El Padre

Inside Opus Dei’s world headquarters

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome

In 2006, when The Da Vinci Code was released as a film, some high Church officials strongly objected to it because it was based on the idea that Jesus married and fathered children and because it depicted Opus Dei, a recognized Prelature within the Catholic Church, as a murderous cult.

Angels & Demons, which came out this spring and also features the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (played by actor Tom Hanks, photo) and is about Langdon’s attempt to help the Holy See thwart a plot by the Illuminati, an ancient secret brotherhood, to kill four cardinals and bomb the Vatican as a new Pope is being elected.

This spring, the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said in a review that Angels & Demons was historically inaccurate and filled with stereotypes, but the paper concluded it was “harmless” entertainment and not a danger to the Church. (The newspaper also praised director Ron Howard’s “dynamic direction” and the “magnificent” reconstruction of locations like St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. Much of the film was shot on sets that painstakingly recreated Church landmarks….)


Angels are spirit beings, messengers and servants of God. Only four are ever named in the Bible: Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael (Raphael appears in the deuterocanonical book Tobit (initially accepted by both the Jewish and Christian canons, but removed from the Jewish canon in late antiquity and rejected by the Protestant reformers in the 17th century. Photo, left, the Archangel Michael in a late Roman military cloak in a depiction by Guido Reni from the 1600s.)

The word angel in English is a fusion of the Old English word engel (with a hard g) and the Old French angele. Both derive from the Latin angelus, and from the Koine Greek angellos (“messenger”), used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible done in about 200 B.C.) to translate the Hebrew mal’akh (yehowah) “messenger (of Yahweh)”.

Angels have a special role in major events of Jesus’ life, and Jesus referred to them. Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to announce that he would have a son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:11-19); Gabriel also told Mary that she would have a son, Jesus (vv. 26-38). Jesus said that “little ones who believe in me” have angels in heaven who care for them (Matthew 18:6, 10).

Angels rejoice when people turn to God, and they bring the righteous to paradise (Luke 15:10; 16:22).

The earliest known Christian image of an angel, in the Cubicolo dell’Annunziazione in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, is dated to the middle of the third century. It is without wings. But by the late 300s, angels were regularly depicted with wings.

St. John Chrysostom explained the significance of angels’ wings this way: “They manifest a nature’s sublimity. That is why Gabriel is represented with wings. Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature. Accordingly, the wings attributed to these powers have no other meaning than to indicate the sublimity of their nature.”


Jesus also said that the devil has “his angels” (Matt. 25:41). These are more commonly called demons, or evil or unclean spirits. The chief demon is Satan (which means “the adversary”), also called the devil (one who leads others astray), Beelzebul (lord of the house), the evil one, the enemy, the tempter, or the prince of this world. In a parable, Jesus described himself as tying up Satan and taking his possessions (Matt. 12:29). He spoke of seeing Satan fall (Luke 10:18). Through his death on the cross, Jesus drove Satan out (John 12:31-32). Satan was condemned (John 16:11). Jesus predicted that victory would be complete at the end of the age (Matt. 13:39-42; 25:41).

“Let’s not deceive ourselves: in our life we will find vigor and victory and depression and defeat. This has always been true of the earthly pilgrimage of Christians, even of those we venerate on the altars.
“Do you remember Peter, Augustine, or Francis? I have never liked biographies of saints which naïvely — but also with a lack of sound doctrine — present their deeds as if they had been confirmed in grace from birth.
“No. The true life stories of Christian heroes resemble our own experience: they fought and won; they fought and lost. And then, repentant, they returned to the fray.” —St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer

Poor Dan Brown! He completely missed the story!

In his novels The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, he depicts Opus Dei (the Latin words mean “the work of God”) as a world-spanning, secret, sinister organization, and the Vatican as impenetrable, mysterious, and dangerous.

After leafing through the books, I wondered this afternoon what I might encounter as I rang the doorbell at #75 viale Bruno Buozzi, the world headquarters of Opus Dei.

The building’s walls were tall and white, constructed of large blocks of what seemed to be travertine marble; the doorway seemed oddly small.

A woman answered.

