ROME – A pastor in northern Italy who’d announced plans to bless rifles after Sunday Mass on Sept. 3 to celebrate the opening of hunting season has been forced to backtrack and apologize after a social media backlash against the idea of appearing to sanctify weapons.

The controversy arose after handbills went up in the Avaglio neighborhood of the small town of Marliana, located in Italy’s northern region of Tuscany, announcing a special rite at the Parish of St. Michael Archangel on Sept. 3.

“Opening of the 2023-2024 hunting season. Blessing of rifles at the end of the Holy Mass at 9:00 a.m. in the square outside the church,” the announcement read.

Comments on Italian social media channels swiftly ensued, many of them critical.

“This flies in the face of Laudato si’,” one post read, referring to Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on care of creation. Another said, “The blessing of rifles smacks of times gone by … times we would prefer to leave behind, in Marliana like everywhere else.”

As the controversy mounted, the Diocese of Pistoia, where Marliana is located, issued a statement containing an apology from the pastor, Father Alessio Biagioni.

“I deeply regret the reactions generated by the initiative of the blessing scheduled for the end of the celebration for Sept. 3 for the beginning of the hunting season,” Biagioni said in the statement.

“The expression used, ‘blessing rifles,’ without doubt was a mistaken synthesis which, in some ways, seemed to sanctify an instrument of death,” Biagioni said. “I apologize again for the disturbance this initiative has caused, which created a visibility that was neither anticipated nor desired.”

In a Facebook post, Biagioni implied that some sort of blessing for the hunters nevertheless will take place.

“In reality, the initiative was supposed to be a moment of prayer with which to launch a sporting activity to which many parishioners are attached, as well as many people who visit our area,” he said.

“To me, it seemed obvious to concentrate the blessing on that instrument [the rifle] to ask the protection of the Lord where human skill and prudence alone can’t always guarantee safety,” he said.

The Tuscany region of Italy is considered a center of the country’s hunting activities, with the season generally running from September to February, and until March for migratory birds. There are an estimated 800,000 licensed hunters in the country, mostly concentrated in Tuscany and on the island of Sardinia.

Despite tight gun control laws in Italy, hunting, especially in rural areas, remains a cherished tradition, with a per capita gun ownership rate estimated at 12 percent nationally and roughly seven million firearms believed to be in circulation.

Despite occasional efforts by animal rights activists and pro-gun control groups to campaign for bans on hunting, to date those efforts have failed, and observers believe they’re unlikely to be revived under Italy’s current conservative government.

After news of the blessing ceremony first circulated, the Italian branch of the World Wildlife Federation addressed a letter of protest to Bishop Fausto Tardelli of Pistoia.

“We are well aware that Tuscany, and especially the Pistoia mountains, has a consolidated hunting tradition,” the letter read. “But traditions, especially bloody ones in practice or in theory, are also made to be changed or ended.”