One morning, back in March of 2016, checking up on the news of the day, I came across a headline from the website of the Daily Express (an outlet whose alleged “journalism” has been discussed on this website once before), which blared: “The INCREDIBLE picture that proves Adolf Hitler lived to 95 with his Brazilian lover.” The article talks about a book by a Brazilian author claiming that Hitler did not kill himself in a Berlin bunker in 1945, but escaped (possibly in a German submarine that had gone missing) to South America. He lived there into the mid-1980s under an assumed name, traveling around the continent and searching for buried treasure.

The most tantalizing part of the article (which took forever to load and is bogged down with pop-up ads and who-knows-what-else) was the photograph. It portrays a light-skinned old man beside a taller, darker-skinned woman, in a place that could plausibly be South America. My imagination began to go to work, thoughts began popping into my head: It’s possible he would have looked like this had he lived longer; many Nazis did escape to South America, maybe he was one of them; this theory has been floating around since the end of World War II; it really would be interesting if we’ve had the story wrong for all these years

Left: “Hitler” and his “lover” in Brazil. Right: Adolf Hitler.

But before my imagination truly got away from me, one detail kept me from going over the edge: the photo is so blurry. The author is claiming that Hitler supposedly lived into the 1980s, and she has compiled enough alleged details of his life in South America to fill a book, yet the only photographic evidence that she was able to produce was one picture that just happens to have his facial features blurred?

Two years later, scientists confirmed the more conventional version of Hitler’s death by comparing his dental records to the piece of his jaw collected by the Soviet army at the bunker in 1945. Smithsonian Magazine, citing a German report, added that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin “decided to sow doubt about Hitler’s death in a ploy called ‘Operation Myth.’ The idea was to make the world believe the Americans or British were hiding Hitler for some nefarious reason and associate the West with Nazism.” (Coincidentally, another group of researchers found that missing German submarine on the sea floor north of Denmark just a month earlier.)

The allure of conspiracy theories and popular legends can be hard to ignore, especially when they help us to make sense of something that doesn’t seem right or just. That Hitler died a coward’s death, huddled in a bunker, and wasn’t humiliated like Mussolini or brought to justice like other war criminals seems too mundane an end for someone who caused so much evil and death. People instinctively want there to be more to the story. When we add up the different factors: the missing submarine and our knowledge that many Nazi war criminals really did escape to South America, the new narrative starts to become plausible, especially if we’re inclined to believe it. At that point, if we allow our biases to overshadow our critical thinking skills, the emergence of a blurry photo that kind of looks like Hitler from a fake news website is all the confirmation we need to become true believers. And there are likely many people who still refuse to accept the official explanation and cling to the more sensational account.

As I noted in my review of Episodes 1 and 2 of the Mass of the Ages film trilogy on the pre-Vatican II Mass, I questioned some of the claims in the film’s account of the story of Archbishop Annibale Bugnini. Bugnini was the secretary of the Council for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy, which carried out the reforms of the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council. I described Bugnini in my article as the antagonist of the second film. This was unsurprising—traditionalists view him as one of the greatest villains in Church history, due to his role in the revision of the Roman liturgy.

Bugnini is also the target of traditionalist conspiracy theories, and he will likely never escape the charges that he was secretly a Freemason who purposely dismantled the liturgy in order to strip it of its distinctly Catholic elements. The narrative—and this is a story I personally grew up hearing and believing—is that he wanted the Mass to resemble a Protestant service or Masonic ritual. This accusation has embedded itself so deeply into his legacy that I’d guess that even though 98% of Catholics today have likely never heard of Bugnini, 98% of the Catholics who have heard of him know Bugnini as the Freemason who destroyed Catholic liturgy.

I sort of feel silly digging into these allegations, especially since my colleague Adam Rasmussen recently wrote on the same type of conspiracy theory about St. Paul VI, “the best way to ‘refute’ such a conspiracy theory is to ignore it.” But he also wrote, “Most historians, biographers, and scholars (including theologians) don’t research and write about conspiracy theories.” Since I’m none of those things, I am going to give myself a pass this time.

There are really two conspiracy theories about Bugnini proposed by Mass of the Ages: the charge that he was a Mason, and the notion that he truly intended to strip the Mass of its “Catholic” elements and replace them with “Protestantized” ones. The former is more difficult to settle since there is no concrete evidence but plenty of accusations and rumors.

Charges of Freemasonry

If you do an internet search for Annibale Bugnini, you will come across countless websites and articles that either accuse him of being a Mason or simply consider it a settled fact. These theories about him involve stories of betrayal, Vatican intrigue, lost briefcases, stolen dossiers, and cracked safes. There are plenty of second-hand testimonies but no one has been able to unearth documentary evidence.

