Last week, British TV screens were filled with little else but images of a short, old man dressed entirely in white (apart from funky red loafers) standing before crowds of flag-waving adherents.
The visit of Pope Benedict XVI, otherwise known as Joseph Alois Ratzinger, to the UK has aroused strong views amongst those opposed to the head of the Roman Catholic Church's views on the sexual abuse committed by priests around the world, homosexuality and atheism.
But it’s more as a harbinger of the apocalypse that the Pope arouses our interest. As detailed in The End is Nigh #2 (which is still available for free download) according to the fascinating Prophecy of the Popes, supposedly made by St Malachy and first published in 1595, Benedict is the ‘penultimate pope’. His successor, so the prophecy goes, will bring about the end of the world.
Starting from Pope Celestine II, the list supposedly written by Malachy details him and his 112 successors, along with their 'characteristics' in a short descriptive title, running from 1143 until the "end of the world". The prophecies seem to be relatively accurate till Urban VII (1590), but after that great efforts have to be made in order to make the prophecies fit each pope.
Looking at the modern era, according to this list - the translation of which itself is reinterpreted endlessly - the pope that corresponds with Benedict XV (Pontiff from 1914 'til 1922) is described as "Religion Laid Waste". Communism's spread and suppression of religion, along with millions of deaths during World War I is cited as proof of the accuracy of this, though often without explanation.
The outspoken criticism of Communism and Fascism by his successor, Pius XI (1922-1939), earns him the title of "Unshaken Faith" in the eyes of believers while "Pastor and Mariner" John XXIII (1958-1963) was also Patriarch of Venice (canals = mariner. You see?) and the three fleurs-de-lis of Paul VI's (1963-1978) coat-of-arms is 'proof' of Malachy's prediction that he was "Flower of Flowers".
And this is where it starts getting a bit complicated. Depending on who you believe, John Paul I (1978), who is cited as "Of the Half Moon" was elected when there was a half moon, reigned 33 days (which isn't actually a single month, but never mind), was born in the diocese of Belluno (which means 'beautiful moon') and was baptized Albino Luciani (meaning 'white light') and he died soon after an eclipse of the moon. Phew.
And as for “The Labour of the Son”, otherwise known as John Paul II (1978-2005), the fact that he was “the most travelled Pope in history”, there was a near total eclipse of the sun over Europe shortly after he was born, and “like the sun” came out of the east (assuming you’re standing to the West of him, of course).
The spot in the queue which Benedict now occupies, number 111, refers to "Gloria Olivae", or “The Glory of the Olive”. This motif got apocalypse watchers wetting themselves even before Benedict’s election took place in April 2005: some fringe members of the monastic order of Benedictines claimed the Pope would be chosen from their ranks, as a small sub-order of the Order is known as the “Olivetans”. Unfortunately, Ratzinger is not only not a Benedictine but while all Olivetans are Benedictines, few Benedictines are Olivetans. He did, however, choose Benedict as his ‘regnal’ name and in 1993 Ratzinger had been installed as cardinal bishop of Velletri-Segni, the coat of arms of which are emblazoned with three olive trees.
The difficulty is that ‘fulfilment’ of prophecy in hindsight is a very easy thing. Before his election, speculation included suggestions it could be any member of Benedictine Order, or a Latin American pope (since, y’know, they have “olive-coloured skin”) or any black pope, or any pope from olive-producing Italy or Spain, or any one of a thousand possibilities.
This speculation has obviously faded as time has gone on, but should Benedict meet and untimely end (Malacy has him down for a very short stint in the top job) expect a mini-industry to spring up overnight, though this is already underway. He successor, in case you're interested, is supposed to be "Peter the Roman", who reign will see the end of the world.
Of the 199 current Cardinals, we have quite a narrow field if you assume that 'Peter' is a dead giveaway. there's Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, the 90-year-old Patriarch of Antioch for Maronites, or the Archbishop Emeritus of Tokyo Peter Seiichi Shirayanagi, the Archbishop of Cape Coast Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, the Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest Peter Erdö, the Archbishop Emeritus of Tamale Peter Poreku Dery and Archpriest of the Pontifical Basilica of St Peter in the Vatican Angelo Comastri. Our (tongue firmly in cheek) money is on Comastri.
While we're talking all things Popish, stories of threats to Benedict during his visit to the UK did evoke memories of a very-nearly-very-successful assassin, though. Mehmet Ali Agca was the Turkish ‘assassin’ who shot and wounded Pope John Paul II on 13 May 1981. When he emerged from prison nearly 29 years later, Agca promptly declared himself a messenger from God and announced that the world would end “this century”.
"I will meet you in the next three days," Agca said. "In the name of God Almighty, I proclaim the end of the world in this century. All the world will be destroyed, every human being will die. I am not God, I am not son of God, I am Christ eternal."
Agca, who has previously claimed to be the Messiah, said the Gospel was full of mistakes and he would write the perfect one. He delivered a similar message in a long, rambling statement distributed by Abosoglu outside the prison in Sincan on the outskirts of Ankara, the Turkish capital.
When assessed by doctors who had to decide if he should undertake the compulsory military service he was still eligible for, he was declared unfit due to his "antisocial personality disorder".