Priests and guns

by Phyllis Zagano

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I'd say the weapons control discussion began once the first Neanderthal man killed his next-cave neighbor with a rock. Oh, excuse me: It was a stone tool fashioned for defense.

The discussion continues amid the plaintive cries of Pope Francis and others. Not long ago, in Amman, Jordan, the pope prayed to "convert those who seek war, those who make and sell weapons!"

Sellers, yes. They profit from and even cause war. The buyers always suffer.

In Phoenix at their morning Masses June 11, Frs. Kenneth Walker and Joseph Terra of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter probably spoke about Barnabas, the apostle. Perhaps they told how a land-owning Cypriot, then named Joseph, sold his possessions, gave the proceeds to the church at Jerusalem and received the name Barnabas. Luke wrote about him in Acts. Paul included him in epistles. Some say his cousin was the evangelist Mark.

Barnabas became a martyr in Cyprus. Some say he was stoned. Others, that he was dragged through the streets by a rope around his neck then burnt.

That happens today as unarmed Christians are driven from their homes -- in Iraq, in Syria, in so many other places where war has overtaken peace.

Back in Phoenix that Wednesday night, when Terra opened the door to the church courtyard, could he have thought about Barnabas or martyrdom? A crazed man was swinging an iron rod. Terra got to his bedroom and his .357 Colt Python. We know he approached the crazed man. We know Walker entered the commotion. We know the intruder took Terra's handgun and shot Walker.

Walker was 28 years old, two years ordained. I don't care that he belonged to a group some say leans so far to the right it might fall over. I don't care if he liked the gold embroidery and the lace. I don't care if he wore a biretta. He was a young priest killed by another priest's gun. That is tragic -- and nuts.

Thomas Olmstead, the bishop of Phoenix, says he generally does not ask whether priests have guns. "There are some priests that go hunting for javelina, and for deer and for elk," he said recently. I find it hard to believe that a Catholic priest in his 50s kept a hand weapon for deer hunting.

The folks who manufactured the .357 Colt Python stopped production about 15 years ago. These guns are now worth from several hundred to several thousands of dollars. I'd like to think Terra inherited it from a favorite uncle and just kept it. Venison would not be on his menu. He told the parishioner who donated an outdoor grill to cook steaks that the two priests "didn't live like that."

I am sure they lived justly, mercifully and humbly. Even so, there may have been the slightest taint of right-wing anger in their little downtown rectory to let it house a .357 Colt Python. It is not in the worst part of town.

Why, in the name of all that is just, merciful and humble, would a priest have a gun?

Even military chaplains don't have guns. The Geneva Conventions underscore their noncombatant role in war. The U.S. Navy forbids chaplains from qualifying with weapons, earning warfare qualifications, or bearing arms.

A priest with a handgun? Canon law forbids all clerics -- bishops, priests, deacons -- from anything "unbecoming to their state." That would include working as a bartender or cab driver or, one would think, carrying a gun.

Protection is not a do-it-yourself affair. While some municipalities provide police presence for major locations and clerics -- St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and its cardinal archbishop, for example -- the concept of a gun-toting padre is beyond the pale.

The tragedy of a young priest killed by a weapon he lived with is too awful to behold. It's one more thing the bishop needs to think about. Sooner rather than later.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and winner of the 2014 Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice. She will speak Sept. 18 at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill. Her newest books are Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches.]

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