Thu, Dec 18, 2008 - Page 18 News List

Welsh success ‘increases risk of papal death’


Wales’ Lee Byrne scores against Australia during their international rugby match at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales on Nov. 29.


Pope Benedict XVI faces a 45 percent risk of dying by Dec. 31, on the basis of a statistical link with a rugby Grand Slam this year, according to a “study” appearing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Tongue firmly in cheek, the paper looks into an urban legend in Wales, which says that whenever the Welsh side beats every other team in the northern hemisphere’s national championship, a pontiff dies that year.

The only exception, according to this myth, was in 1978, when Wales were really good ... and two popes died, not just one.

A trio of doctors based — somewhat predictably — in the Welsh capital of Cardiff trawled through the official data to see if the evidence supported the folklore.

They ruled out 1885, 1888-9, 1897-8 and 1972 because not all the scheduled matches were played those years.

After the first home internationals started in 1883, papal survivability began to plummet in years when there was a Grand Slam of any kind, not just by Wales, they found.

Of the eight pontiffs who have died since 1883, five of them did so in a Grand Slam year ... and spookily, all were won by a predominantly Protestant nation.

The fatalities were Leo XIII, in 1903, when Scotland won; Pius X, in 1904, when England won; Paul VI and John Paul I, in 1978, when Wales won; and John Paul II, in 2005, when Wales won again.

In addition, the deaths of Benedict XV, in 1922, and Pius XI, in 1939, occurred when Wales won the tournament, but not the Grand Slam.

Given that Wales won this year’s Grand Slam, should the world worry for 81-year-old Benedict XVI?

“Our model for the general theory of papal rugby predicts that 0.62 [about three-fifths] of a pope will die this year,” says the bogus study, drawing skilfully on the language of epidemiology to make its case. “Based on the historical evidence, we do not think the Vatican medical staff can fully relax until the new year arrives.”

The item is one of a whimsical batch that the Journal traditionally publishes before the festive season. Its authors are Gareth Payne, Rebecca Payne and Daniel Farewell.

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