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By Michael H. Brown

The announcement came out of nowhere.

Yes, for years there have been murmurings that the Pope might resign. But they were just that: murmurings. Based on no inside knowledge. Idle speculation.

Those with inside knowledge were as stunned, as everyone else, at Benedict XVI's announcement that he will step down.

He was seen, when he came in, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as a caretaker Pope -- nearly an "in-between" (having served as an assistant to John Paul II). And though he proved more than that (and will be remembered especially for pointing the Church back to traditional liturgy), there has been that caretaker element: keeping the ship upright, especially as it tried to navigate the most severe series of scandals in modern Church history, warding off one crisis after another.

More a theologian than a preacher, he never hit the kind of chords Pope John Paul II did but he turned out to be a worthy pontiff and a holy man and now the questions are forming a lengthy list.

Where will Benedict XVI live? What will they now call him? Was he ill or just feeling his age?

And of course, the chief query: who will succeed him?

While the choice of a dynamic, charismatic, devout Latin American or African would galvanize the Church, and perhaps do the most to change public perception (and narrative), there is probably close to an equal chance that the next Pope will again be a European, for European cardinals and especially Italians fill half the spots on the College of Cardinals, who will cast the ballots.

Can the Church now turn a corner? Can it recover lost credibility? Will it be a liberal or a conservative or a moderate Pope? Where Benedict emphasized tradition, what will the next pontiff emphasize? And what will Benedict's role be in the rituals of electing and seating his successor?

There are reports he will live "monastically" at a Vatican residence. There are also reports that he will not be involved in choosing a successor.

There is the "prophetic pulse," which will all but explode leading up to the announcement -- the smoke -- heralding the seating.

Already on edge over the unusual storms and other events of our time, and extraordinary manifestations of darkness in our societies, many will feel increasingly uneasy about the future, believing that long-prophesied major events now approach the threshold of materialization. For centuries, mystics have attached such events to the fleeing of a Pope from Rome -- usually during a war or persecution. If Benedict leaves the city itself, will some interpret this as "fleeing" Rome and revisit such prophecies?

In history, there are ten popes widely acknowledged to have "resigned." Of those, three were "Benedicts." That may strike many as odd; is it of significance?

The occurrence of the announcement on the feast day of Lourdes was another aspect. There is little question that Benedict XVI realized how his announcement would coincide with the feast day. Did it play into his timing at all? Was there a message in that -- on Mary, on healing? What will he do with his commission investigating major apparitions (apparitions bearing "secrets") at Medjugorje? Will there be an announcement on it before he leaves, or will this be left to the next Pope? "Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves," the Pope said in his homily on April 24, 2005, at the Mass and imposition of the pallium at the start of his papacy.

There are the alleged prophecies of Malachy.

Tradition has it that when he visited Rome in 1139, Saint Malachy O'Morgair, the 12-century archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, was granted a vision of all the popes of the future, each of whom he described in symbolic Latin. He was said to have given this list to Pope Innocent II, and little more was heard until 1590, when a Benedictine monk, Dom Arnold de Wyon, ignited controversy after discovering the list in the Vatican archives. 

Those who believe in this prophecy (and there is controversy over the authenticity of such a list to start with) argue that the Latin utterances fit all the popes since 1590.

As so many now know, St. Malachy foresaw that after a pope associated with the sun (John Paul II was born and his funeral was on the day of an eclipse, and he was closely tied to Fatima, where there was the famous sun miracle) there would be just two popes left; one would come as a pope de gloria olivae, "from the glory of the olive."

St. Benedict and the popes who took his name have often been associated with peace-making (the olive branch) and St. Benedict's very order, the Benedictines, are also known as "Olivetans" and has an olive branch as its symbol.

Next and last would be Petrus Romano, or Peter the Roman, if the prophecy is valid. Says Malachy's 112th prophecy: "In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church there will reign Petrus Romanus, who will feed his flock amid many tribulations; after which the seven-hilled city will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people. The End."

Some fear the last pope will actually be an "anti-pope" -- a dangerous speculation.

Through history, there have been any number of mystics who foresaw the Pope fleeing Rome.

