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Freemasons in the Vatican?
On Kevin Symonds's comments regarding the testimony of Fr. Charles Murr
This post is a response to Catholic writer and author Kevin Symonds, who replied to my article on the rumors surrounding the late Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, which were discussed in the second episode of the Mass of the Ages trilogy.
Warning: this might get tedious.
First, here are the relevant links.
A PERFECT STORM — How the New Mass was created after Vatican II — MASS OF THE AGES Episode 2:
My article, “Annibale Bugnini: Liturgy’s Greatest Villain.”
The response to this article by Kevin Symonds, “Defending Fr. Murr: A Response to Mike Lewis.”
First of all, I would like to thank Kevin Symonds for a very charitable critique. He was very generous in pointing out areas of agreement and gave a good amount of positive feedback. He was also very thorough and thoughtful in his criticism, explaining clearly the reasons for his disagreement. I appreciate this approach and I can honestly say that it can serve as a model for others (including myself) in how to critique the work of another.
I don’t want to cover all the same ground Symonds covered in his response (once again, here’s the link), because we were in agreement on many points. I do, however, want to address the key areas of disagreement, which concern Fr. Charles Murr’s testimony in Mass of the Ages.
Here are the four paragraphs in my article that Symonds responded to in detail (the specific references to Fr. Murr’s testimony in bold):
Although Chiron’s meticulously-researched portrait of Bugnini is very critical overall—especially about the role he played in the reform of the liturgy—he makes clear that there is no documentary evidence whatsoever of Bugnini’s alleged links to Freemasonry.
More recently, however, an American priest named Fr. Charles Murr has come forward with his own recollections of his time working in the Vatican with Canadian Cardinal Édouard Gagnon. Fr. Murr, who appears in Episode 2 of Mass of the Ages, has written a new book entitled Murder in the 33rd Degree, which claims the existence of irrefutable evidence that Bugnini was a Freemason. Fr. Murr writes that around 1974, Cardinals Dino Staffa and Silvio Oddi presented Paul VI with documentation that Bugnini was an active Freemason and had been infiltrating the Church, suggesting that this was the motivation for promoting the dramatic changes to the liturgy.
In 1975, Bugnini was sent to Iran as Apostolic Nuncio—a career change that suggested to many of his enemies that his affiliation with the Masons had been found out and he was being exiled as punishment. Chiron, however, disputes the claim that it had anything to do with his removal, noting that there was a growing dissatisfaction with Bugnini from other members of the Curia, and “the fact that Paul VI ‘progressively withdrew’ his trust from Archbishop Bugnini.”
This rumor is certainly widespread, but those who were in a position to speak authoritatively on the question (such as Pope Paul VI and Cardinals Gagnon, Oddi, and Staffa) never spoke or wrote publicly about the alleged evidence in their lifetimes. Despite Fr. Murr’s claims to have knowledge of what they discovered, he’s produced no documentary evidence. Until such evidence emerges, it does not seem reasonable to assume it’s true. Just like the blurry picture, our imaginations are tempted to fill in the gaps in the narrative with the conspiracy theory, however.
Before moving on to Kevin’s critique, I want to make a few clarifications.
First, I do not deny that Fr. Murr’s version of events is possible. Many people certainly believed that Bugnini was a Freemason. I am skeptical, but if documentary evidence is ever produced, I’ll accept it. My own feelings on Bugnini himself are mixed but largely irrelevant, since I didn’t know the man and I don’t have a sense of his character beyond what I’ve gleaned from his writings and second-hand accounts.
Second, my conclusions on the question of Bugnini were not meant as a personal sleight against Fr. Murr or an attack on his character. Based on what I have heard about him and have been able to glean about his biography, he appears to be a faithful priest who has served the Church well for many years. Based on my reading Fr. Murr’s book and having watched several interviews, I do not have the impression that he intends to deceive anyone. There are a number of possible explanations, many of which do not involve dishonesty on his part. I apologize if it came across as an attack on his character.
Symonds begins with a recap of Fr. Murr’s story, which is worth reviewing if you are unfamiliar with it. Symonds knows Fr. Murr’s story much better than I do and has had a role in bringing it to the public. For example, he conducted a two-part interview with Fr. Murr in 2020 that was featured in Inside the Vatican, he provided a back-cover blurb for Fr. Murr’s book Murder in the 33rd Degree. , and they have appeared together in an episode of the YouTube program Reason and Theology.
My own familiarity with Fr. Murr is not nearly as intimate. I do not know him personally. I have read several interviews he has given. I’ve also watched several video interviews he has done, including one with John-Henry Westen, one with Patrick Coffin, and the aforementioned appearance on Reason and Theology. I have also purchased Murder in the 33rd Degree, but I have only read about 40% of it. I used it primarily to confirm that I was relaying his story accurately in my article. I don’t have any personal animus against him, but I do question the veracity of his account for reasons I will give below.
