The Roman Catholic understanding that the Pope of Rome is the Head of the Church, the Vicar of Christ, seems very strange to Christian Orthodoxy. Not only does all this imply that Christ is not the Head of the Church, but also that at the present time there is no Head of the Roman Catholic Church. And how could the Church have had a Head, and at that an infallible one, who was unable to speak? And how can an elite group of Roman Catholic bishops, known as cardinals, bestow on one of themselves infallible authority? And how can Roman Catholicism therefore even survive in any interregnum, after one Pope of Rome has died, but before the next one has been elected?
However, the unanswered questions of Orthodox Theology apart, there is no doubt that Pope John-Paul II will go down in history. Although a controversial figure, he was one of the most active and outstanding Roman Catholic Popes of Rome. His courageous survival of the attempted KGB-organized assassination in 1981, and the link between it and the events in Fatima in 1917, remain enigmatic. Of course, it is true that the Orthodox interpretation of the events of Fatima are quite different from those of Roman Catholicism. On the other hand, this Pope's insistence on the parallel between the genocide of tens of millions of Slavs, Jews and others under Fascism and the abortion holocaust of the modern 'politically-correct' West was fully Orthodox, as was his courageous stand against Communism.
Above all, however, in many ways this Pope was the first truly global Pope of Rome. Through his many visits to over one hundred different countries all over the world, he was the first to embody the claims of the Roman Catholic Primate to world supremacy. There is little doubt that various powerful groupings within Roman Catholicism will very, very soon, be promoting the cause of his beatification and canonization will follow in the near future.
From an Orthodox viewpoint, all of this will go to show just how different the concept of holiness in the Orthodox Church is from that in Roman Catholicism. True, no Orthodox Christian would doubt the sincerity, courage and many other qualities of the late John-Paul II. Compared to so many scandalous and criminal Popes of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Celestine III (1191-98), Innocent III (1198-1216), Alexander VI (1492-1503), Julius II (1503-1513), Leo X (1513-21), to name but a few, he was a man of Christian values, as was seen in his illness. On the other hand, it must be said that his Papacy left Orthodox-Catholic relations, especially in Russia and Eastern Europe, near an all-time low.
From a Roman Catholic viewpoint, there are also many other concerns. Pope John-Paul II has with reason been dubbed 'the most admired, but the least obeyed Pope'. In fact he leaves behind him a difficult inheritance. He leaves an organization which is incredibly weakened, both in faith and in finance. In fact, in the Western world, Roman Catholicism never recovered from the Second Vatican Council. To say that that Council 'protestantized' Roman Catholicism is really unfair to Protestantism - at least to the old orthodox variety. In fact, that Council altogether secularized Roman Catholicism, putting man and his self-admiration at the centre of things, in place of Christ ('Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man' (Rev. 13,18)).
The tendency for modern Roman Catholicism to forget the next world and put the 'Third World' in its place typifies the whole secularized Western world which seems to have replaced the Gospel of Christ with the Gospel of sociology. Had Roman Catholicism resisted the secularist agenda of the 1960s and not desacralized itself, perhaps the Western world would not be where it is today. (However, most Orthodox would tend to affirm that this whole process was inevitable anyway, merely being the ugliest part of the inevitable end-game of the millennium-long filioque process). The problem is that, having squandered their post-Tridentine liturgical heritage for a mess of modernist pottage, even if Roman Catholics did return to their Faith, they would have little of liturgical worth to return to.
More recently, in both Western Europe and the United States, Roman Catholicism has been undermined by dramatic homosexual and pedophile scandals. Here Pope John Paul II leaves a largely bankrupt organization (and not only in the financial sense), desperately short of clergy, and a people who, where they have not entirely lapsed, are often in a state of revolt and apostasy. The pedophile scandal in the USA has cost Roman Catholicism nearly a billion dollars so far and one diocese has had to sell off 80 churches to pay out compensation. Over 4,000 pedophile priests have been exposed and more than 100,000 victims of such priests have already come forward in the USA alone.
Thus, to many outside the former Western colonies in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Roman Catholicism appears to have become the empty shell of a once mighty institution. There are even those who forecast an imminent collapse of the whole near-millenial structure of Roman Catholicism in the faithless Western world. Perhaps, if an African Pope were now elected (in Africa they have not forgotten the next world in favour of the 'Third World'), he could send Roman Catholic missionaries from faithful Africa to the Roman Catholics of the darkest West. God knows, the once Roman Catholic West needs them
As a result of these events in Rome the attention of many has been drawn to the much-disputed 'Prophecies of St Malachy'. Archbishop Malachy (1094-1148) was a Roman Catholic prelate of Armagh and one of the pioneers of Roman Catholicism in Ireland, imposing the anti-Orthodox Gregorian reforms there. His so-called 'Prophecies' are in fact a list of short symbolic sayings given to 111 Popes from 1143 on. In reality they were almost certainly not written by him, but were first published, and perhaps entirely written, in 1595 by a certain Dom Arnold de Wyon under Malachy's name. Each saying consists of a phrase of two to four words in Latin, which are said to sum up the essence of each Pope.
For example the motto of Pope John Paul II was 'De Labore Solis', meaning 'From the Sun's Labour'. This has been interpreted as referring to the fact that this Pope was born on the day of a total eclipse, since the phrase 'the sun's labour' is a medieval Latin phrase meaning an eclipse. Others interpret it as meaning that this Pope, who is from Eastern Europe, where the sun rises as viewed from Western Europe, is also one of the most hard-working in history, with his countless voyages, canonizations, encyclicals and reorganizations. Yet others interpret the saying as meaning that, in his time, Papal power will be eclipsed.
Despite their disputed origins and interpretations, these cryptic sayings have recently attracted attention for one simple reason. As we have said, they refer to 111 Popes from the time of St Malachy on. The first of these is Celestine II (1143-4) and Pope John-Paul II is the 110th. In other words, according to these 'Prophecies', there is only one Pope to come. This one, the 111th, is referred to in the 'Prophecies' as 'De Gloria Olivae' ('From the Glory of the Olive').
These mysterious words have already been interpreted by some to signify that the next Pope will be a peacemaker. By others they have been given an apocalyptic significance, since Christ gave his disciples details of the end of the world on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24,3 onwards). Moreover, after the saying for the 111th Pope, the 'Prophecies' end with a prophetic 'coda' or saying. This declares that the last Pope in history will be called Peter and after him will come the end of the world.
Looking at this from an Orthodox viewpoint, could this mean quite simply, not that the next Pope will be the last in world history, but that he will be the last Roman Catholic Pope? That he will merely be the last of the near thousand-year history of the Roman Catholic Papacy? And that he will at last be succeeded by the return to an Orthodox Papacy in Rome, not explained in these 'Prophecies', before the end comes? This certainly is the thousand-year prayer of all Orthodox Christians who have awaited repentance before the end.
The fact is that, whether these 'Prophecies' are nonsense or not, Roman Catholicism is now facing challenges greater than any others it has faced since the eleventh century, when it was first created by breaking away from the Orthodox Church. Only the future will tell us where the remnants of the heritage of the Orthodox West, still contained within Roman Catholicism, are destined.