Thomas L. McDonald has been a writer and editor for the past 25 years, covering technology, history, archaeology, games, and religion. He has degrees in English, Film, and Theology with a concentration in Church History. He’s been a certified catechist for twelve years, and taught Church History for eight. His other writing can be found at Weird Catholic.
History Channel is running an original documentary called The Last Pope, and it's two hours of hot garbage. Amidst endless padding relieved only by commercials, the documentary attempts to address the alleged prophecies of St. Malachy, and how they predict that Francis will be the last pope before the end of the world.
Except… St. Malachy almost certainly did nothing of the sort.
Born in 1094 or thereabouts, St. Malachy was a good and holy man who became bishop of Armagh in Ireland. Weirdly, The Last Pope refers to 12th century Ireland as “largely pagan” some eight centuries after the faith was introduced. Celtic Christianity was, in fact, so powerful, unique, and thriving that Irish missionaries were shipped to other lands. Like most great saints, Malachy spread the faith further and dealt with corruption and backsliding, but to call 12th century Ireland largely pagan is strange indeed.
Malachy’s biography was written by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who knew him and admired him greatly. Malachy started attracting headlines a few year ago not for his piety, however, but for something he almost certainly didn’t do: his “Prophecy of the Popes.” Malachy allegedly had a vision of the next 112 popes to come, with one he calls “Petrus Romanus” (Peter the Roman) being the last before the Final Judgment. That 112th pope is Francis.
The prophecy looks solid at first glance. Although it might have been more useful had Malachy provided the names of each pope, instead we get a little motto for each that describes something about him, often a reference to his family coat of arms. For example, pope #9 in the list is described as “ex ansere custode,” which means “the guardian goose.” The ninth pope from Malachy was Alexander III (1159–81), whose family had a goose on its coat of arms. The eleventh description is “sus in cribro” (“Pig in a sieve”). The corresponding pope, Urban III (1185–87), is of the Crivelli family (the name means "sieve”) and their coat of arms has two pigs. The twenty-first motto is “Hierusalem Campanię” (Jerusalem of Champagne). Urban IV (1261–64) was born in Champagne and Patriarch of Jerusalem.
So far so good. These are all startling correspondences. But something happens around the 1590s. The correspondences start to get less and less sharp and more and more vague. One might almost call them Nostradamus-like, in that you can read them many different ways, shaping the meaning to find whatever correspondences you want.
For example, “lilium et rosa” (“lily and rose”) is the for motto for pope 81, Urban VIII (1623–44). “De flumine magno,” (“from the great river”) is the saying attached to pope 85, Clement X (1670–76). Pius VI (1775–99), pope 96, gets “peregrin apostolic” (“apostolic pilgrim”).
None of these have any correspondence with the popes they’re supposed to predict. Some can be fit to match if you squint. Innocent XI (1676–89) had a lion on his arms, so “bellua insatiabilis” (“insatiable beast”) is a match. Of course, many, many families had lions or other predatory beasts on their arms. It was kind of a thing.
The only reasonable conclusion, if we are to believe this was a genuine prophecy of St. Malachy, is that he had strong visions up until the 1590s, and then just kind of made up the rest.
But there’s a better explanation.
The prophecy was unknown to the world until it was discovered, hidden away in some secret archive, by a monk named Arnold de Wyon.
When did this happen? Surprise! Some time around the 1590s, right around the time the accuracy of the “prophecies” jumps off a cliff. Thus, the most logical explanation is either than Arnold forged the document himself, or it was forged by other hands for him to find.
Why would Arnold, or anyone else, do such a thing?
One theory has to do with the conclave of 1590, which ultimately elected Pope Gregory XIVth from among several factions. Cardinal Girolamo Simoncelli, a friend of Arnold de Wyod, was a papal hopeful. The motto for the pope chosen at this time was “of the old city.” Simoncelli was from Orvieto: in Latin, “Urbs vetus” (“old city”). By creating a long line of accurate prophecies from a great saint, the cardinal electors might start thinking Simoncelli was the man promised in the prophecy.
Jimmy Akin unpacks this in even more detail if you’d like to look at just how few of the later mottos connect to real popes.
History Channel Follies
This is all fascinating stuff, filled with lives of saints, Vatican politics, lost documents, forgery, historical mysteries, interesting people, papal corruption, and more. It would have made an interesting one hour documentary. I can see Bishop Barron strolling through the Chapel of San Brizio gesturing to Luca Signorelli's “Last Judgment” while talking about Simoncelli and offering some intelligent insight with a pastoral flourish.
How does the History Channel engage all of this? Not at all.