For Bugnini’s part, he categorically denied the rumors, which began to become widespread in the mid-1970s. French author Yves Chiron, whose 2016 biography of Bugnini was released in English translation in 2018, cites a number of these denials. For example, he quotes a 1976 letter from Archbishop Bugnini to Paul VI denying the claims:

“I must firmly state what I was in a position to write to Your Holiness last October: that I NEVER, whether directly or indirectly, whether in act or by formal membership, have been a part of Masonry, or of any other group or movement that approaches or resembles it.”[1]

Also in 1976, Bugnini released a short statement that was picked up in newspapers that read:

“Archbishop A. Bugnini leaves his defense up to the Holy See if it deems it useful; but he categorically denies ever having had the slightest contact in any way with Freemasonry or any other society of the sort.”[2]

In the English edition of Chiron’s book, his translator, Dr. John Pepino, adds a note documenting another denial by Bugnini in 1980—a letter to the editor of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, which had recently published an article by traditionalist writer Michael Davies repeating the accusation. It said:

“I repeat what I wrote in 1976: ‘I do not own anything in this world more precious than the pectoral cross: if one is able to prove, honestly and objectively, an iota of truth of what they affirm, I am ready to return back the pectoral cross” (“Archbishop A. Bugnini Denies Freemason Connection,” HPR 80.8 [May 1980]: 4-6).[3]

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.[4]

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.”[5]

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.

A “Protestantized” Liturgy?

The second part of the Bugnini conspiracy theory, that Bugnini deliberately sought to transform the liturgy from a Catholic Mass to a Protestant service. Unlike the charges of Freemasonry, this theory is based upon documented facts that were twisted, exaggerated, and taken out of context. I am very familiar with this one because I heard my grandfather talk about it at least 50 times as I was growing up. I assumed at the time that these were established facts, based on the way he told it. It wasn’t until much later, when I began to question the traditionalist narrative and ideology that I realized he had been duped and the facts had not been presented to him accurately.

Mass of the Ages promotes this theory, as does the website of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), which is not in full communion with the Catholic Church. Typically this narrative is supported with two bits of “evidence.”

Paul VI with the six Protestant observers.

The first of these wasn’t discussed in Mass of the Ages, but it is a widespread claim. This is the charge that Bugnini and/or Paul VI enlisted the help of six Protestant ministers to reform the liturgy. For example, the SSPX website, in a “clarification” of their position on the reformed liturgy, says, “This rite was in fact elaborated with the discreet (but not too discreet) cooperation of certain ‘Protestant experts’ so that it would be acceptable to both the Catholics and the Protestants.”

The Vatican actually responded to this charge with a clarification of their own in 1976, which explained that in 1965 several Protestants asked to follow the work of the Consilium, and that in 1968, six Protestant theologians were picked to “become simple observers.” It then states clearly, “The Protestant observers did not take part in the composition of the texts of the new Missal.”[6]

The second piece of evidence is featured prominently in the film, twice quoting Bugnini as saying, “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.” (A more common rendition of the same quote, which can be found on many traditionalist websites, is “We must strip from our Catholic prayers and from the Catholic liturgy everything which can be the shadow of a stumbling block for our separated brethren—that is, for the Protestants.”)

This is either a distortion or butchered translation of what Bugnini actually wrote and is taken completely out of context. The quote in question is adapted from an article written by Bugnini regarding the reform of the prayers of Holy Week in the March 19, 1965, edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper. Bugnini was writing specifically about the need to revise the text of the prayer for the unity of Christians, which in the pre-Vatican II rite said:

Let us pray also for heretics and schismatics: that our Lord God would be pleased to rescue them from all their errors; and recall them to our holy mother the Catholic and Apostolic Church.
P. Let us pray.
D. Let us kneel.
S. Arise.
V. Almighty and everlasting God, who savest all, and wouldst that no one should perish: look on the souls that are led astray by the deceit of the devil: that having set aside all heretical evil, the hearts of those that err may repent, and return to the unity of Thy truth. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end.
R. Amen

One might imagine that these prayers, especially when read aloud in the language of the people, might not inspire a desire for conversion in the hearts of our Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters. The Good Friday prayers have long been a source of controversy. You may recall the controversy surrounding the prayer for the Jewish people in the 1962 Missal, which led to Pope Benedict revising the prayer in 2008, which led to another round of controversy. (Naturally, some traditionalists think even the 1962 Missal didn’t go far enough because it removed the adjective “perfidis” in its description of Jews.)