“Come around the corner to via di Villa Sacchetti,” she said. “The first door you come to on the left…”

Did Dan Brown ever go to Opus Dei headquarters? It wouldn’t have been difficult… It’s in Parioli, a wealthy Roman neighborhood just a mile or so out from Piazza del Popolo.

I went there today with my old friend, Richard Mileti, a retired Catholic historian from Cleveland, Ohio (he has been visiting Rome for a couple of days).

As soon as we reached the door, a receptionist opened the door, poked her head out, and greeted us.

“We’d like to visit the tomb of St. Josemaria,” I said. “And we would like to talk to someone about Opus Dei and Dan Brown’s book, Angels and Demons. Is that possible?”

“Yes, of course,” the receptionist said.

We were guided to a small waiting room, and the receptionist told us we would soon be joined by a guide who would show us around the headquarters.

I looked around the little room. It seemed a bit dark, so I went to open what seemed to be a window in the back corner. But when I opened the window, there was just a 4-inch recession, then a blank wall, with a fluorescent bulb to illuminate the room through the glass.

Then there was a sound and a motion at the door, and a young woman entered the room.

“Hi,” she said, in English. “I am Claudia. I can try to answer any questions you have, and I will show you around.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“I am from Guatemala.”

“And are you a member of Opus Dei?”

“Yes, I am a numerary. Do you know what that is?”

“Yes,” I said. “You have taken a vow never to marry.”

“Not precisely a vow,” she said, laughing a bit bashfully. “I have made a commitment.”

Claudia was a lovely young woman with raven-black hair and olive skin and bark eyes. She was poised and polite.

“Have you heard of the book Angels and Demons?” I asked.

“Who hasn’t?” she said, and laughed again.

“What do you think of it?” I asked.

“I haven’t read it.”

I asked Claudia how old she was.

“I just turned 24,” she said.

I asked how she came to join Opus Dei, what had attracted her.

“I met some members of The Work in my country,” she answered. “I was so struck by their overflowing sense of having a meaning and purpose in their lives, that I began to want to spend more and more time with them. I began to meet with them. I began to discuss with them, and ask questions of them. And after a while it was clear to me that I had a vocation. This vocation…”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “How did you know?”

“I sensed, deep inside, that there was a love and a meaning which responded to my own deepest longings, and I wanted to be close to that love and meaning. It was an attraction that I felt, like a magnet, like a warm fire in winter-time, when your hands are cold, and you stretch out your hands toward the fire. I was warmed by what I loved, by words and prayers and songs and contemplation, and the more I drew close to what I loved, the more right and complete I felt, and so I decided to continue on this journey, wherever it leads, to the end.”

We discussed our schedule for the afternoon: we would go down to the tomb of the saint, visit the chapel where he is buried, then try to reach the Opus Dei spokesman, Manuel Sanchez.

“But let me get another person to come with us, because I am rather new here,” Claudia said. “Someone who may be more qualified to answer any question you have.”

She left the room. I turned to Richard. “Well?” I said.

“Hey,” he said, “what do you want me to say? She’s an angel…”

When Claudia came back, she brought with her a slightly older woman, who said her name was Rosario.

“In Italy, it would be Rosaria, but it is Rosario in Spanish,” she said. “I am from Madrid.”

Rosario seemed extraordinarily refined. Her hands and fingers moved when she spoke, and her grey eyes observed us attentively and with evident intelligence.

“A second angel,” Richard said.

We went out of the reception room and started down four flights of steps — down, down, down, down. I think we must have been 60 feet under the level of the street.

We came to a small chapel, where we saw an altar and, in a glass case against the wall, a figure of a beautiful woman lying with her hands folded upon her chest and her feet in sandal.

“This is the chapel of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary,” Rosario said.

I read the inscription on the side of the altar: “Assumpta est Maria in caelum. Gaudet exercitus angelorum.” (“Mary was assumed into heaven. The army of angels rejoices.”)

“More angels,” I said to Richard.

 St. Josemaria’s tomb is at the front of a small chapel called the chapel of Santa Maria della Pace (St. Mary of Peace). (Photo, me standing in front of the tomb.)

His body has been moved there from its original resting place nearby, where two large words are still written on the center of the flat stone, though Escriva’s body is no longer there: “El Padre” — “The Father.”

