticate the prophecy.

However, while the above may have been a minor consideration, the prophecy has a much simpler structure: 3 * 37 = 111.  The mottos split exactly at 1590.  The first 2 * 37 = 74 mottos have interpretations whereas the remaining 37 do not.  In the range spanned by the 74 mottos, there are 64 Popes and 13 anti-popes.

For a tri-part pattern using a prime number, there is only one choice.  Once upon a time, Arnie was…  Papa Prime 41 was too big.  It was too big for the anti-popes: 41 * 2 = 82 > 77 = 64 + 13.  Baby Prime 31 was too small for the Popes: 31 * 2 = 62 < 64.  But Momma Prime 37 with 10 anti-popes was just right: 37 * 2 = 74 = 64 + 10.

Yet, it is doubtful this was a factor.  There was some freedom in choosing the first Pope.  Abbé Cucherat’s theory is the vision occurred when Malachy was summoned to Rome in 1139.  The next future Pope was Celestine II (1143), which is the first on the list.  But as in Ménestrier’s reordering, Innocent II would be reasonable as well.  This adds a Pope and two anti-popes: almost enough for Papa Prime.

Or, the first three on the list could have been cut leaving the first Pope after Malachy’s death as the starting point.  So, based on the 1590 ending Pope, the first Pope may have machined for 74 = 37 * 2.  Yet, it may (just as well) have been “naturally” chosen without any other consideration.

There is still the question of the anti-popes, whose inclusion has been criticized.  But they are substantial part of the story.  Nevertheless, history isn’t what it used to be.  For the time span, the current Vatican number (see Annuario Pontificio) is 12 anti-popes9; although the Malachy list (and Wikipedia) includes Clement VIII, which ups it to 13.

But back then, Panvinio recorded10 10 anti-popes: the same ones as on the Malachy list11, and in the same messed up order: “the antipopes (with one slight exception) are ranked in Panvinius's Epitome, as in the Lignum Vitæ, and in both cases subvert chronological order.12  This implies a direct steal from Panvinio, and suggests that 37 wasn’t selected, but just fell from Heaven…

The number 37 has several fascinating properties such being the solution to Waring’s problem: every positive integer is the sum of at most 37 fifth powers.  But who would have suspected its utility in predicting the end of the world via 3 * 37 = 111?

There are two main possibilities here.  The first is Saint Malachy Prophecy is authentic.  This requires the leading 74 mottos establish the first and last Popes in the range.  The issue regarding “with what pope to commence” and the inclusion of the antipopes was adequately resolved above via a less open-ended interpreter than Ménestrier, and possibly one guided by grace.  The greatest difficulty is the mottos correlate with Panvinio’s Epitome, plus the indication Wion was handed something with the ink still wet.  But disregarding that, voila, the 111th Pope: Benedict XVI the last before the “end of times.

Forgery is the second possibility: it is much more probable.  Its construction is evident from the preceding.  The great voila is the same.  This is also its greatest difficulty.  The best answer seems to be this is Divine Irony at work. 

The forgery comprises a feigned list followed by a fake list.  The forger used the form of 3 *37 = 111 as that flows from Panvinio.  There probably wasn’t any intention with respects to the timing of the last Pope, outside it was safely a couple of centuries or so in the future.  Thus, Divine Providence could allow the only thing not being passed off as true as actually being true; much to the forger’s chagrin, whether in Purgatory or Hell.

What are we to think of Arnold de Wion through whose hands comes the last Pope is Benedict?  While simple as a dove, it seems Benedictine Arnold was a traitor for not being wise as a serpent.  Wion claimed that Ciacconius was the interpreter.  Ménestrier charged the prophecy was “an entertainment of Fr. Ciacconius to whom it was easy to give the meaning and to decipher them because he was the Author.13

O’Brien cites Ciacconius’ own history of the Popes and Cardinals, which is similar to Panvinio’s Epitome.  In its introduction, Ciacconius “bitterly complains of the errors in Panvinius's book.14  As these errors are reproduced in the interpretation, O’Brien concludes there is “every reason to doubt that Ciacconius has had anything to do with it.15  This makes for a double forgery in terms of attribution: Saint Malachy and Ciacconius.

It remains possible the list of mottos (without interpretations) may be found in the Vatican Secret Archives on paper dating to the 12th century.  Yet, would that be a prophecy of Popes or Panvinio’s Epitome?  But currently, everything points to a forgery.

A forgery formed with the peculiar relationship of 3 * 37 = 111 with the bizarre fact of the 111th Pope matching perfectly with Garabandal.  That alone should fuel the controversy to the end of the world, and may fulfill another prediction.  Namely, O’Brien’s prediction from the last page of his book (page 111) regarding “how St. Malachy’s Prophecy still lives, and may be spoken of, gentle reader, when we are dust.


Malachias 1:11

For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts.


[Author’s note: that is the Douay translation, but it is the Reading from Morning Prayer for Corpus Christi, the day when Wion/O’Brien was researched and appendix written, before being expanded into this essay.  Sorry, couldn’t resist.]




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