St. Gabriel Possenti grabbed the handgun, aimed at a lizard crossing the road, and pulled the trigger. Bam! With his first shot, he struck his target; flesh from the hapless lizard splattered across the road, blood stained the grass.
“Hey, man!” screamed St. Francis, his brown robes flying behind him as he scrambled to reach his friend. “What are you doing?! You’ve killed Brother Lizard!”
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I couldn’t help but imagine the above scenario when I read the story of St. Gabriel Possenti.
Father Gabriel was a Passionist priest in Italy in the 1800s. In 1860, a gang of perhaps twenty renegade soldiers overcame the village of Isola del Gran Sasso, in the Appenine mountains—bullying the citizens, threatening them with a display of handgun marksmanship. Some of the invading soldiers were planning to rape a young woman of the town; but Father Gabriel overcame them, taking their revolvers. He pointed their weapons at them but, not wanting to actually kill a human person, he instead fired at a lizard which was running across the road–killing it with a single shot. Frightened to see that the priest was such an accurate shooter, the gang of marauding soldiers fled, leaving the townspeople alone.
Father Gabriel Possenti was considered a hero and is often venerated as the patron of handgunners. He died two years later, in 1862, and was canonized by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. His feast day is celebrated on February 27. His life story is told by fellow Passionist priest Fr. Godfrey Poage in Son of the Passion, The Story of Gabriel Francis Possenti.
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The St. Gabriel Possenti Society is an ecumenical organization which supports the Second Amendment and the legal possession of firearms, and works to persuade the Vatican to officially designate St. Gabriel as the patron of shooters. The Possenti Society emphasizes the difference between “killing” and “murder”, explaining that the use of lethal force in self-defense is legitimate in the Christian tradition. As evidence, the Society cites Exodus 22:21-23:
“You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.”
There are other verses in Scripture which confirm the principle that aggressive violence is illegitimate, while it is legitimate to act against aggression. For example in Luke 22:36, Christ said:
“But now one who has a money bag should take it, and likewise a sack, and one who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one.”
St. Augustine of Hippo wrote that peace without justice and liberty is an “unjust peace,” as opposed to the “tranquility of order.”
And St. Thomas Aquinas noted that
“…true peace is only in good men and about good things. The peace of the wicked is not a true peace but a semblance thereof.”
The Catholic Church acknowledges the importance and relevance of self-defense. While “tranquility” and “safety” are important, the Church acknowledges that there is such a thing as “just war”–that some things are worth risking, fighting, or dying for.
Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, makes the point that
“insofar as men are sinful, the threat of war hangs over them, and hang over them it will until the return of Christ.”
Several Catholic saints have been named patrons for those who deal peacefully with weapons, including
- St. Barbara, Patron of Artillerymen;
- St. Sebastian, Patron of Archers; and
- St. Michael the Archangel, Patron of the Security Forces.