The stone now covers the body of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo (1914-1994), St. Josemaría’s first successor at the head of Opus Dei.)

When I entered the chapel, I knelt for a moment in front of the saint’s tomb, on his feast day.

(Once, some years ago, when my second son, Luke, fell and hit his head while playing soccer, causing a concussion and a terrible bloody eye, I chose to say a prayer to St. Josemaria — saying to myself, “I need a tough saint for this task” — that Luke might not lose his eye, or have brain damage. And when the doctor came back, after two hours of tests, he said, “I’m quite surprised, but it looks like there will be no permanent damage whatsoever.”)

Rosario nodded to me.

“Here is something you should see,” she said.

She indicated a small niche in the very back of the chapel. What was there? Swords? Yes, some 60 swords were hung up in rows on both sides of the niche, like an emergency arsenal…

“Why?” I asked.

“These are the swords of all those military men who entered Opus Dei, and gave up their swords in order to show symbolically that they wished only to work for peace.”

The blades glistened in the cabinet, behind a glass window. There were even some daggers there.

In the front of the case was a small box containing a gilded flower, a rose, made out of wood.

“What’s this?” I asked Rosario.

“Ah,” she said. “There is a story behind that rose.

“In 1936, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Fr Escriva went into hiding in Madrid. Eventually, to escape persecution, he left the city, persuaded by his followers. On November 21, 1937, he spent the night in a small room in a ruined church and spent the night in prayer, not sure whether he should go forward or back.

“That night, he asked for a sign from God. He asked that our Lady would give him a rose if God wanted him to continue.

“The next morning, Fr Escriva left the room. When he returned, he held a gilded wooden rose in is hand — this rose. And so he kept going.”

I listened,

Then Rosario added: “In 1936, when the militia sacked the church, they had torn down the wooden altarpiece and carried it outside to burn. But the rose, part of the frame of roses encircling the image of Our Lady of the Rosary, survived. Fr Escriva saw it as the sign he had requested.”

Just at that moment, an important Vatican official whom I have known for many years entered the chapel. I waited, but the official did not turn toward me or see me. So I asked Rosario to go up to the prelate, and ask if I could speak with him at the back of the chapel.

She did so, and he came with her.

We greeted each other, and spoke about the strange coincidence of meeting just then in the chapel of St. Josemaria.

“I just felt this morning that I should come here today,” I told him.

“So did I,” he replied.

And then I asked him about the Ecclesia Dei Commission document, which is much on my mind, as I wrote on Thursday.

“Why has it still not been published, though it has been finished for some time?” I asked.

“It isn’t yet finished,” he said, without emotion.

Rosario and I looked at the eight doors around the edges of a room next to the chapel.

“Where do all these doors lead to?” I asked. I wondered if there might be some underground passageways…

Rosario opened one door: a closet.

“What about that one?” I asked.

She opened it.

There was only a wall there. But on the wall was painted, in perspective, a long corridor leading far away. If you looked at the painting without realizing it was a painting, it seemed like you were looking down a 100-yard passageway.

“That’s pretty bizarre,” I said.

“It’s just a false doorway,” Rosario said, laughing. “Just for fun.”

Richard and I walked back up the stairs with Rosario and Claudia, and we sat for a moment in the reception room where we had begun our visit.

A young African woman poked her head in the door.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“My name is Jennifer,” she said. “I am from Nariobi, Kenya.” She laughed, for no reason. Her dark skin, bright smile and flashing eyes lit up the room. She was like a lightning bolt in human form.

I asked her how she had come to join Opus Dei, and what she thought of the book Angels and Demons, and she said: “Look, people are interested in different things. Dan Brown was evidently interested in earning a lot of money. Ordinary people are easy to deceive. Just tell them a tall tale, and they will believe it, even if it is a complete fabrication.

“But my focus is a different one. I’m here in Rome to study canon law, and I don’t want to be distracted from that. So I’ve never even read that book. If it says things about Opus Dei that aren’t true, I’m sorry. But I have set my life in a certain direction. I’m like a woman who has fallen in love and knows she wants to marry a certain man. I want to give my entire life to Christ.