Following his recap, Symonds begins to list his key concerns with my article. He points out that I generally stuck to facts, but that I only provided a one-sided presentation of them and did not give fair treatment to the other side of the story. He writes:
Lewis’ articles are worded rather cautiously in places. It is clear that in doing so, Lewis is trying to stick with the facts, as best as he knows or understands them, and his desire is commendable. Unfortunately, facts are used but without providing important counter-points at various intervals that balance out the presentation or characterization of a matter at hand.
This is a fair point, although my intentions were not malicious. My article was dealing with two accusations against Bugnini: that he was deliberately trying to “Protestantize” the liturgy, and that he was a Freemason.
The first accusation is typically based on the claims that six Protestants observers were involved in the reform of the missal, and an alleged quote from Bugnini that says, “The road to union with our separated brethren, the Protestants, is to remove every stone from the liturgy, every prayer from the Mass, that could even remotely be an obstacle or difficulty.” Debunking these claims is fairly easy, if you can track down the right documents. In my article, I explain how Pope Paul VI issued a clarification about the role of the Protestant observers. An English version of this statement is not readily available online, but it is in the out-of-print book Documents on the Liturgy, 1963-1979. I wound up spending around $30 on a used copy for this book several years ago, because there was so much conflicting information going around the internet about the reform of the liturgy, and many assertions are made without citations. This book is a good source of official Church documents on the topic.
Regarding the alleged quote from Bugnini, several sources cite a 1965 article he wrote in the Vatican newspaper, which unfortunately is not available online (as far as I could tell). Several sources (including traditionalists) were in agreement that the quote in Mass of the Ages was not what Bugnini really said, and I was able to find a slightly blurry image of the newspaper page. But I would have had to go even further if I wanted undeniable proof. The next step, to confirm with absolute certainty that the quote was doctored, would have been to contact the archivist in Italy and hope that they could find the issue and article.
This is the difficulty with debunking. The filmmakers posted a quote from who-knows-where, didn’t do any verification, and featured it in their film as if it was real. I spent several hours trying to track down the original source, dug deep into the internet archive and asked several people for advice to help me find the original source. Even though I’m quite certain it’s a falsified quote, I’d have to go to the extra step of contacting the newspaper in Italy for concrete proof. It’s thankless work. Even if I did get the original article from L’Osservatore Romano, the vast majority of the film’s fans likely wouldn’t know, and the majority of those who did know probably wouldn’t believe me, because they agree with the filmmaker’s views and therefore trust him more. At a certain point, I had to stop.
As for the charges that Bugnini was involved in Freemasonry, there was much more ground to cover. I spent days researching the question from many angles. For my article I chose to discuss the three things I thought were most relevant to my article: (1) Bugnini’s public denials of ever having been a Mason (which are quoted and cited in Yves Chiron’s biography), (2) Chiron’s conclusion in his meticulously-researched book that no one has ever been able to provide concrete evidence that Bugnini was a Freemason, and (3) Fr. Murr’s account.
You might say the paragraphs I wrote about this in my article represent a summary of my analysis and conclusions — they were not meant to provide a point-by-point rebuttal of the claims. Although I spent a great deal of time looking for information and weighing the evidence and arguments, I didn’t “show my work,” at least not much of it. After all, Chiron had covered much of the same ground and reached the same conclusion already (and he at least got paid for it!). In addition, I mentioned Fr. Murr’s account because he was featured in Mass of the Ages and his book was more recent than Chiron’s.
In my research (some of which I will describe below), I was unable to find any evidence or corroborating information that substantiated Fr. Murr's claims. In fact, analyzing and researching the claims in his book leaves me with more questions than answers.
In his response, Symonds continues:
In the Bugnini article, Lewis wrote, “Fr. Murr…claims the existence of irrefutable evidence that Bugnini was a Freemason.” Lewis later states that Fr. Murr has, “produced no documentary evidence.” These statements are true and should not come as a surprise to anyone who read Murr’s preface to his book Murder in the 33rd Degree, “The answer is to be found in the documents themselves. Only when this information is made known can the needed objective reforms of the Roman Curia be addressed.”
Whether it’s fair to Fr. Murr or not, this type of claim always raises a red flag for me. From the Third Secret of Fatima to the Vigano testimony to the question of extraterrestrial life, people who advance conspiracy theories often claim that the proof is locked away in a top-secret file somewhere. Such things often remain forever clouded in mystery. Still, even though this claim raised red flags, I didn’t want to dismiss it entirely. So I tried to verify what I could in his account.
Substantiating the basic points of his biography was easy. He has a YouTube channel filled with slideshows of photographs from his time as a priest, including his 1977 ordination in Rome by Cardinal Gagnon and his time running an orphanage in Jalisco, Mexico.