Now, with that context, this is what Bugnini actually wrote (emphasis added):

“The 7th prayer [of the new rite for Good Friday] bears the title: ‘For the Unity of Christians’ (not ‘of the Church’, which was always one.) No longer used is the pariah ‘heretics’ and ‘schismatics’ but ‘all brethren who believe in Christ…’

Scholars think to shed light on biblical and liturgical sources from which the new texts are derived or inspired, which the Study Groups of the “Consilium” accomplished by using a chisel. And let’s say that often the work proceeded ‘with fear and trembling’ by sacrificing terms and concepts so dear, and now part of the long family tradition. How not to regret that ‘Mother Church—Holy, Catholic and Apostolic—deigned to revoke’ the seventh prayer? And yet it is the love of souls and the desire to help in any way the road to union of the separated brethren, by removing every stone that could even remotely constitute an obstacle or difficulty, that has driven the Church to make even these painful sacrifices.[7]

Once again, this is how the quote was presented in Mass of the Ages: “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.” There are two ways in which this quote completely alters Bugnini’s meaning. First, Bugnini does not use the term “Protestants.” Certainly, he is referring to them in part. But the prayer for the unity of Christians is for all Christians who are not in full communion. This also includes the Orthodox Churches, Old Catholics, and even radical traditionalist groups that have broken communion with Rome.

Secondly, the butchered quote adds the phrase “every prayer from the Mass.” It does not mention the context, which is his point that it’s extremely uncharitable to call our separated brethren heretics and schismatics. By altering the quote, the filmmakers have created the impression that Bugnini wants to strip the Mass of Catholic theology and tradition, which is not at all what he was saying.

On that note, I’ll conclude with the revised Prayer for Christian Unity, found in the current Roman Missal:

Let us pray also for all our brothers and sisters who believe in Christ, that our God and Lord may be pleased, as they live the truth, to gather them together and keep them in his one Church.
Prayer in silence.
Presider: Almighty ever-living God, who gather what is scattered and keep together what you have gathered, look kindly on the flock of your Son, that those whom one Baptism has consecrated may be joined together by integrity of faith and united in the bond of charity. Through Christ our Lord.
R. Amen.

[UPDATE JULY 4, 2022]

Kevin Symonds wrote a critique of my analysis of Fr. Charles Murr’s testimony on his blog.

I responded to his post on my Substack.


[1] Chiron, Yves. Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy. (Angelico Press, 2018) 172-173.

[2] Ibid, 173

[3] Ibid, 175

[4] Murr, Charles. Murder in the 33rd Degree: The Gagnon Investigation into Vatican Freemasonry (pp. 44-46). Kindle Edition.

[5] Chiron, 174

[6] Documents On The Liturgy 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts. (Liturgical Press, 1983) 551.

The full text of the Vatican response:

  1. VATICAN PRESS OFFICE, Reply, on the alleged Protestant influences on the new Order of Mass, 25 February 1976.

Questions (2 February 1976). Among the reasons advanced, at least in German- speaking Switzerland, against accepting the new Order of Mass, is the objection that six Protestant theologians are supposed to have had a part in composing new liturgical texts; that therefore the purity of traditional Catholic teaching has been compromised. With all due respect, this gives rise to the two following questions: Was there Protestant participation in the composition of the new Order of Mass?

If so, to what extent?

Reply (25 February 1976): The director of the Press Office of the Holy See may respond as follows to the question of the journalist, Georges Huber, on whether Protestant theologians had a part in composing the new Order of Mass

1 In 1965 certain members of Protestant communities expressed the desire to follow the work of the Consilium.

2 In August 1968 six theologians of different Protestant denominations were allowed to become simple observers

3 The Protestant observers did not take part in the composition of the texts of the new Missal.

DOL 55 no. 539

[7] Source (note that this is even a radical traditionalist site): https://queenofmartyrspress.blogspot.com/2011/12/for-record-and-from-source-what-bugnini.html

The original Italian is:

“L’orazione 7° reca il titolo; ‘Per l’unità del cristiani’ (non ‘della Chiesa’, che è sta stata sempre una). Non si paria più di ‘eretici’ e ‘scismatici’, ma di ‘tutti i fratelli che credondo in Cristo’…
Gli studiosi penseranno e mettere in luce le fonti bibliche e liturgiche da cui derivano o alle quali si inspirano i nuovi testi, elaborati col cesello dai Gruppi di studio del ‘Consilium’ E diacomo pure che non di rado lavore è proceduto ‘cum timore et tremore’ nel dover sacrificare espressioni e concetti tantocari, e ormai per lunga consuetudine familiari. Come non rimpiangere per esempio ‘ad sanctam matrem Ecclesiam catolicam atque apostolicam revocare dignetur’ della settima orazione? E tuttavia l’amore delle anime e il desiderio di agevolare in ogni modo il cammino dell’unione ai fratelli separati, rimovendo ogni pietra che possa constituire pur lontanamente un inciampo o motivo di disagio, hanno indoto la Chiesa anche a quiesti penosi sacrifici.”

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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