“And I think that the best way I can defend Opus Dei, and the Church, is simply to live my life in complete abandonment to God’s will, so that my example outweighs any slander anyone may invent — if that is even the case. I am focused on the positive, not the negative. My eyes are set on the goal, and I don’t want to take them off that goal, because I want to get there.”

Richard looked at me, marveling at the eloquence and poise of the young lady.

“Another angel,” he said.

Richard and I walked down the hill to the the Basilica of Sant’Eugenio for the evening Mass in honor of St. Josemaria. The basilica was completely filled, leaving standing room only to the very back of the church.

The novels of Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, have depicted Opus Dei as a very powerful but sinister force in the world.

But Brown has somehow seen demons where there are angels. This is puzzling. Has he also seen angels where there are demons?

At the bottom of the hill, Richard and I ran into the new Ambassador of Great Britain to the Vatican — the first Catholic ambassador to the Vatican since the Protestant Reformation — Francis Campbell, 36, who replaced Kathryn Colvin last year. (Diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the Vatican were restored in 1914 after a break of 350 years, but in 1917 the Foreign Office issued a memorandum saying that Britain’s representative “should not be filled with unreasoning awe of the Pope,” and the post has always been filled by a Protestant — until now.) With Campbell was his little 8-year-old son, Sam, who is a fan of the New York Yankees baseball team. “Let’s get together soon,” Campbell said. “You were just cited today in the Times of London on the encyclical…”

In front of the Church, the Opus Dei spokesman, Manuel Sanchez, was waiting. He is from Granada, Spain, in the far south, near the Rock of Gibraltar.

“I am looking for angels and demons,” I said to Manuel. “Dan Brown says they can be found in Opus Dei. What do you think?”

“That’s easy,” Sanchez said. “The angels and demons are in each one of us.”

“Holy Mary is the Queen of peace, and thus the Church invokes her. So when your soul or your family are troubled, or things go wrong at work, in society or between nations, cry out to her without ceasing. Call to her by this title: ‘Regina pacis, ora pro nobis — Queen of peace, pray for us.’ Have you at least tried it when you have lost your calm? You will be surprised at its immediate effect.” —St. Josemaría Escriva


Angels & Demons: Frequently asked Questions. Do the Illuminati Really Exist?

by Massimo Introvigne

Note: Massimo Introvigne is a widely respected Italian scholar whose research focuses on the “new religious movements” of our time. He is director the Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni (Center for the Study of the New Religions, or CESNUR), founded in Italy in 1988. We decided to include here a link to his overview of the questions raised in Angels and Demons about the Illuminati. I note that a “secret society” is, by definition, secret, so all information published about such a society must necessarily be regarded with some skepticism, else the society will no longer be rightly called “secret.” —The Editor

(Here follows excerpts from Introvigne’s comments. Here is a link to the entire article: https://www.cesnur.org/2005/mi_illuminati_en.htm)

Again? After The Da Vinci Code another Ron Howard movie against the Catholic Church?
Massimo Introvigne: The situation is not the same. The Da Vinci Code, both as a book and as a movie, did cause serious damage by attacking the very core of the Christian faith, the historical Jesus Christ and the Christian persuasion that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Angels and Demons was published before The Da Vinci Code, and originally was not very successful. Only after the Code was it republished and went on to become an international bestseller.
The novel was quite anti-Catholic. Less so the movie, where some of the crudest anti-Catholic attacks of the novel have been omitted. The movie (a better movie than The Da Vinci Code as a thriller) does include a number of factual mistakes, but confusion about how the Pope is elected is admittedly less threatening for the faith than denying the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Repeating old myths about the Illuminati does disturb professional scholars but is not directly against the Christian faith.
From a Roman Catholic point of view the most disturbing parts of the movie are those spreading the false myth that the Church organized “purges” and massacres of scientists, and the cavalier way in which the delicate question of the relationship between faith and science is discussed. But there are literally hundreds of books, novels and movies spreading the same myths. Certainly Angels and Demons may be criticized for this, and Christian scholars would do well to set the record straight. But we are not confronted with the same level of anti-Christian attack of The Da Vinci Code. While the strong Christian reaction against the Code was unavoidable, mobilizing Christians in the same way against the movie Angels and Demons would probably amount to overkill.