Still, he makes claims that cannot be substantiated. Keep in mind that many of the people who have promoted the theory that Bugnini was a Freemason have also been motivated to discredit Bugnini due to their opposition to the liturgical reforms. Yet his biographer, Yves Chiron — no fan of Bugnini! — dove deeply into the question and concluded that no concrete evidence behind the accusations against Bugnini has ever been revealed.
Although Fr. Murr came forward with a new testimony, his claims are not supported by concrete documentary evidence nor by corroborating eyewitnesses. By his own admission, Fr. Murr is (as far as he knows) the last living witness to many of the events he recounts. If he’s telling the truth, this is an unfortunate fact, because it decreases the likelihood that anyone will ever come forward to corroborate his story. But this is also typical of conspiracy theories. If all the potential witnesses are dead, it may be impossible to prove that something happened, but it’s also very hard to prove with certainty that it didn’t.
Symonds then suggests that I am questioning the character of Fr. Murr:
Having subtly cast doubt and aspersion upon Fr. Murr’s veracity, Lewis attempts to nuance himself, “Until such evidence emerges, it does not seem reasonable to assume it’s true.” Unfortunately, there is no nuancing here. Fr. Murr is either telling the truth (according to the best of his recollections), or he is lying. Lewis is to be commended for wanting to see the evidence, but not at the expense of others’ good names and reputations.
It is not true that I am accusing Fr. Murr of lying, inasmuch as “a lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving” (CCC 2482). I said, “it does not seem reasonable to assume it’s true.” First of all, I don’t know Fr. Murr, so I can’t make assumptions about his character. Second, note that I left open the possibility of further evidence. I advise against simply assuming it’s true based only on his word. Fr. Murr is the latest in a long line of people who have accused Bugnini of being a Mason without providing documentary evidence.
If he’s not telling the truth, that doesn’t mean Fr. Murr is a liar. In fact, I am inclined to think he believes everything he’s saying. But memory is a tricky thing, and after so many years, things may not have happened the way he remembers them. I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, but there are several reasons why I question his reliability.
Cardinal Gagnon’s Apostolic Visitation of the Roman Curia
Fr. Murr says that at the request of Paul VI, Cardinal Gagnon conducted a 3-year Apostolic Visitation of the entire Roman Curia in the 1970s. Originally, I presumed that such a massive undertaking was a matter of public record. It is my practice to fact check and verify sources during the writing process. While composing the original draft of my article, I wanted to verify the correct dates of this visitation. What I thought would be a quick Google search to confirm the dates (and maybe learn a little more about this significant three-year project) quickly turned into a trip down the rabbit hole of obscure traditionalist websites trying to find evidence that this visitation ever happened at all.
I couldn’t find anything about it on official Church websites or in any mainstream or academic sources. The vast majority of mentions pointed back to a 2001 interview of Alice Von Hildebrand in Latin Mass Magazine or to Fr. Murr himself. The Visitation was also discussed in an article by Msgr. Vincent Foy, who worked for Cardinal Gagnon, but he relies primarily on Von Hildebrand’s account. Dr. Von Hildebrand died in January at the age of 98. Msgr Foy died in 2017 at the age of 101.
I found plenty of mentions of other Apostolic Visitations in Catholic sources, academic journals, and mainstream journalistic publications (including a Visitation of the Society of St. Pius X conducted in the 1980s by Cardinal Gagnon), but nothing about this one.
I did as thorough a search as I could, including of the Internet Archive’s Open Library, but nothing came up. I then started asking as many veteran Vatican reporters, longtime Church insiders, and Vatican theologians as I could think of. I contacted a Canadian bishop who knew Cardinal Gagnon and a Church historian and professor who wrote a biography of Paul VI. No one had ever heard about this Visitation. I even tried to contact Cardinal Ouellet (but I haven’t heard back). In all, I have reached out to roughly 30 people, and I’ve gotten responses from all but 5-6 of them. None of them had any clue what I was talking about.
I even contacted Mass of the Ages director Cameron O’Hearn. He said that the late traditionalist author Michael Davies mentioned it, but once again, that’s another traditionalist source.
I still haven’t heard back from a few Canadian theologians and Church historians, but my expectations for any concrete leads aren’t high. (For the record, if anyone does have corroborating evidence from official sources, please let me know.)
I have probably spent 20-30 hours looking for any independent evidence that this Visitation happened but have come up empty. Given the timeframe and the scope of Gagnon’s alleged investigation, I have difficulty imagining that not a single curial monsignor didn’t complain to the National Catholic Reporter or an Italian tabloid that Cardinal Gagnon was poking around his office looking for corruption.
