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John Michael Snyder likes his Christmas cards to convey more than mere holiday greetings. Last December, when the United States was busy building a case for the invasion of Iraq, Snyder had a timely message to send. So he asked an artist friend to draw up an appropriate illustration: a cartoon Santa Claus gripping the reins of his airborne sleigh while simultaneously firing a machine gun.
Below, armed, bearded, and distinctly Arab-looking characters scurried this way and that, trying to evade jolly ol’ St. Nick’s hail of bullets. “Put on the armor of God…” the card quoted from the Book of Ephesians. “Stand firm against the tactics of the devil.”
“I think it makes a point,” the 63-year-old Arlingtonian says of the politically incorrect illustration. “That’s my own idea,” he adds, “showing Santa attacking the terrorists.”
A former Jesuit seminarian who currently works as both a gun lobbyist and the Capitol Hill editor of the New Gun Week, Snyder has a particular affinity for Christian icons packing heat. And though he takes pride in his trigger-happy St. Nicholas, a character he thought up years ago, Snyder reserves his greatest affection for St. Gabriel Possenti, a 19th-century member of the Passionist Order whom he calls “a holy handgun hero.”
Snyder bases this judgment on a single, disputed incident in the Catholic saint’s life: In 1860, Possenti is supposed to have single-handedly saved the villagers of Isola del Gran Sasso, Italy, from a gang of pillaging soldiers with an act of heroism that involved steely resolve in the face of overwhelming opposition, an impressive display of marksmanship, and one hapless green lizard.
For the past 15 years, Snyder has engaged in a personal crusade to earn Possenti an official Vatican designation as the “Patron Saint of Handgunners.” He has spent years publicizing Possenti’s bravery, personally petitioning the Vatican, founding a charitable society in the saint’s name, and even designing aluminum Possenti tokens “ideal for spreading the message as deposits in church collection baskets and for distribution at gun shows.” Earlier this year, he self-published Gun Saint, a 129-page book that chronicles his quest.
Contrary to church doctrine advising the faithful to turn the other cheek, Gun Saint, which also cites recent examples of a pistol-packing priest in the Philippines and nuns with guns in Colombia, supports what Snyder calls a more “muscular Christianity.” It’s a concept even Jesus would approve of, Snyder saysthis is, after all, the same prophet who told his followers in the Book of Luke that “the man without a sword must sell his cloak and buy one.”
So far, Snyder has sold only about 300 copies of Gun Saint. But he believes its implications to be far-reaching.
“Pacifism,” he declares, “is a heresy.”
“The bullet from the .36 caliber cap and ball revolver slammed into the reptile’s head,” Snyder’s book begins, “and the lizard rolled over, dead as a doornail!”
The story goes something like this: Twenty-year-old seminarian Possenti, responding to sounds of havoc, hoofed it down from his monastery to the nearby village of Isola, where he stumbled upon a group of Garibaldian rogues busily pillaging, raping, and otherwise terrorizing the poor citizens. Yanking two pistols away from the perpetrators, he demanded that they unhand their victims.
Noticing the aspiring priest’s short stature and churchly garb, the marauders were undaunted. They moved in on Possenti. Just then, a lizard appeared on the street amid the brewing melee. With a single shot, Possenti popped a deadly cap into the creature, then aimed the gun at his advancing assailants and ordered their immediate withdrawal.
“The next bullet, he warned them,” reads Gun Saint, “would be ‘through your heart.’” The pillagers retreated. The villagers rejoiced.
“Striking as it may seem,” Snyder writes, “the incident…is historically accurate.” Some critics, however, call it unsubstantiated. Others object to Snyder’s using it to politicize St. Possenti’s life. The Rev. Sebastian MacDonald, superior of a Passionist monastery near Detroit, calls Snyder’s portrayal “misleading.”
Possenti’s “spiritual significance,” MacDonald says, “is far greater” than this one event: Upon his death in 1862, he was known for his exacting dedication to monastic life, despite his worldly upbringing and young age. Possenti was beatified just 46 years later and canonized in 1920. “I’d suggest a person of [Possenti’s] caliber would make his defense of someone a ‘weaponless’ encounter,” says MacDonald, a gun-control advocate. “The kind of man Gabriel was would suggest…he would go about this by laying his body on the line, but not his rifle.”
Snyder, who dismisses such criticism as “pompous pedantry of pacifistic pruneheads,” says he first heard the story in his youth. A family friend, he recalls, told him the tale of “this saint who’d rescued a whole village with a gun.”
Growing up in small-town Kingston, N.Y., Snyder often spent Saturdays hunting fowl with his neighbors. At age 10, Snyder got his first gun, a Revolutionary War-era flintlock, from his father. Snyder’s personal arsenal soon grew to include a pre-Civil War Colt revolvera gift, he says, from the family doctoras well as a few modern firearms.
But Snyder didn’t become a dedicated gun-rights advocate, he says, until the late ’60s, when he was completing his master’s degree in political science at Georgetown University. Needing work as well as a flexible schedule to accommodate his studies, he ended up taking a part-time job as a researcher for the National Rifle Association’s publications office.
