Handgun owners may have the powerful National Rifle Association and Charlton Heston on their side in the battle over the right to bear arms, but John Snyder thinks they could use some help from above, too.
He wants them to have their own patron saint and since 1989 has been promoting St. Gabriel Possenti, an Italian Passionist priest, as the man for the job.
While he was a young seminarian in 1860, the sharp-shooting St. Gabriel reportedly saved an entire village from mercenaries with a demonstration of marksmanship that terrified the marauders.
Having walked into their midst alone and unarmed, he seized the guns of two of the interlopers, but never fired at them. Instead, he aimed a single shot at a lizard that scurried across the road, felling it and convincing the bad guys to flee.
“He actually used the handgun in what I think was a heroic and courageous action,” Mr. Snyder said. “ ... He just took command of the situation. It demonstrates too, that sometimes the mere presence of an instrument of force can protect you and, in this case, a whole village.”
Mr. Snyder, public affairs director of the Citizens' Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, a national gun lobby, said St. Gabriel, who already is the patron of youths, students, and clerics, is the perfect patron for handgunners because he provides a holy example of the proper use of handguns.
He first heard about St. Gabriel and his derring-do many years ago from a priest who visited his family, but forgot about how the saint had rescued the villagers until he read an article describing the incident in New Covenant magazine in 1987.
Mr. Snyder began to wonder if the Catholic Church had designated a patron saint for handgunners. On investigation, he discovered that St. Adrian of Nicomedia was the patron of arms dealers and St. Barbara the patroness of artillery men, but there was no saint specifically for handgun owners.
“I said, `Gee whiz, let's get going.'” He sent a letter to church officials in Rome and heard nothing back. He didn't try again until two years later and this time, he got a response from an archbishop that outlined the procedure for promoting a saint as a patron.
After nominating the person, which Mr. Snyder already had done, the next step is to marshal support from a bishop, bishops of a nation, and bishops of a region of the world before appealing to the Vatican again.
Although he has raised considerable public awareness by forming the Arlington, Va.-based St. Gabriel Possenti Society, advertising in a national Catholic newspaper, and circulating special coins promoting the cause, Mr. Snyder has not found many American bishops who have warmed to his idea.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been a strong supporter of gun-control legislation since 1975 when the group's statement, “Handgun Violence: a Threat to Life,” called for “effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society.” The bishops' statement cites exceptions only for police, military, security guards, and pistol clubs where guns would be secured on the premises.
Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the USCCB, said the bishops have been known to disagree among themselves and that it is possible some might think the idea of designating St. Gabriel as a handgunner patron has merit. But he said he understands that in such cases, church officials look for a groundswell of popular support before designating saints as patrons of particular causes.
In talking with several U.S. bishops, Mr. Snyder said he has been told that his idea may not be appropriate at this time. Others said they would look into the idea, but didn't indicate support or opposition.
On a trip to Rome last year to celebrate the Feb. 27 feast day of St. Gabriel and promote his designation as patron of handgunners, Mr. Snyder was able to present one of the medallions to Pope John Paul II, thanks to the assistance of an American seminarian studying there.
“He came from an area of the country where people did a lot of shooting and he had hunted before he went into the seminary. He wanted a saint to help him in his apostolic work after he was ordained.” The seminarian told Mr. Snyder how to present the medallion to the American bishop in charge of the papal household. “He told me to go to this entrance and give it to this Swiss guard with a note to give it to the bishop to give it to the Pope. He said, `I guarantee it will be on his desk the next morning.' So that's what I did.”
That was on March 5 and on March 12, Mr. Snyder received a letter of acceptance signed by Msgr. Pedro Lopez Quintana of the Vatican Secretariat of State assuring him of “His Holiness's appreciation of the devoted sentiments which prompted this presentation.”
The medallion features a profile of St. Gabriel encircled by the words, “St. Gabriel Possenti, Patron of Marksmen,” and an outline of a target with the prayer, “Guide our aim to strike at the center. Protect us from the enemies of love, justice and liberty.”
During the visit to Rome, Mr. Snyder also gave a medallion to Francesco Possenti, a great-grandnephew of St. Gabriel.
He had hoped to return to Rome and meet with leaders of St. Gabriel Possenti's religious community, the Passionists, but had to cancel his latest plans because of knee surgery and his wife's concerns about travel abroad after Sept. 11.
Mr. Snyder said the Passionists in the United States are none too excited about his idea to have one of their sainted members designated patron of handgunners. Some have even questioned the veracity of the story about St. Gabriel saving the Italian village, which is taken from the 1962 book, Son of the Passion: the Story of Gabriel Francis Possenti, by the late Rev. Godfrey Poage.
Father Poage, a Passionist who died on June 25, 2001, stood by the story, Mr. Snyder said. He told Catholic News Service in a 1992 article that the episode had been witnessed by a lay worker at a monastery and was uncovered in the 1940s. An entire chapter of his book is devoted to the incident.
“It's been out 30 years and nobody in the Passionists questioned any of its authenticity until I started publicizing it in connection with my request that he be named patron of handgunners,” Mr. Snyder said.
“[Father Poage] gave me the book and was happy to be enrolled in the St. Gabriel Possenti Society and he knew what the society stood for. He certainly defended the authenticity of the story against his own superiors.”
The Rev. Terence Kristofak, provincial of the community's St. Paul of the Cross Province, said through a spokesman that he could not endorse a Passionist saint as advocating personal handgun use.
Added the Rev. Jack Douglas, rector of the Passionist Immaculate Conception Monastery, Jamaica, N.Y.: “[Gabriel] was a very kind, gentle student and associating him with handguns is really something I don't think our community would want.” He suggested that St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits who was a soldier before becoming a priest, might be a better choice.
Despite such opposition, Mr. Snyder is optimistic he will prevail.
“These things take a lot of time, but I think that there's no logical reason this should not be done.”