Additionally, although I have great admiration for Dr. Alice Von Hildebrand, I do have reasons to believe she has a tendency to sensationalize and exaggerate historical claims, and I do not believe that she was a reliable corroborating witness. (Explaining why would take another article, but in a nutshell, she has made statements on a book entitled AA-1025 and about Bella Dodd’s testimony before congress that don’t align with the historical record.)
Where are the records of this visitation? What was the outcome? According to Fr. Murr, then-Archbishop Gagnon tried to present the information to three popes, but none acted on it, so it remains buried in an archive.
He dramatizes a conversation between Archbishop Gagnon and Paul VI, with the pope saying he is in his last days and will be unable to act on it:
“We ask that you keep this invaluable information safe and to yourself… We charge you to explain everything you have right there, everything you tried to explain to us this morning —to our successor.”
According to Fr. Murr’s account, Pope John Paul I was eager to root out the corruption in the Church. He dramatizes a meeting between Gagnon and the pope in which they discuss the investigation, the documentation, and the action that needed to be taken, most especially removing Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio (an alleged Freemason) from his role as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.
Fr. Murr describes Gagnon’s exuberance when he saw him after the meeting:
“We have much to be thankful for! The Almighty has seen fit to send us the right man for these trying times. You ask how it went, Don Carlo?” he repeated and smiled broadly as we made our way downhill around the basilica, “I’ll tell you: the Holy Father himself and the audience were more than I had dared to hope for. And, believe me, regarding this entire matter and this very important audience with the new pope, I dared to hope very high! The mutual trust was immediate - almost palpable. I answered every question he had as clearly as I knew how. He listened with more than his ears, my boy; he listened with his heart; he listened with his Catholic soul.”
Of course, Pope Luciani would not live long enough to act on this information. Which meant that Gagnon would have to try a third time. His meeting with Pope John Paul II is described much differently. Rather than providing a dramatization of the meeting between Gagnon and the pope, Fr. Murr describes his wait outside, and then Gagnon’s behavior once it was over:
Very out of character for him, he said nothing until we were in the car. “Please, Don Carlo, would you be so kind as to take me right home —the sooner we get there, the better.”
And then there was total silence —a silence I respected and guarded almost as a sacred duty. Did I understand it? I clearly interpreted his tone, his expression, and his silence symptomatic of a migraine headache. I deduced that the audience between the Apostolic Visitor and the new pope had not gone as he had hoped. Without moving my head, I caught glimpses of my friend’s pained expression and I could see that the audience had gone very poorly —no, the audience had been a disaster.
Thus ends the story of Cardinal Gagnon’s attempts to convince three popes to act on a dossier that presented incontrovertible evidence of Freemasons occupying high-ranking positions in the curia. Due to the deaths of two popes and a disastrous meeting with a third, this evidence was never acted upon and the proof was never revealed. And somehow a three-year visitation of the entire Roman Curia was done with such secrecy that veteran Vatican watchers, curial employees, and clerical insiders never heard about it, until now.
The story is sensational and Fr. Murr presents a story without a shred of documentation to support the conspiracy theories they reinforce. Between this article and the one I wrote for Where Peter Is, I have spent countless hours attempting to give his story the benefit of the doubt. Even still, I could not find any corroborating evidence of this visitation outside of traditionalist sources. Not finding any definitive conclusion, I chose not to include it in my article.
Yes, it could have happened. And if someone has further information, I would be happy to change my mind.
Besides the visitation, however, there are other aspects of Fr. Murr’s narrative that were difficult to substantiate, inconsistent with established facts, or that lack explanation.
The date of Gagnon’s meeting with John Paul II
Fr. Murr’s account of Gagnon’s meeting with Pope John Paul II has gone through an interesting transformation. In an earlier account, he gives an approximate date for this meeting. In his book, the date of the meeting and the events that precede it become an important plot point.
This chapter begins with an interesting footnote: “Author’s Note: In an interview with Inside the Vatican in November, 2020, I mistakenly said that the meeting between Pope St. John Paul II and Archbishop Gagnon took place in October, 1978.”
In the 2020 interview, he said, “In that October meeting, Archbishop Gagnon detected much less enthusiasm on the part of the new pontiff. John Paul II was already preparing to travel. To Mexico, if I’m not mistaken.” That’s simple enough—the meeting was around that time, and he recalls the pope was planning a trip. Even though the trip took place in late January (placing the meeting after the trip), it has been a long time and no one has perfect recall.
It is commendable that Fr. Murr corrected this mistake. Because he was speaking from memory, this is understandable. Unfortunately, in the footnote he doesn’t provide more information about how he realized the mistake and found the correct date. Although it is natural to forget a date by a few months, but in the new version of Fr. Murr’s story, the corrected date becomes a major point of emphasis in the narrative.
