Obituary: Malachi Martin

POPE JOHN Paul II "inherited a bedraggled church pushed to the brink by Pope Paul VI's huge betrayal and neglect," Malachi Martin wrote in 1981:

a church with depopulated seminaries, politico bishops, lipsticked and mini-skirted nuns, bewildered lay people, plus a Vatican that housed Communist moles, clerical financial wizards, career diplomats, Marxist prelates, a brothel, overworked exorcists, hostile bureaucrats, some silent good people, and a hard-core 37 per cent of clerics and people who yearned for the church Paul VI had smothered.

Martin's devastating critique of the Church he had served for 10 years as a Jesuit priest did not stop there. He went on to claim that Satan had taken hold of the Vatican and was even in a position to put his candidate on the papal throne (though he was convinced John Paul II was not a Satanist). "Lucifer, the biggest archangel, the leader of the revolt against God, has a big in with certain Vatican officials," he warned in 1997.

Much of the decline experienced by the Catholic Church, Martin believed, could be put down to Pope John XXIII's refusal to act on the third of the prophecies revealed by the Virgin Mary to three Portuguese peasant children at Fatima in 1917, written down and kept in strict secrecy by the Vatican and read by the Pope in 1960. (Martin also claimed to have read it, but was under an oath not to reveal the contents which he felt unable to break.) He believed it was not until John Paul consecrated Russia to the Virgin Mary that the Virgin's wishes were fulfilled.

Such lurid claims gained greater weight from Martin's carefully nurtured stature as a former Vatican insider who hinted at his initiation into the weightiest of the Vatican's secrets during his service in Rome from 1958 to 1964. He played on his reported closeness to Pope John. But his growing body of writing began to be regarded with increasing embarrassment by the Church he had once served.

Martin grew up in a large, traditional Catholic family in County Kerry and in 1939 as a young man entered the Jesuit Order. He read for a BA in humanities at University College, Dublin, then spent three years studying philosophy followed by three years teaching in a Jesuit college in Ireland, and four years of theology studies at Milltown Park, Dublin (the college where Jesuits did their theological training). There he was ordained into the priesthood in 1954, taking his final vows as a Jesuit on 2 February 1957.

His talents were soon apparent and he was sent for further studies outside Ireland. He received doctorates from the universities of Louvain and Oxford and from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he concentrated on knowledge of Jesus as transmitted in Islamic and Jewish sources. As a biblical scholar, Martin's main contribution was the book The Scribal Character of the Dead Sea Scrolls, published in Louvain in 1958.

Marked out as a high-flyer, he became Professor of Palaeontology and Semitic Languages at the prestigious Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was a theological adviser to Cardinal Augustin Bea, the head of the Vatican's Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. This brought him into close contact with Pope John XXIII.

Martin's years in Rome coincided with the start of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which was to transform the Catholic Church in a way that the initially-liberal Martin began to find distressing. Disillusioned by the reforms taking place among the Jesuits, the Church's largest religious order, Martin requested a release from his vows in 1964 and left Rome suddenly that June.

He moved in 1965 to New York, where he first had to make ends meet as a dishwasher and taxi driver before being able to make his living by his writing (he also co-founded an antiques firm). Based in Manhattan with his companion Kakia Livanos, he became an American citizen in 1970.

His succession of books on Catholic themes became more and more extravagant, moving him further away from the Church he appeared to be so concerned about. In his first, The Pilgrim (published in 1964 under the Armenian- sounding pseudonym Michael Serafian), he divulged Vatican efforts to block Pope John's intention to retract the Church's doctrine blaming the Jews for Christ's death. The book made a stir and gave him the taste for controversy.

His 1976 book Hostage to the Devil - which was published soon after the film The Exorcist hit the cinema screen - was a lurid account of the possession and exorcism of five Americans. When his 1996 novel Windswept House appeared (which featured a fictionalised version of an actual ritual murder in Chicago), he was criticised for failing to report to the police the names of those he apparently knew were responsible.

But the "decline and fall" of the Catholic Church remained his obsession. An opponent of the new rite Mass instituted by Pope Paul, Martin vocally opposed female altar-servers, believing they were a Trojan horse leading eventually to women priests. He opposed ecumenism vigorously, a curious position for someone once so close to Cardinal Bea, the Catholic ecumenical pioneer, and rejected liberation theology. The Final Conclave (1978) was a warning against alleged Soviet spies in the Vatican.

Martin was easily dismissed by the majority of the Church as an exponent of the "Catholic occult" (not helped by his claims to have seen Satan in his own apartment). But even his historical reminiscences from his time in Rome were regarded with mistrust. Biographers of Pope John dismissed his claims that by the time of his death the pontiff bitterly regretted his decision to call the Vatican Council.

Martin laid great stress on visions (Pope Pius XII had one, he claimed, as did Pope John Paul II). His own devotion to Mary is clear from the dedication of his books ("For the Immaculate Heart" reads one, "For the Assumption" another).

If he had hopes of John Paul, Martin might have been disappointed that the pontiff has not yet fulfilled his greatest dream, as laid out at the close of his 1990 book The Keys of This Blood: Pope John Paul II versus Russia and the West for control of the New World Order. In Martin's vision, Pope "Valeska" summons an unexpected consistory, where he surprises - even shocks - the assembled cardinals by decreeing a "drastic and immediate reform" of the Church, removing theologically suspect cardinals, bishops and priests, suspending the Vatican bureaucracy, purging the new order of Mass and revoking the decrees of the Second Vatican Council.

"I was told I could expect to be made a cardinal, that I had Biblical knowledge, a facility with languages, a good memory, all of which made me a candidate for advancement," Martin declared in a 1997 interview. The Vatican can be thankful he left when he did.

Malachi Brendan Martin, writer and priest: born Ballylongford, Co Kerry 23 July 1921; ordained priest 1954, laicised 1964; died New York 27 July 1999.

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