What about the conclave? Does the movie get it right?
Introvigne: Not really. There are no “preferiti” (favorites) in a conclave, nor a “great elector” who is not himself eligible. In order to become Pope, contrary to what the movie claims, it is not necessary to be a bishop physically present in the Sistine Chapel (any male Catholic baptized, adult and celibate may be elected). In Angels and Demons a central character is a “camerlengo” who is not a cardinal. In fact, since the 15th century, the “camerlengo”, who manages the Church during the interregnum following the death of a Pope, is indeed a cardinal.

Did Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) write a book known as Diagramma veritatis (Diagram of Truth)?
Introvigne: No.

In the movie, Langdon enters the Vatican Secret Archives, where inter alia the documents of the Galileo trial are kept. Are these documents really secret?
Introvigne: The name “Vatican Secret Archives” is somewhat misleading. It is the historical name of the Vatican Archives but, at least from the end of the 19th century, any scholar with credentials (Catholic or non-Catholic) has no more trouble accessing documents there than in any other major archive throughout the world. The documents of the Galileo trial have been studied by many scholars, both Catholic and non-Catholic, in the last two centuries. Rather than concealing these documents the Vatican Secret Archives themselves started publishing an annotated edition in 1984.

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown is not the first bestselling novel claiming that the Illuminati were, or are, an important and powerful secret society. Is this only a novel?
Introvigne: Not according to Dan Brown himself.
He claims in his Web site that: “Secret societies like the Illuminati go to enormous lengths to remain covert. Although many classified intelligence reports have been written on the brotherhood, few have been published. Conspiracy theories on the Illuminati include infiltration of the British Parliament and U.S. Treasury, secret involvement with the Masons, affiliation with covert Satanic cults, a plan for a New World Order, and even the resurgence of their ancient pact to destroy Vatican City. Separating Illuminati fact from fiction can be difficult on account of the massive quantities of misinformation that has been generated about the brotherhood. Some theorists claim this plethora of misinformation is actually generated by the Illuminati themselves in an effort to discredit any factual information that may have surfaced. This concealment tactic – known as ‘data-sowing’ – is often employed by U.S. intelligence agencies.”
Actually, Dan Brown seems to take the continuing existence of Illuminati even more seriously than his character Robert Langdon.

But the existence of the Illuminati is an historical fact, isn’t it?
Introvigne: Yes, it is. The Order of the Illuminati was established on May 1, 1776 at the University of Ingolstadt, then part of the Kingdom of Bavaria, in Germany, by a professor of law called Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830). The Illuminati were an interesting organization, with both esoteric rituals and a political aim, based on the Enlightenment philosophy and ultimately aimed at overthrowing the Roman Catholic and politically conservative Kingdom of Bavaria and replacing it with a liberal republic.

Were the Illuminati part of Freemasonry?
Introvigne: Not originally. Weishaupt was quite critical of Freemasonry and wanted to establish a different order with different rituals. He, however, failed to produce rituals interesting enough to attract a significant number of followers, and in February 1777 decided to be initiated as a Freemason in a Munich Masonic lodge known as Zur Behutsamkeit (“The Prudence”). In 1780, a prominent German Freemason, Baron Adolf Franz Friedrich Ludwig von Knigge (1752-1796), joined the Illuminati and by January 1782 he had rewritten their rituals in a much more Masonic form. Although this ritual was essentially Masonic, and many members were Freemasons, however, the Illuminati as such were not part of Freemasonry.

Did these Illuminati succeed in their purposes?
Introvigne: In a way, yes. The new ritual was quite successful, and the Illuminati were able to recruit some 2,500 members both in Bavaria and various European countries, not a small number by the standard of esoteric orders in general. On the other hand, the Illuminati’s political aim was not achieved. Between 1784-1787 documents were seized by the Bavarian police proving that theirs was a political plot aimed at overthrowing the government. Some members were arrested, although none was treated too severely by the Bavarian government, and they escaped with fines or a few months in jail, whilst Weishaupt himself fled Bavaria and lived quite peacefully in other parts of Germany until his death in 1830. The Illuminati survived outside Bavaria, thanks to the efforts of one of their leaders, Johann Joachim Christoph Bode (1730-1793), but had ceased any activity by 1790.