Right now, it doesn't appear as if Benedict will flee the Vatican.

And the prophecies, some quoted below, focused not on voluntary abdication but on wars and actual physical persecutions that would dislodge a pontiff.

But there is no doubt too that the announcement comes at a dynamic and dramatic moment in the history of the Church and the entire world, with everything making news from storms to what may be a major coming comet. And indeed, whether or not it's related, something is coming.

Saint Hildegard (12th Century)
The time is coming when princes and peoples will reject the authority of the Pope. Some countries will prefer their own Church rulers to the Pope. The German Empire will be divided.

Before the comet comes, many nations, the good excepted, will be scourged by want and famine. The great nation in the ocean that is inhabited by people of different tribes and descent will be devastated by earthquake, storm, and tidal wave. It will be divided and, in great part, submerged. That nation will also have many misfortunes at sea and lose its colonies.

[After the] great Comet, the great nation will be devastated by earthquakes, storms, and great waves of water, causing much want and plagues. The ocean will also flood many other countries, so that all coastal cities will live in fear, with many destroyed.

All sea coast cities will be fearful, and many of them will be destroyed by tidal waves, and most living creatures will be killed, and even those who escape will die from a horrible disease. For in none of those cities does a person live according to the Laws of God.

A powerful wind will rise in the North, carrying heavy fog and the densest dust, and it will fill their throats and eyes so that they will cease their butchery and be stricken with a great fear.

John of the Cleft Rock (14th Century)
Towards the end of the world, tyrants and hostile mobs will rob the Church and the clergy of all their possessions and will afflict and martyr them. Those who heap the most abuse upon them will be held in high esteem. At that time, the Pope with his cardinals will have to flee Rome in tragic circumstances to a place where they will be unknown. The Pope will die a cruel death in his exile. The sufferings of the Church will be much greater than at any previous time in her history. But God will raise a holy Pope, and the Angels will rejoice. Enlightened by God, this man will rebuild almost the whole world through his holiness. He will lead everyone to the true Faith.

Sister Marianne de Jesus Torres (17th Century)
The most Holy Trinity confirmed the desire of my Queen, assuring that God will bless all those who, by their support and help, contribute in the making of the Holy Statue, as well as all those who help spread this devotion (to Our Lady of Good Success) throughout the centuries, making known its origin and these apparitions in the 20th century. This will be a time of great corruption of customs. The sacred sacrament of Holy Orders will be ridiculed, oppressed and despised, for in doing this, one scorns and defiles the Church of God, and even God Himself, represented by His priests. The Demon will try to persecute the Ministers of the Lord in every possible way.

The Ecstatic of Tours (19th Century)
Before the war breaks out again, food will be scarce and expensive. There will be little work for the workers, and fathers will hear their children crying for food. There will be earthquakes and signs in the sun. Toward the end, darkness will cover the Earth. When everyone believes that peace is ensured, when everyone least expects it, the great happening will begin. Revolution will break out in Italy almost at the same time as in France. For some time the Church will be without a Pope.

Pope Pius IX (1878)
Since the whole world is against God and His Church, it is evident that He has reserved the victory over His enemies to Himself. This will be more obvious when it is considered that the root of all our present evils is to be found in the fact that those with talents and vigor crave earthly pleasures, and not only desert God but repudiate Him altogether. Thus it appears they cannot be brought back in any other way except through an act that cannot be ascribed to any secondary agency, and thus all will be forced to look to the supernatural...

There will come a great wonder, which will fill the world with astonishment. This wonder will be preceded by the triumph of revolution. The church will suffer exceedingly. Her servants and her chieftain will be mocked, scourged, and martyred.

Meanwhile, the internet is abuzz with the possibility of an African: Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, already known -- reportedly -- as "Peter the Roman" because he studied in Rome.

[Photo of Pope with luminous Crucifix was taken by Gerry McGrane September 2010 at Bellahouston Park Glasgow, Scotland]

[resources: The Prophecies of Saint Malachy, Lenten books, Michael Brown retreat in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Retreat, Seattle, Portland, Medjugorje pilgrimage: purification, future, self-illumination]

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