In two thousand years, even the most mundane and plodding entity could acquire a great many secrets. A political power with its reach spread across a continent would acquire rather more; a political power that was also the Church Militant headed by the Vicar of Christ, rife with genuine secret societies and prone to receiving the occasional (and often officially sanctioned) divine revelation might well be the world center of esoteric knowledge. For that reason, it was somewhat disappointing when the Roman Catholic Church revealed the third secret of Fatima in 2000. The secrets were revealed to three children in Fatima, Portugal, by an apparition of the Blessed Virgin. The first two secrets involved the veneration of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Second World War. The official line is that the third secret — delivered via a letter from one of the children to the Pope and kept under lock and key for decades — was a reference to Communist persecution of the Church, while John Paul II felt that it referred more directly to Mehmet Ali Agca’s assassination attempt against him. Conspiracy theorists have variously tied the shooting to Mafia retaliation over the BCCI/Vatican Bank scandals or the KGB sending a message. Agca himself has asserted that he had help from within the Vatican; it wouldn’t be the first time secular conspiracies had impinged upon the Church — if some accounts are to be believed, it wouldn’t even be the first time recently — but it’s a bit anticlimactic to imagine that the great secret of Fatima, the one too scandalous to be revealed, was about neither the end of the Church nor the end of the world.

Thus it was heartening for collectors of eschatological revelations to be reminded that at least one Catholic prophecy says that stormclouds are brewing; St. Malachy‘s Prophecy of the Popes, in which the Irish saint (who, his contemporary biographer St. Bernard of Clairvaux tells us, accurately foretold the day and hour of his own death) writes a complete list of popes from Celestine II to the last, "Peter the Roman", who may or may not be the anti-Christ. After Peter the Roman, there is no more Pope and no more church; we may not know the means, but the world has presumably reached its final days.

Malachy’s descriptions often involve puns or allusions (to coats of arms, prelature, cities of birth) and so can seem something of a reach; determining how Pius XI represents "intrepid faith" more than any other pope can require acrobatics. As with the Centuries of Nostradamus, if you make a prophecy vague enough, you can find something to fit it; people who assert that John Paul I was poisoned have three seperate Nostradamus verses to cite, for instance. However, the early popes are spot on. This could be because of Malachy’s god-given oracular gifts, but a less romantic view was proposed by a seventeenth-century Jesuit historian, Fr. Menestrier. Menestrier suggested that Malachy’s prophecies weren’t discovered until 1590 because they weren’t written until the sixteenth century in a tricky attempt to influence papal politics, that their uncanny predictive powers regarding popes from the twelfth century onward were simple, secular hindsight. And he was probably right. Religious forgeries are not uncommon, after all. Most forgeries are unable to escape the tenor of their times, and the prophecies do bear more than a hint of a florid sixteenth-century style.

Still, why shouldn’t prophecy be delivered through a forgery? In the words of Alan Moore’s Robert Lees, "I made it all up and it came true anyway." We see faces in clouds and the Holy Mother (or at least some kind of feminine archetype) in underpass water stains. Predicting the end of the world is too universal an impulse to let twelfth-century Irish holy men have all the fun.