Instead, we get … St. Peter’s being struck by lightning when Benedict resigns! ISIS! The election of Francis! Conservatives who may want to kill Francis! Amoris Latitia! Papal security! The Mafia! And a lot of extremely boring tangential nonsense. There’s a huge digression about the vision of Fatima, and if you thought they would avoiding hammering on about Third Secret conspiracy theories, you don’t know your History Channel. This entire section, in which most of the reasonable Catholic voices are given screen time, is a tawdry and transparent attempt to use a genuine apparition of the Blessed Mother to lend credence to the dubious Malachy material.
Most of the conspiracy-theory grunt work is done by a few guys: John Hogue is a listed as a “prophecy scholar” and Robert Howells is author of “The Last Pope: Francis and the Fall of the Vatican,” a book about the prophecies. For some mysterious reason, however, much of the talking is done by Scott Wolter, who is listed on screen as “Historian.” Wolter, however, calls himself a “forensic geologist” on social media, so what he’s doing holding forth on Church history and papal politics is anyone’s guess. He had a fringe-history show called America Unearthed on H2 (now rebranded as Viceland), the network where A&E dumped stuff too dumb even for the History Channel proper. Perhaps the producers just needed someone on camera to fill in narrative gaps and gave Wolter the most absurd lines since his show was canceled anyway.
If so, he should have requested a rewrite. At one point he talks about “documents” in the Vatican “Secret Archives” the way people who know nothing about the Archives talk; that is, like someone in a National Treasure movie. These words actually came out of his mouth: “One of those documents is said to be the marriage document between Jesus and Mary Madeleine. It’s called Catholicos Mysticos [sic, I even checked the subtitles]. Reportedly a copy was first given to the church in the 3rd century.”
Hoo boy. That’s good gibberish. I especially love the Latin, which is something a 13-year-old boy would dream up for the exorcism scene in that movie he and his friends are making with their iPhones.
My favorite Wolter moment is him announcing “Martin Luther will go down in Church History as the number one Church reformer ever.” LOL. Do we give him a foam “I’m #1” finger? And can I pick the finger? Somewhere in middle America, a Calvinist is writing an angry letter to the producers.
We get other priceless Vatican conspiracy nonsense, such as calling the Archives “the Vatican’s own X-Files.” At one point they’re said to “allegedly” house hidden “things like the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, court records from the Knights Templars, and Martin Luther’s excommunication letter.”
There are some interviews with people who come off just fine, but I have to wonder what these subjects make of the surrounding material. Apologist Jeff Cavins, Fr. Mike Schmitz, Vaticanist John Thavis, security consultant Ben Mannes, Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, and others comport themselves well and don’t climb out on any limbs. Thavis, for example, seems properly circumspect, such as when he says Arnold “discovered or claimed to have discovered” the prophecies.
Some, however, just hit the gas and go for broke. The prophecy for Benedict XVI was “glory of the olive!” And the olive is the symbol of the Benedictines! Except it isn’t. You can almost imagine the producers trying to calculate the amount of non-lightning-striking-St-Peter’s screen time it would take to explain the connection of the Olivetans to Benedictine spirituality, then saying to heck with it and cutting back to their absurd-looking Pope Francis imitator walking glumly around the green screen.
The whole thing is padded to the hilt with recaps while still leaving enough space for about 40 minutes worth of commercials. All of it builds to apocalyptic fetishism based on the final “Petrus Romanus” prophecy, which claims that “Peter the Roman” will be the final pope before Rome is destroyed and the “dreadful judge” returns. The documentary makes metaphorical fluttery gestures with its fingers to dismis the fact that "Francis" is named "Peter."
And now World Net Daily’s WND Films is claiming the whole thing was a giant ripoff of their 2013 film, also called The Last Pope. Joseph Farah, co-producer of the 2013 documentary, said in a statement, “We just found out about this knockoff. It’s the same title – the same premise. Our documentary was the first to take an objective and balanced look that includes the official Vatican position and opinions and insights from a wide variety of Catholic and non-Catholic experts who studied the mystery.”
If WND did indeed present an “objective and balanced look” then they can drop the “first” part and change it to “only.” History’s The Last Pope isn’t objective or balanced at all. It’s barely even a documentary. Overstuffed with portentous narration, overbearing music, cringe-inducing dramatic recreations, choppy editing, pointless digression, inacuracies, and junk history, it’s an excruciating experience for anyone with even passing familiarity with the subject matter. It’s junk history for short attention spans.
A friend wrote to say she met a woman who was so upset after watching The Last Pope that she couldn't sleep. That was the first I heard of it, and if my writing is longer and caustic here than usual, it's because things like this—slickly assembled and presented as fact--have the potential to do real damage to people. No one knows the day nor the hour. Anyone who says differently is trying to sell you something.
Thomas L. McDonald writes about strange corners of Church history at WeirdCatholic.com.