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Why the buzz over St. Malachy's 'last pope' prophecy outdoes 2012 hype

Patricia Drury via Flickr

A statue of St. Malachy of Armagh (1094-1148) stands on the grounds of St. Malachy Catholic Church in Sterling Heights, Mich. Centuries-old prophecies that have been attributed to St. Malachy are causing a stir due to Pope Benedict XVI's surprise abdication announcement.

Just when you thought it was safe to go out of the bunker, there's a fresh wave of doomsday buzz over a purported 12th-century prophecy suggesting that the next pope will be the last pope before the end of the world. St. Malachy's "Prophecy of the Popes" has no credence in the Roman Catholic Church, but its effect could well be longer-lasting than the hype that surrounded the 2012 Maya apocalypse — especially if the papal conclave goes with one of the favored candidates for Benedict XVI's successor.

The text that's been attributed to Malachy came to light in 1595, in a book by Benedictine monk Arnold de Wyon. Supposedly, Malachy experienced a vision of future popes during a trip to Rome in 1139, and wrote down a series of 112 cryptic phrases that described each pope in turn. The text was said to have lain unnoticed in Rome's archives until Wyon published it.

Doomsday fans have found ways to link each phrase to a corresponding pope through the centuries. That includes John Paul II, who is associated with phrase No. 110, "From the labor of the sun," because he was born on the day of a solar eclipse and was entombed on the day of a solar eclipse as well. Benedict XVI, No. 111, is supposedly "glory of the olive" because some members of a branch of the monastic order founded by St. Benedict are known as Olivetans.

Then there's No. 112: "In the extreme persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit ... Peter the Roman, who will nourish the sheep in many tribulations; when they are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The end."

The end? This could be the beginning for a doomsday meme that hangs over a whole generation, if it's taken seriously. There's already a 586-page book about the coming apocalypse, titled "Petrus Romanus." One theologian, Michael K. Lake, is quoted as saying that "Catholic and evangelical scholars have dreaded this moment for centuries."

In fact, the Catholic Church doesn't put any stock in the prophecies, for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest red flags is that no mention was made about the papal prophecies until the 1590s — not even by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a close friend of Malachy's who wrote his biography and hailed his gift of prophecy. And then there's always the biblical dictum that no one knows the day or the hour for doomsday — a rule of thumb that works for believers as well as non-believers.

Most experts have concluded that the text was made up to boost a 16th-century cardinal's bid to become pope.

But if the coming papal conclave really wanted to drum up the doomsday talk, as well as sales for "Petrus Romanus," all they'd have to do is elect one of the leading candidates: Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, a member of the Roman Curia. Even though church tradition would forbid any pope from taking the name Peter II, Turkson could arguably be described as Peter the Roman. Others suggest that he could be the "young red black one" mentioned in the similarly cryptic doomsday prophecies of Nostradamus.

Whomever the conclave picks, there'll surely be a way to connect him somehow with "Peter the Roman" — after all, isn't every pope a successor to St. Peter, based in Rome? "Any pope can be thought of as the latest Peter in the line," Tom Horn, one of the authors of "Petrus Romanus," said a couple of months ago on the "Coast to Coast AM" radio show.

Which means we might have to deal with 2012-style doomsaying as long as the next guy is in office. What do you think?

Dearly departed doomsdays:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.

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