Wasn’t there something sinister in the Illuminati’s activities?
Introvigne: Yes. Their political activities were not confined to legal means. In October 1786 the police raided the home of a prominent member of the Illuminati, the diplomat Franz Xavier von Zwack (1755-1843), and seized documents indicating that the Order was ready to poison several of its political foes, although these plans were never executed.

But weren’t the Illuminati the driving force behind the French Revolution?
Introvigne: Not really. Anti-revolutionary authors, including Protestant John Robison (1739-1805) and Roman Catholic Father Augustin Barruel (1741-1820), claimed that the French Revolution was the result of a Masonic conspiracy, and that the Illuminati were the secret leaders of the French Freemasonry.
We do not need to address here the complicate question of the relationship between Freemasonry, Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. What is historically clear, however, is that the Illuminati, who were about to cease their existence in 1789, did not play any crucial role in the preparation of the French Revolution. The links between the Bavarian group and the French Freemasonry were tenuous at best, and in fact many French Freemasons were quite hostile to the Illuminati, and certainly not prepared to accept the leadership of a German order. For a number of political reasons, however, Robison’s theories were particularly successful in the United States, where President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was accused of being a member of the dreaded sect.

But wasn’t the back part of the Great Seal of the United States, the one we still see on the dollar bill, a symbol of the Illuminati?
Introvigne: No, no matter how many books (and movies) claim it. The pyramid and eye symbol is never found among the Illuminati. Actually it is not even a Masonic symbol, although there are similar symbols in Freemasonry, where a fascination with Egypt was widespread in the 18th and 19th century. The particular pyramid used in the Great Seal was derived from Pyramidographia, a book published in 1646 in London by John Greaves (1602-1652), based on his trip to Egypt. The eye was introduced by Congress Secretary Charles Thomson (1729-1824) – who was not a Freemason – in his 1792 speech prior to the Seal’s Congressional acceptance as a very Christian “eye of the Providence”, presiding over the destiny of the United States. As such, it is featured in a number of Christian churches and symbols, quite apart from, and well before, its use within the frame of Masonic rituals.

Didn’t many always accept the theory, however, that the Illuminati were leading the world or, at least, the U.S.A.?
Introvigne: Not before 1975. From the mid-19th century to 1975 the theory of the great Illuminati conspiracy remained the province of fringe “conspirationist” authors, not particularly well-known by the general public. In 1975, a trilogy known as Illuminatus was published by Robert Joseph Shea (1933-1994) and Robert Anton Wilson (born 1932). The three novels were written somewhat tongue-in-check, and Shea and Wilson were part of a neo-pagan group known as the Discordians, worshippers of Eris the Great Goddes of Chaos through “cosmic jokes”.
Actually, these are libertarian novels, where Weishaupt does not die in Germany but emigrates to the American British Colonies, where he assumes the name of George Washington and establishes the United States. When the U.S. evolve into an authoritarian, repressive state under the secret leadership of the Illuminati, Discordians organize the resistance in the name of liberty, Chaos, and the Great Goddess Eris.
It is after Shea and Wilson’s novels that the Illuminati start popping up literally everywhere, from Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) to the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), including countless comics, role-playing games, and miscellaneous pieces of fiction. Unfortunately, some did not realize the nature of the Illuminatus novels, or even claimed that Shea and Wilson revealed a real conspiracy under the guise of fiction. This theory achieved a certain degree of success among Protestant fundamentalists. Its leading proponent, Milton William Cooper (1943-2001), died in a confrontation with law enforcement officers on November 5, 2001. He refused to pay taxes to the U.S. government, claiming it was controlled by the Illuminati.

What about the Skull and Bones, the famous fraternal society of Yale’s students and alumni? One hears frequently that it is part of the Illuminati…
Introvigne: No relation. The Skull and Bones was established in 1832 by William Huntington Russell (1809-1885), when the original Illuminati were long since dead. Some tenuous similarity may be explained by the fact that both Weishaupt’s Illuminati and Russell’s Skull and Bones did take inspiration in the many “secret” student societies which existed in German universities since the 18th century. By the way, many stories told about the Skull and Bones are simply tall tales – they are just another academic fraternity, including famous people because famous people do happen to have studied at Yale –, and in 1986 it was finally ascertained that even their famous skull did not really belong to legendary Indian chief Geronimo (1829-1909). The Apaches, to which The Skull and Bones was prepared to give back the skull, declared it unconnected with Geronimo and refused it.

