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Are cardinals electing the last pope? If you believe Nostradamus...

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The pope delivers his final audience in St. Peter's Square as he prepares to stand down.

ROME— Church bells are sounding the alarm for doomsayers and conspiracy theorists here as cardinals convene to elect a new leader for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

According to an ancient prediction, this next pope will be the last.

That theory dates back more than 900 years to when Malachy O’Morgair, the 12th century Archbishop of Ireland, had a vision.

Legend has it that St. Malachy, as he is now known, had a strange dream while on a visit to Rome. He “saw” all the names of the future popes – complete with identifying characteristics – who would rule the church until the end of time. 

Malachy’s “Prophecy of the Popes,” as his vision is called, named Benedict XVI as the 111th – and penultimate – pope. The vision ended with the 112th pope.


Clairvoyant or crazy?
In his book, “Life of St. Malachy,” St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that Malachy was respected as a clairvoyant who predicted the exact day and hour of his own death.  At least one 20th century pope, Pius X, was convinced Malachy’s vision was divine, according to Rafael Merry del Val, his biographer.

But theologians and clerics argue there was never an authentic written manuscript. Malachy’s list was curiously discovered in 1590 in the Vatican archives, hundreds of years later.

“There is no historical foundation at all to St. Malachy’s list,” said Roberto Rusconi, professor of the History of Christianity at Rome’s University. “Malachy’s gift was to make other people believe in his predictions.”

Others have taken hold of Malachy’s list and compared it with history.

The first pope, according to the list, would be “from a castle on the Tiber” – for believers, that was clearly Pope Celestine II who was born on the shores of the Tiber River.

Pope Benedict was apparently described as “glory of the olives” and doomsayers point to his choice of the name Benedict, since the founder of the Benedictine Order was also known as Olivetans.

And in Malachy’s vision, the last pope – who will soon be elected – is described this way: “in extreme persecution, the seat of the Holy Roman Church will be occupied by Peter the Roman…”

While none of the Italian Cardinals are called Peter, one favorite to become Pope is Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana.

Alessandro Di Meo / EPA file

Lighting strikes the basilica of St.Peter's dome in Vatican City during a storm on Feb.11, 2013, the same day Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation.

Nostradamus: a comet and a lightning bolt
If that was not enough to send shivers down a few spines, Nostradamus, the 16th century French astrologer and seer, predicted much the same as Malachy. 

Nostradamus, a mild-mannered healer, was content to mix potions until the Italian-born French queen, Catherine de Medici, raised his profile from physician to prophet. 

Nostradamus warned that the next-to-last pope would “flee Rome in December when the great comet is seen in the daytime.” 

Taking into account the calendar months were different hundreds of years ago, Nostradamus wasn’t so far off. The Comet ISON, with its 40,000 mile-long tail, has been visible the past couple months as Benedict prepared to abdicate and leave Rome for his temporary home in Castel Gandolfo.

And for those well-versed in the language of brimstone and fire, the signs could not have been more transparent when just hours after Benedict announced he would abdicate, a bolt of lightning struck St. Peter’s Basilica, the very heart of Christianity. A few days later a shower of meteorites fell and devastated a village in Russia.

Cynics shrugged all this off as natural phenomena, while the doomsayers suffered from one more dose of existential angst. 

In St. Paul Outside the Walls, another major cathedral in Rome, medallions line the walls with the names of every pope and the dates of his papacy.  Legend says that when all the medallions are full, the world will finally end.  On the walls of St. Paul’s, there are still some empty spaces.

Perhaps the end isn’t so near.

Related:

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Will Catholics embrace change? The view from one parish in Rome

Full coverage of the papal abdication from NBC News