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Say it ain't so!

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When Pope Benedict shocked the world and announced to the consistory of cardinals on Feb. 11 that, with full freedom, he was renouncing the ministry of the Bishop of Rome effective Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. Rome time, that means there's still time for him to reconsider. While canon 332: 2 does not require that his resignation be accepted by anyone, only that it be made public and occur freely, yet because it only takes effect in the future Pope Benedict left open the technical legal possibility of changing his mind between now and then. Yes, as W.C. Fields said when asked why he was perusing the Gideon Bible at his deathbed, "I'm looking for loopholes."

For I don't want to lose him as pope. My view is that Pope Benedict, as his very humble and courageous decision to be the first pope in more than half a millennium to resign makes manifest, deserves to be called the Great, like his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II. His writing, teaching and preaching have been nothing short of magnificent, comparable to that of his predecessors Sts. Leo the Great and Gregory the Great. With respect to his resignation: Say it ain't so!

Of course, the pope had weighty reasons to decide as he did. In his statement, he said that, "after having repeatedly examined my conscience before God," he came "to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry." He made his declaration "well aware of the seriousness of the act." Realistically, it does not seem likely that this 85-year-old pope will reconsider his decision. Still, I wish he would. I'm saddened at the prospect of losing him. Pope Benedict at 50 percent capacity is probably more than most everyone else at full capacity. In any case, let's be grateful to God for having had such a pope, and pray to God for his continued well-being.

Still, I trust the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ, whose vicar the pope is. Whoever Benedict's successor is, I will love him and follow him as the successor of the apostle St. Peter, upon whose rock Christ built his Church. By this time next month it is likely we will have a new pope, as the conclave to elect him should begin in the middle of March.

In that regard, the media is making much of the so-called Prophecy of St. Malachy, an interesting list of future popes purportedly compiled by St. Malachy, an Irish saint of the 12th century. The list was not discovered and published until the end of the 16th century.

In it, there is a brief Latin phrase describing each pope from the time of St. Malachy until the end of the time. The list ends with Petrus Romanus, who "will sit in the extreme persecution of the Holy Roman Church and feed the sheep through many tribulations, after which the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the formidable Judge will judge his people." The point is that the next pope (and perhaps last pope) would be Petrus Romanus, Peter the Roman. Is this a plausible prediction of a proximate end of the world?

Even if the prophecy were considered not to be a forgery but authentic private revelation, which seems unlikely given the discrepancy between when St. Malachy lived and when the prophecy was discovered, like all private revelation it does not have to be believed (like the famous Third Secret of Fatima). In any case, it has to be interpreted. There is much to be said for the view that Peter the Roman is a generic term for the pope, the successor of Peter who is Bishop of Rome, such that it functions as a dot-dot-dot, just an indication of more popes to come. Nor does the prophecy say that the destruction of Rome (the city of the seven hills) and the final judgment will occur during Peter's pontificate, only after it.

In any case, we should put much more stock in Jesus' public revelation that "you know neither the day nor the hour." We simply don't know when the end of the world will happen until it does.

That being said, there are two plausible candidates in the upcoming conclave that could be identified beforehand (without too much shoehorning) as a "Petrus Romanus": Peter Turkson, the African cardinal from Ghana named Peter, who works in the Roman Curia; and Tarcisio Pietro (Peter) Bertone, the Italian Cardinal Secretary of State who was born in a town called Romano Canavese in the Piedmont region. If either of them wins, maybe we should give St. Malachy's prophecy a second look.

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.

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