Who was Leopold Engel, exactly?
Introvigne: An interesting character. He was a member of the inner circle of the loosely organized movement including the followers of the Austrian Christian visionary and mystic Jakob Lorber (1800-1864). In fact, Engel “received” spiritually (today, the word “channelled” would be used) the missing eleventh volume of Lorber’s masterpiece The Great Gospel of John, a volume still accepted as a legitimate part of the Lorber canon by many (although by no means all) Lorberians. He was also a prolific science fiction and dime novels writer. In fact, he seemed to lead a dual life, keeping his Lorberian and Illuminati activities quite separate, although the Illuminati materials written by Engel do show the influence of Lorber.

Do Engel’s Illuminati still exist?
Introvigne: Yes. Although persecuted in Nazi Germany, the Illuminati were able to survive in Switzerland, particularly thanks to the efforts of Felix Lazerus Pinkus (1881-1947), a rich left-wing economist. supported in many ways Hermann Joseph Metzger (1919-1990), a baker by trade as well as a stage hypnotist, who maintained alive the Order of the Illuminati until his death in 1990, and created an Illuminati center in the Swiss village of Stein, in the Canton of Outer Appenzell. A small number of his disciples still live or at least periodically meet there, and they are the only legitimate heirs of Engel’s Illuminati.
Of course, one can join a number of other “Orders of the Illuminati”, some of them online by paying a fee, but these do not even have the legitimacy of a succession from Engel’s organization.

Can we characterize the Illuminati, as Dan Brown would have it, as a conspiracy to destroy the Vatican and its power in the name of reason and science?
Introvigne: As mentioned earlier, the names of famous scientists mentioned as Illuminati are part of mythical genealogies with no historical basis. The Illuminati were mostly recruited among lawyers, governmental officers, and even liberal clergymen, with very few scientists, if any.
Weishaupt’s Illuminati taught to their new members a rather tame version of the Enlightenment philosophy, quite close to the ideas of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Weishaupt ostensibly claimed to be against the continuing reactionary influence of the Jesuits (temporarily suppressed in 1773), but not against Roman Catholicism per se. However, those who reached his inner circle discovered a strong anticlericalism and anti-Catholicism, and some documents openly promoted secular humanism and atheism.
Anticlericalism was also a feature of Engel’s order, although not a particularly prominent one.
No historical Illuminati order ever boasted that it would “destroy the Vatican”, a claim which would seem quite preposterous to anybody who would take into account the real number of their members and the extension of their activities

Were, or are, the Illuminati a very powerful order?
Introvigne: They certainly aren’t any powerful today. The main aim of the Stein group, reduced to less than a dozen members, is to survive. Engel’s group did not have any particular power. It had a certain cultural influence and initiated two distinguished novelists, Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) and Franz Spunda (1890-1963), but this was rather limited to the occult subculture itself. The Bavarian Illuminati were a much more important organization, and deserve more than a footnote in German history. They managed to include among their members three ruling princes, Duke Charles August of Saxony-Weimar (1757-1828), Duke Ernst II of Saxony-Gotha (1745-1804), and Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick (1721-1792). In 1783 Duke Charles August persuaded two famous protegés of his, Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) and Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), at that time the two leading German intellectuals, to join him among the Illuminati, although both, having been initiated, were never particularly active in the Order. Weishaupt and his close associates, unbeknownst to these princes and luminaries, were able to use the Illuminati for a very real political conspiracy, aimed at seizing power in Bavaria, which came close to succeeding.
Having said so much, it is equally important not to exaggerate the Bavarian Illuminati’s role, which was close to non-existent outside Germany, and to remember that by 1790 they had fully ceased to exist. Those who want to persuade us that a secret Illuminati cabal did lead the world from the Renaissance to the 19th century, and continues to do so today, have a very difficult burden of proof, and never even came close to produce documents or evidence that such is the case.

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