One could not imagine a more unlikely person to be honored as the patron of marksmen than the humble and gentle Saint Gabriel Possenti, also called by Pope Benedict XV, who canonized him, the patron saint of youth. He was given the latter title because he died at the tender age of twenty-four. How he earned the former, we shall explain.
As a young man Francis Possenti (Francis was his baptismal name) was quite the dandy, and everybody knew it. In fact one of his teenage nicknames was Il Damerino (The Dude) due to his favoring the latest fashions. He was also called Ii Ballerino (the dancer). He was also an ardent hunter and expert marksman. In addition to these pursuits, he had a marked fondness for the ladies. Because of this, many acquaintances were surprised to see him enter the religious life. Though by no means a great sinner, it is clear that his youth was filled with the virile, youthful enthusiasm for the pleasures of this world, which are so transitory. But Heaven had designs for Francis Possenti: Our Lady, by means of an interior locution, convinced him to honor a childhood promise he made shortly after his mother’s death, a promise to serve God as a priest. He answered this call by entering the Passionist Order; but the promise, alas, was never to be fulfilled due to the saint’s early death.
Upon his acceptance into the Order, where he was given the name “Brother Gabriel of the Most Sorrowful Virgin,” it was clear to all that this young man was no ordinary religious. One of his early confessors and spiritual guides, Fr. Norbert, would later testify at his canonization process that he knew, from the moment they met, the youth would become a saint, so great and pure was the boy’s desire. In just six short years he achieved a degree of perfection most remarkable. Yet his sanctity was reached in the most simple and steadfast manner, with little, if any, of the miraculous to mark his progress. While no miracles are attributed to him during his lifetime, countless spectacular wonders have been cataloged since his death and beatification (which was proclaimed in 1908 by Pope St. Pius X).
It is somewhat a surprise, then, to discover, in the annals of his life, a unique and almost humorous event that has earned for him the title Patron of marksmen. During the Masonic revolution that was sweeping the Papal States in 1860, bands of brigands, who were somewhat loosely attached to the “army” of Garibaldi, were raiding the villages in their path, looking for plunder, food, and satisfaction for their other unlawful desires. The superior of the Passionist monastery ordered the place locked, and sent all the brothers to the chapel to pray that God deliver the town from this reign of terror. After prayer, Brother Gabriel asked for and received permission to go into the town alone to see what he could do to help. At his arrival, he found that many homes already had been plundered and set afire. There were bands of drunken soldiers hollering and looting and brandishing their pistols. The scene of anarchy was enough to rouse just anger in the gentlest heart.
As he was surveying the horrible scene, Gabriel heard the screams of a young woman being dragged from her home by a drunken soldier. He quickly ran to her aid and, grabbing a pistol from the holster of her assailant, ordered that he leave the town at once, taking all the others with him. Almost immediately a second soldier was commanded to drop his weapons, which the astonished brigand did at once. The cries of the two captives soon brought the sergeant and several other members of his detachment. Seeing the monk now armed with two pistols and obviously in no mood to dialogue, the marauders slowly gathered in front of him, keeping their hands on their pistol grips in case any trouble required the use of them. They were certain this boy monk would be no problem for them, the mighty army of the Republic!
The sergeant made a sarcastic remark about a young monk thinking he could stop a whole armed company, but Gabriel merely smiled and told them to lay down their arms so no one would be harmed. Suddenly a small lizard darted onto the street from its secret hiding place some yards away. Instantly Gabriel’s hunting instincts returned and without even so much as a casual aim, the young monk severed the reptile’s head with one perfect shot from the pistol. Again he repeated his request for the men to disarm, a request they fulfilled without further comment. The saintly young brother then demanded that they put out the fires they had started, empty their sacks and pockets of all loot, and march out – all of them – to the end of town. Saint Gabriel escorted them personally, no doubt admonishing them for their misdeeds all the while.
We do not have his words at that moment on record, but we do have this short note culled from a letter to his family penned about the same time: “The men who are the instigators of this dreadful condition of affairs should be regarded as instruments in the hand of God to test the fidelity of the good, to punish the sins of the wicked, and to purify the Church. Toward these enemies of order and the Church we should not harbor any rancor or desire for revenge. We ought to commiserate with them, while we pray with the Church: ‘That Thou wouldst deign to humble the enemies of the Church’.”
It is clear that Saint Gabriel of the Most Sorrowful Virgin did not hesitate to use his earthly talents to humble the enemies of the Church, and thereby to be God’s answer to his own prayer. For his chilvary in defense of a lady, and for his patriotism in defense of the village (and to his own embarrassment), the grateful townsfolk escorted the monk with prayers and chanting back to the monastery. Two short years later he would be accompanied by his only true Lady to a celestial mansion with the sound of angel voices ringing in his ears.