In fact, the scheduling of this February meeting becomes the subtext of an entire chapter. The anxiety around the date is mentioned repeatedly. Murr writes:
“When Pope John Paul II reconfirmed Archbishop Édouard Gagnon as President of the Pontifical Committee for the Family, he sent word to him that he looked forward to a private meeting with him ‘to discuss important affairs of State.’ The meeting, however, would have to wait until after his return from Mexico —after February first.
Recounting a conversation between himself, Gagnon, and Marini, he quotes Gagnon saying, “‘He phoned me on Thursday to tell me that the audience will have to wait - until the pope returns from Mexico.’”
‘And that will be?’ I asked.
‘The first of February,’ Mario answered at once.
'The first of February,’ Édouard Gagnon repeated cheerlessly.”
Worried that the pope will make disastrous personnel decisions if Gagnon’s meeting is delayed until February, Fr. Murr quotes Marini telling Gagnon, “You’ve got to get that audience with the pope before it’s too late to do anything; before it’s all lost.”
According to Fr. Murr, in mid-January, Gagnon decided the meeting with the pope couldn’t wait any longer. Fr. Murr says Gagnon told him, ““I think I’ll pay Cardinal Villot a visit, in person. I’ll walk into his office unannounced, and demand an official and private audience with the pope.”
When Gagnon returns from his meeting with Cardinal Villot, Fr. Murr says he told him, ““The Holy Father will see me as soon as he returns from Mexico.”
Finally, on the day of the long-awaited meeting, Fr. Murr repeats this exchange between himself and Gagnon, “‘I just don’t want you late for a private papal audience that you’ve been waiting for since the sixteenth of October, 1978!’
‘Almost four months,’ he sighed, ‘Four months for the busy scoundrels desperate to cover their tracks. It seems our Nuncio to Iran has an urgent need “to explain himself” to the new pontiff; he cannot wait until diplomatic protocol calls him to Rome. It has to be now.’”
As I said previously, forgetting a date, especially when recalling it from memory, is one thing. But it seems unusual that an afterthought in one version becomes the focus of an entire chapter.
Perhaps that was how it really happened. Maybe one of his editors looked in the archives of the Vatican Press Office’s daily bulletin and told Fr. Murr that Cardinal Gagnon’s first audience with the pope was in February. Maybe that caused all the memories to come flooding back. Or perhaps Fr. Murr kept a journal, and when he consulted it, remembered the proper sequence of events.
Still, it would have been nice for Fr. Murr or his editors to provide an explanation beyond the fact that they corrected a date.
The death of Pope John Paul I
Unlike the question of Archbishop Bugnini’s alleged Freemasonry or the truth about the apostolic visitation of the Roman Curia by Cardinal Gagnon, Fr. Murr does provide an account of one event that has been researched and scrutinized at length by many investigators: the death of Pope John Paul I.
Although Fr. Murr ultimately believes the pope’s death was from a heart attack, he thinks it was brought on by a contentious meeting in that final evening of his life.
Fr. Murr’s account of the death of John Paul I in Murder in the 33rd Degree seems to involve a mish-mash of the official accounts, popular conspiracy theories, and original claims. I do have some familiarity with the conflicting accounts of Pope Luciani’s death — you may recall that last year, David Lafferty and I did a 2-part livestream special on the death of John Paul I (link to Part 1 and Part 2).
Much of Fr. Murr’s account tacks closely to the narrative of David Yallop, whose 1984 bestseller In God’s Name argues that the circumstances of John Paul I’s death suggest poisoning and explores several factions who may have been responsible for his murder. According to Yallop, these groups include Freemasons in the Curia, Italian bankers, and conservatives who wanted to prevent the pope from changing Church teaching on contraception. Fr. Murr focuses on the first of these groups, especially on Vatican Cardinals Sebastiano Baggio and Jean-Marie Villot, whom he says were Freemasons.
A unique detail in Fr. Murr’s book is that he places Cardinal Baggio in the papal apartments the night before John Paul’s sudden death, describing Baggio as “the last person to see him alive.”According to Fr. Murr, John Paul wanted a morning meeting with Cardinal Baggio on the day of his death. He writes,
Pope John Paul expressed his desire to meet with Baggio that same day. When the cardinal responded that his schedule was particularly heavy and asked if they could meet the next day, the Holy Father proposed to see him after office hours. “This evening then, in my study.”
Murr goes on to describe the circumstances of the meeting:
Just minutes before eight o’clock that evening, a loud knock on the doors to the Papal Apartments announced the cardinal’s arrival. It was an unusual time of day for a meeting, and unusual as well that no one else was to be present. The Swiss Guards were told to expect him. The door opened, and Cardinal Baggio went in.
According to Murr, the purpose of this meeting was to inform Baggio that he was being asked to leave the Vatican and become the Patriarch of Venice. News of this transfer allegedly infuriated Cardinal Baggio, and the meeting turned hostile.
