February 27 is the Saint Day for Gabriel Possenti, one of my favorite saints. According to The One Year Book of Saints, as a young man in 19th-century Italy, Francesco Possenti was known as the best dresser in town, as a "superb horseman," and as "an excellent marksman." He was proficient with rifles and shotguns. The young man was also a consummate partygoer, who was once engaged to two women at the same time. Twice during school he fell desperately ill, promised to give his life to God if he recovered, and then forgot his promise. On August day at church, Possenti saw a banner of Mary. Her eyes looked directly at him, and he heard the words "Keep your promise."
Possenti immediately joined an order of monks, taking the name Brother Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin. Then in 1860:
On a summer day...a slim figure in a black cassock [Possenti] stood facing a gang of mercenaries in a small town in Piedmont, Italy. He had just disarmed one of the soldiers who was attacking a young girl, had faced the rest of the band fearlessly, then drove them all out of the village at the point of a gun....
[W]hen Garibaldi's mercenaries swept down through Italy ravaging villages, Brother Gabriel showed the kind of man he was by confronting them, astonishing them with his marksmanship, and saving the small village where his monastery was located.
The soldiers were from the nationalist army of Giuseppe Garibaldi, who was defeating the Papal States and bringing Italy under his unified control. As is not uncommon in warfare, some of Garibaldi's soldiers, once the fighting was over, went off on their own, on free-lance missions to pillage and terrorize defenseless nearby communities. About twenty former soldiers and non-commissioned officers showed up in the tiny town of Isola del Gran Sasso.
Possenti was studying for the priesthood in the nearby monastery run by the Passionist Order. (The order is devoted to the "passion" or suffering of Jesus.) When Possenti heard the disturbance in town, he asked the rector for permission to go see if he could help, and permission was granted.
Possenti arrived just in time to see two sergeants on the verge of raping two young women. Possenti snatched one sergeants gun out of his holster, and then quickly grabbed the other sergeant's handgun. Presumably, the sergeants were drunk and carousing, expecting no resistance, and not particularly focused on weapons retention. Next:
The two of them, dumbfounded, let the woman go.
When the other soldiers in the band of about 20 heard the commotion, they rushed toward Possenti, thinking they easily could make short shrift of this slightly built, cassocked theology student. One of them apparently made some sneering remark about him attired in his cassock.
At that moment, a lizard ran across the road. The marksman Possenti took aim, fired, and killed it with one shot. It was then that he turned his weapons toward the advancing gang, surprised and shocked by this amazing demonstration of handgun marksmanship.
Possenti ordered the terrorists to put down their arms, which they did. He ordered them to put out fires that they had started, which they did.
He ordered them to return the property that they had taken from the villagers, which they did.
He then ordered the whole lot of them out of town at gunpoint. They left, never to return.
The Isolans then accompanied Possenti back to his monastery in triumphant procession, naming him the Savior of Isola."
This was not the only time that Possenti drew a weapon. On one occasion, the young seminarian was taking a walk when a young man came along, and began chatting and walking with Possenti. The conversation was friendly, until they came near a deserted shack, and the stranger tried to lure Possenti inside for a homosexual encounter-—a triple sin in Possenti's eyes, since the sex would be non-marital, homosexual, and a flagrant violation of the seminarian's vow of celibacy. Apparently afraid that the stranger might attempt to rape him, Possenti drew his hunting knife, which he always carried when walking in the woods, and yelled, "You fiend! If you try to touch me, I'll stick you through." The stranger fled.
Possenti died on February 27, 1862, at the age of 24.
Possenti was declared a saint in 1908. Today, there is an international Catholic lay movement called the Saint Gabriel Possenti Society. The Possenti Society, which has been approved by Catholic authorities, seeks to have Possenti declared the patron saint of handgunners. Although the Society has a Catholic orientation, it includes non-Catholic members.
Should the Vatican eventually grant the petition, St. Gabriel Possenti would join a long line of Catholic saints who are associated with arms, freedom, the military, or crime-fighting.
These are saints for ammunition magazines (Barbara), ammunition workers (Elmo), anti-Communism (Joseph), archers (Sebastian), armies (Maurice), armories (Lawrence), armorers (Barbara, Dunstan, George, Lawrence, and Sebastian), arms dealers (Adrian of Nicomedia), arrowsmiths (Sebastian), artillery gunners (Barbara), battle (Michael the archangel), against battle (Florian), against burglaries (Leonard of Noblac), cavalry (Martin of Tours), Crusaders (Charles the Good, King Louis IX of France), fortifications (Barbara), freedom (Holy Infant Jesus of Prague), hunters (Hubert), hunting (Eustachius, Hubert of Liege), infantry (Martin of Tours), knights (Gengulphus, George, James the Greater, Julian the Hospitaller, Michael the Archangel), military chaplains (John of Capistrano), paratroopers (Michael the Archangel), quartermasters (Martin of Tours), security forces (Michael the Archangel), swordsmiths (Maurice), United States Army Special Forces (Philip Neri), and the Women's Army Corps a/k/a WACs (Genevieve, Joan of Arc). There are also a large number of saints for the armies or navies of particular nations.
References: Clifford Stevens, The One Year Book of Saints (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Div., 1989)(source of the 1st block quote).
John Michael Snyder, Gun Saint (Arlington, Vir.: Tellum Pr., 2003)(source of the 2d block quote). Snyder is the founder of the Possenti Society, and a long-time lobbyist for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
The list of saints is from Patron Saints Index (part of Catholic Community Forum), and Snyder, pp. 16-18.
Passionist Order website, including a biography of Possenti which focuses on his intense spiritual development and devotion to Mary. (BTW, another Passionist Saint is Maria Goretti, about whom I've written previously. Hungarian version of Goretti article is here.)
Miscellany: On hearing this story, I have always felt sorry for the lizard, which was, after all, completely innocent. Presumably though, it was better for one innocent lizard to die so that many innocent people not be raped, robbed, and assaulted. Symbolically, the lizard might be seen as a miniature dragon, meaning that Possenti was symbolically slaying evil. (Snyder, p. 96).
Most Rev. Custodio Alvim Pereira, Archbishop Emeritus of Lorenzo Marques, Mozambique, Vice President of the Chapter of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, has accepted two St. Gabriel Possenti Society Medallions, which were blessed at the Society's official luncheon in Rome. Pope John Paul II accepted a St. Gabriel Possenti Society gold medallion with an official Vatican letter of acceptance and thanks, signed March 12, 2001 by Monsignor Pedro Lopez Quintana, Assessor of the Vatican Secretariat of State.
I am a member of the St. Gabriel Possenti Society, from which I have received a silver engraved Medallion of Honor.