It was a difficult time for the organization. Following several “high-profile crimes committed with firearms,” Snyder says, including the murders of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “there developed a lot of editorialization against gun ownership.” In response, the NRA’s monthly magazine, the American Rifleman, began to transform itself from a technical journal for gun geeks to a more political publication. Snyder was assigned to fact-check the rhetoric and look up statistics on such topics as gun ownership and firearms-related body counts. The deeper he delved, he says, the more intrigued he became with the issue.
“It just occurred to me that while, yes, it was true that there were people using guns to do horrible things,” Snyder says, “there were many, many more people who were not using them in that way….The media coverage of the issue at the time seemed to ignore the overall picture. I just thought it was grossly unfair.”
Snyder soon started writing full-time for the magazine. By 1970, he had moved up to associate editor. Five years later, he started up the D.C. chapter of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, for which he still serves as public-affairs director.
The lizard incident didn’t resurface for Snyder until the late ’80s. Flipping through a religious magazine called the New Covenant, he came upon a column that focused on Possenti’s purported handgun heroics on Isola. “It really rang a bell,” says Snyder, who could now relate to the story not only as an arms advocate and a devout Catholic, but also as a victim of crime.
“There were two incidents where I wished I’d had a gun,” he explains. “I was held up twiceonce at knifepoint, once at gunpoint. But they both happened in D.C., where you’re not allowed to carry a gun. That’s one of the reasons I moved to Arlington.”
Snyder decided to raise awareness of Possenti’s example. In 1987, he wrote to the Vatican in hope of honoring Possenti with more than just canonization. “Your Eminence,” his letter began, “let me take this opportunity to request that St. Gabriel Possenti be designated Patron of Handgunners.”
Receiving no response, Snyder resubmitted his request two years later. The concept didn’t seem far-fetched to himthere are, he argues, patron saints for all sorts of unlikely folks: condemned criminals (Dismas), sufferers of venereal diseases (Fiacre), even arms dealers (Hadrian of Nicomedia).
Snyder also began firing off press releases, alerting newspapers and broadcasters to his cause. Articles soon appeared in such publications as the Washington Post, the London Times, and Playboy. But once the issue gained national media attention, many Passionists protested the proposal. The heads of two Passionist provinces, in a 1992 letter to the U.S. Bishops Conference, disputed Snyder’s petition “on the sheer lack of historical evidence for the incident.”
The basis for the New Covenant article that had triggered Snyder’s campaign was an entry on Possenti in author Ann Ball’s 1983 book Modern Saints: Their Lives and Faces. Ball’s source: Son of the Passion: The Story of Gabriel Francis Possenti, the New Patron of Catholic Youth, a biography by the late Passionist Rev. Godfrey Poage. The book came highly recommended, she says, by members of her local Passionist Order in Houston.
“The book related the Isola incident,”
she says, “and I assumed the incident was correctly reported.”
Four Catholic officials had signed off on Poage’s book upon its first printing in 1962, certifying that it was free from doctrinal bias. It wasn’t until after Snyder’s publicity blitz that other Passionists began to challenge the biography’s historical accuracy. In 2000, MacDonald told the National Catholic Register that Poage was “an Irishman with a tremendous imagination, and a reputation for story-telling. Things he recounts as facts sometimes end up 60 percent true.”
Since then, MacDonald has made it his mission “to put to rest the allegations about St. Gabriel as an apt candidate for use by the NRA.” “I am seeking,” he says, “some kind of documentation on or legitimation for the position that this is not true.”
Poage defended his reporting until his death in 2001, citing documentation he uncovered in Italy in the ’40s, as well as the eyewitness account of a lay helper at Possenti’s monastery. Snyder has no hard proof of his own to back up his portrayal of the godly gunslinger beyond the biography written by Poage”a renowned scholar,” he says, whom the Vatican once deemed a peritus, or expert.
“I don’t have proof that George Washington crossed the Delaware River, either,” Snyder says. “But I believe he did it. People wrote down that they saw him do it….If you can’t trust historical research, you don’t have history.”
Ball, who works by day as an armed security guard, admits that the lizard story “sounds like legendary stuff.” But she notes that Possenti was an avid hunter prior to entering religious life, which makes the tale of his heroic marksmanship more believable. “There’s no doubt that he was a gun person,” she says. “There’s a strong tradition that St. Gabriel’s only physical defect was a scar near his nose as a result of a gun accident or misfire.”
Strangely, however, none of the photographs of Possenti that Ball has seen show the scar. The photos have all been retouched, she says, to make Possenti seem more appropriately saintly; in some cases, a halo has been added over his head.
Snyder suggests that the Catholic Church is engaged in its own effort to burnish Possenti’s image, accusing his opponents of favoring political correctness over history. “The reporting of the incident was never challenged until I brought it up,” he says. “It had been out there for over 20 years and nobody ever disputed it.”
Fact or fable, the story contains an important moral, says Snyder, who’s intent on continuing to spread the gospel of Gun Saint. “[Possenti] wasn’t out to kill people, but to protect the innocent,” he says. “The use of force is not only an acceptable behavior, but in some cases necessary.” CP