Fr. Murr quotes the late Msgr. Mario Marini, who gives an account of the meeting between Baggio and John Paul I:
“Cardinal Villot claims he was the last person to see the Holy Father alive. The Frenchman is covering for his friend. The real ‘last person’ to see the Holy Father alive was none other than Sebastiano Baggio. Baggio, who argued with the pope so heatedly that the Swiss Guards heard his yelling in the outside corridor! Baggio, who I’ve heard told the pope to his face that he refused, flatly refused, to leave the Vatican, even after the pope offered him Venice! Wouldn’t treatment like that frighten half to death a humble, timid man with the weight of the world on his shoulders?”
In addition to the story of an evening visit from Cardinal Baggio (which to my knowledge does not appear in any of the prominent accounts of that evening), he says Cardinal Villot claimed to be the last person to see John Paul alive. It is doubtful that Villot ever made that claim. The competing narratives disagree on many of the details, but they are all in agreement that Villot left at around 7:30 pm, after which two sisters served the pope and his two priest-secretaries dinner. The accounts also agree that he and his secretaries prayed the office in English and that he took a phone call from the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan before retiring to his room after 9 pm. Even if the claim that Cardinal Baggio met with the pope instead of Villot is true (and this detail is not corroborated by anyone, to my knowledge), he was almost certainly not the last person to see John Paul I alive.
Still, my curiosity got the best of me. I didn’t simply want to rely on my memory for the various accounts of John Paul’s death, so I obtained the three most well-known books about the death of Luciani: the aforementioned In God’s Name by David Yallop (1984), A Thief in the Night by John Cornwell (1989), and The September Pope: The Final Days of John Paul I by Stefania Falasca (English version, 2021).
First, I looked at the account from In God’s Name. Yallop was convinced that John Paul died by poisoning. Like Fr. Murr, Yallop does describe an alleged meeting between the pope and Cardinal Baggio, but in this book, the meeting was scheduled and took place earlier in the day. He writes. “After the morning audiences Luciani had a meeting with Cardinal Baggio.”Similar to Murr’s account, the pope informed Baggio of his plans to transfer him to Venice, and Baggio refused. Yallop continues,
To refuse a direct request from the pope in the arrogant way Baggio was now doing was beyond belief. The two men were functioning with two quite different sets of values. Luciani was considering what was best for the Roman Catholic Church. Baggio was considering what was best for Baggio.
There were several reasons why the pope had concluded that Baggio should move from Rome to Venice. Not least of these was one particular name on the list of Masons that Luciani had received — Baggio, Masonic name Seba, lodge number 85/2640; enrolled on August 14, 1957.
Luciani had made further inquiries after his conversation with Cardinal Felici. A remark of Felici's had nagged away at him. "Some on the list are Masons. Others are not." Luciani's problem was to distinguish the genuine from the false. The inquiries had helped by producing some clarifications.
The meeting between Baggio and Luciani has been described to me as "a very violent argument, with the violence and anger entirely deriving from His Eminence. The Holy Father remained calm."
Yallop says that in the early evening, John Paul had a lengthy meeting with Cardinal Villot to discuss a large number of personnel moves he had planned, but that the meeting ended by 7:30 pm. According to Yallop, this was the series of events that followed:
Immediately after his meeting with Villot had finished at 7.30 p.m., Albino Luciani asked Father Diego Lorenzi to contact Cardinal Colombo in Milan. A few moments later Lorenzi advised him that Colombo was not available until about 8.45 p.m. While Lorenzi returned to his desk, the Pope was joined by Father Magee. Together they recited the final part of the daily Breviary in English. At ten minutes to eight Luciani sat down to dinner with Magee and Lorenzi. Totally unruffled by the long session with Villot he chatted amiably while Sisters Vincenza and Assunta served a dinner of clear soup, veal, fresh beans and salad. Luciani sipped a little from a glass of water while Lorenzi and Magee drank red wine.
Yallop goes on to say that the pope made a phone call to Cardinal Colombo of Milan around 8:45 pm, and then—
He walked to the door of his study and opening it saw Father Magee and Father Lorenzi. Bidding them both goodnight he said, ‘Buona notte. A domani. Se Dio vuole.’ (Good night. Until tomorrow. If God wishes.’) It was a few minutes before 9.30 p.m. Albino Luciani closed his study door. He had spoken his last words. His dead body would be discovered the following morning.
In his 1989 book, A Thief in the Night, John Cornwell’s account of the sequence of events in the papal apartments largely agree with Yallop’s, although they differ on the subject matter discussed between the pope and two cardinals.
Cornwell interviewed both Fr. Diego Lorenzi and Bishop John Magee, the pope’s secretaries about that final night. Luciani had brought Fr. Lorenzi with him to Rome as his secretary, a role the young priest held for the previous two years in Venice. then-Fr. Magee was an Irish priest who had served under Paul VI. They both agree that John Paul suffered from sharp pains and they offered to call a doctor, but the pope refused. They also agree that Cardinal Villot came to see the pope in the evening and left around 7:30. But, unlike Yallop’s account, Magee suggests that Cardinal Villot was the one who requested the meeting, not John Paul. Cornwell quotes Magee as saying:
'So that afternoon on the eve of his death he was walking in the salone and there was a telephone call from Cardinal Villot, who wanted to come that evening. I went into the Pope. He was making a circuit of the room, saying his rosary, and I informed him. '"Oh! Cardinal Villot again!" he said. "But I've no document to read." You see, he thought that Villot was always chasing him for things he should have read, and he was really perturbed. So it was arranged that Villot should come at 6.30.’
Fr Lorenzi described the phone call to Cardinal Columbo, adding details that suggest Cardinal Baggio was not the cleric who refused the assignment to Venice:
'Around quarter to nine he called the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Colombo. I came to know what he said through other people. The only truth is this: the Pope was concerned about his successor in Venice, because over a month had passed since he vacated the See and he was trying to put in there a Salesian who was the Provincial of the order. And this man had refused to accept the job, and to my mind Luciani was trying to get in touch once again, through the Cardinal of Milan, with this man in order to get him to accept. I got the Cardinal on the line from my bedroom and I passed through the line to Luciani's bedroom. And after he had made the call, Father Magee and myself went into his bedroom and said, "Now look, if anything should happen tonight, if you have need of any of us, just push the button and we will hear the bell and we'll rush through to help you." We had not forgotten the symptoms he had told us about that evening. But he never did call us.'
For the record, Cornwell concludes that the story of John Paul wanting to send Cardinal Baggio to Venice is untrue. He writes:
It is not true that Pope John Paul I wished to send Cardinal Baggio to Venice as his successor. He had just confirmed the Cardinal's appointment in the Congregation for Bishops, and in the presidency of the Latin American episcopate scheduled for Puebla. Cardinal Baggio has himself directly denied the theory, saying, 'Not only did he not ask me, but if he had asked me, I would have gone there — flying.'
Finally, I turned to Stefania Falasca’s book. Falasca is the vice-postulator for John Paul I’s cause of canonization, and her publisher asserts that this book is “an accurate account, backed by in-depth research and previously unpublished documentation.” This book straightens out a few of the details in competing accounts, while confirming others.
For example, she confirms that the pope and Cardinal Baggio were considering a Salesian priest, Fr. Angelo Vigano for the vacancy in Venice, but the priest was reluctant to accept the appointment:
“He had clearly and decisively expressed his reservations about being appointed the Patriarch of Venice. Not giving up, Luciani was counting on the support of Cardinal Colombo in an attempt to convince the Salesian to accept. Moreover, this was precisely the subject of the pope’s final phone call with the Archbishop of Milan on the evening of September 28.”
In the appendix, she produces a handwritten letter from Pope John Paul I to Cardinal Colombo regarding this appointment. In another appendix, she provides a day-by-day timeline of his papacy. Here is how she summarizes September 28, 1978, the day of his death:
September 28: Ad limina visit of a group of bishops from the Philippines. Audiences with Cardinal Gantin and his collaborators; the apostolic nuncios of Brazil and Holland; and Gianni Crovato, editor of the newspaper Il Gazzettino. In the afternoon the pope remained inside the apartments. Before dinner, he met with the Secretary of State, Jean Villot. After dinner, at 9:00 p.m., he had a telephone conversation lasting about half an hour with Cardinal Giovanni Colombo, archbishop of Milan. Afterward, he retired to his rooms. He died.
It’s worth noting that the timeline says the pope met with Cardinal Baggio on September 23, but not on the day of his death, as Yallop (and Fr. Murr) says.
Falasca also confirms that the last people to see John Paul I alive were the two nuns, not the secretaries, and certainly not Cardinals Villot or Baggio.She goes on to investigate other inconsistencies and discrepancies between the various eyewitness and official accounts.
Initially, Fr. Murr’s account seems to draw primarily from Yallop’s conspiracist account, but then his story veers off into unprecedented territory, contradicting the points of agreement held by all of the noteworthy reconstructions of that evening. His assertion that Cardinal Villot claimed to have been the last person to see John Paul alive is demonstrably false, and the idea that Cardinal Baggio went to see the pope, who he says was alone in his quarters at 8:00 pm, appears to be total fiction.
What makes the entire thing odd is that Fr. Murr doesn’t even claim to have first-hand knowledge of the pope’s final evening, yet apparently he believes — and presents as true — a fantasy version of the events.
This part of his book goes far beyond its other weaknesses (such as providing no evidence beyond his recollections and inventing dialogue for conversations at which he was not present). When Fr. Murr makes claims that do not at all reflect the known documentation and historical consensus, and he doesn’t acknowledge or even make an effort to explain the contradictions, his reliability as an eyewitness must be questioned.
The nature of conspiracy theory
Once again, I don’t totally deny the (theoretical) possibility that Fr. Murr is telling the truth, but his claims about Archbishop Bugnini being a Freemason has a classic trait associated with conspiracy theory: Unfalsifiability.
Both Symonds and I agree that Fr. Murr has not produced any documentation that he’s telling the truth about the existence of incontrovertible evidence that Bugnini is a Mason. Fr. Murr has given reasons for this, which sound reasonable on the surface. But consider some other factors: he’s going public with this account 40 years after the fact; he waited until he was the only living eyewitness to the events he describes; and he makes many other claims that can’t be confirmed as well.
These claims are unfalsifiable, however, because it’s virtually impossible to prove that Bugnini was not a Mason; it’s impossible to prove that Gagnon did not conduct a top-secret, off the record visitation of the Curia that amassed a great deal of evidence yet was never acted upon; it’s impossible to prove that John Paul I didn’t want to send Cardinal Baggio to Venice.
Let’s not ignore another reason why this claim is impossible to falsify. Let’s do a thought exercise. Imagine that as a result of Fr. Murr’s plea, Pope Francis decides to send Cardinal Becciu (or another cardinal with free time) down to the Vatican archives to look for the Gagnon dossier. After a few weeks, Becciu emerges from the archives and announces that he looked through all of the Gagnon files and found no evidence of any Masonic activity in the curia and nothing negative on Bugnini. Would Fr. Murr and his supporters be satisfied? Would they believe Becciu was being truthful?
Was Archbishop Vigano happy with the McCarrick Report? Was Fr. Nicholas Gruner happy with the official release of the third secret of Fatima?
Of course not.
Such is the nature of conspiracy theory.
I have no reason to question the character of Fr. Murr, but I can’t help but suspect that the stories he’s telling are some form of confabulation, described as “a type of memory error in which gaps in a person's memory are unconsciously filled with fabricated, misinterpreted, or distorted information.” It is important to note that individuals who engage in confabulation believe they are telling the truth and have no intention to deceive others.
WebMD describes this phenomenon:
Confabulations are usually autobiographical, involving people misremembering their own experiences. Sometimes they place experiences in the wrong time or place. They may wrongly recall other details, large or small. Occasionally confabulations have little basis in reality. Details can be drawn from movies, television, and overheard conversations.
Of course, people with no brain disorders can have faulty memories. Normal mistakes in memory become confabulation when people remember false information in vivid detail, often claiming to relive the event. They may exhibit genuine emotions, such as grieving over a friend who has not died. Listeners often believe what they are hearing is true.
It is likely that many people find Fr. Murr’s account believable because he clearly was in Rome with Cardinal Gagnon during the period in question. But it is also true that anyone who might have been able to corroborate or refute his first-hand accounts has died. He might be motivated to tell these stories because he has reached a new level of notoriety in the world of traditionalist Catholicism, with two popular books and many media appearances. But it doesn’t seem that many people are fact-checking his claims. Of course, I’ve long observed that traditionalists have a loose relationship with documentation.
By now, I have probably spent more time writing this post than I typically spend on 20 articles. Out of respect for Fr. Murr, I kept my initial analysis of his claims brief. In response to Kevin Symonds’s lengthy response, I decided to explain my reasoning in much greater detail here.
I care deeply about the truth. When I write and edit, I spend a great deal of time confirming facts and citing sources. But it should not be my responsibility to verify claims in the published writing of others.
Unfortunately, Fr. Murr did not take the time to verify his own assertions. Neither did his editors and publisher. They left the fact-checking to others. And the handful of claims I investigated either remain unproven or were proven false. The responsibility for providing the evidence belongs to the person making the claim. If Fr. Murr’s account us to be taken seriously, then he needs to prove it.
I am providing the two links in this sentence just to give curious readers the basic idea of why I question Dr. Von Hildebrand’s reliability as an eyewitness, not to open up a debate. I am sure there are better links that make more thorough arguments. Feel free to investigate further on your own. Be sure to note Thomas Stork’s comment on the second link.
Murr, Charles. Murder in the 33rd Degree: The Gagnon Investigation into Vatican Freemasonry (p. 108). Kindle Edition.
Yallop, David. In God’s Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I. Bantam Books, 1984. 208.
Cornwell, John. A Thief in the Night: Death of Pope John Paul I. London, England: Viking, 1989, 189.
Falasca, Stefania. The September Pope. Our Sunday Visitor. Kindle Edition. 56-57.