In light of all the controversy regarding Notre Dame over the shameful honoring of Obama on May 17, 2009, it is important to remember that many Notre Dame students, faculty and graduates were appalled by this, and also to remember that Notre Dame has in the past been a great Catholic university, and may be so in the future. This heritage of greatness was exemplified by the third president of the University, Father William Corby.
An early graduate of Notre Dame, Father Corby went from the University to be a chaplain with the Irish Brigade. This post details the highpoint of his Army career, the mass absolution of the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg. In 1879 Father Corby was requested to write his recollections of this memorable event.
Notre Dame, Ind. Jan 4 1879
To – Col John B Bachelder, Chelsea, Mass.
I rec’d a letter from St. Clair A. Mulholland, late Brevet Major General – an old friend – asking me to write up a few outlines of the general absolution given at Gettysburg PA. Enclosed please find said lines which in the past few minutes I have hastily scratched off. I kept no notes of my army life & had to depend entirely on my memory for the rude sketch I have given you. To praise the Brigade or to say anything of my own career in the army I leave to some person who has more time & ability than I. Most of our Brigade were from New York City & there are a number of officers there who knew me well. I will simply say here that I was with the “Army of the Potomac” – in all the principal battles – except the 1st Bull Run.
You may use as much or as little of what I send as you may see fit. I gave facts only – but poorly put together.
Very Respectfully Yours,
W. Corby, CSC
P.S. Would be glad to have a few copies of your history when published.
Scene of a Religious Character on the Historic Battlefield of Gettysburg
Several days prior to this battle, the “Army of the Potomac” under the command of Genl Meade was continually on the march. The day before the battle, the 2d Army Corps left Frederick City Md. about 5 in the morning & halted at 12 (midnight) to rest during the balance of the night on the cold wet ground, and next morning opened fire on the enemy with artillery. The enemy responded in full numbers. Shells were bursting thick & fast all morning over the 2d Army Corps until finally all the troops were drawn up in line of battle.
The men were ordered to “prime” & now everything was ready for the word “advance.” At this moment, the Very Rev W Corby CSC, Chaplain of the Irish Brigade (the only priest then in the Army of the Potomac – now President of Notre Dame University, Indiana), stepped in front of the battle line & addressed the men & officers (in substance) as follows.
“My Dear Christian Friends! In consideration of the want of time for each one to confess his sins in due order as required for the reception of the sacrament of Penance, I will give you general absolution. But, my dear friends, while we stand here & in the presence of Eternity, so to speak, with a well-armed force in front & with missiles of death in the form of shells bursting over our heads, we must humble ourselves before the great Creator of all men & acknowledge our great unworthiness & conceive a heartfelt sorrow for the sins by which we have ungratefully offended the Divine Author of all good things. Him Whom we ought to love, we have despised by sinning against his laws. Him Whom we should have honored by lives of virtue, we have dishonored by sin.
“We stand in debt to our great Lord & Master. He loves us but we, by sin, have forfeited that love. Now, to receive a full pardon for our sins & regain the favor of God, do not think it is sufficient to get the priest’s absolution. It is true as a minister of God he has recd the power to pronounce your sins absolved. ‘Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven’ – John 20, 23 – by virtue of this power given the Apostles & their lawful successors, the priest acts. But the absolution – pronounced by the priest or by Saint Peter himself – would be worthless unless the penitent conceives a true sorrow for his sins. Which sorrow should include a firm determination never more to willfully offend & to do all in his power to atone for the past sins. Therefore, my dear friends, in the solemn presence of Eternity, excite in your minds a deep sorrow for all the sins, negligences, & transgressions of your past lives. ‘Rend your hearts & not your garments,’ & I the consecrated minister of God will give you general absolution.
“At this moment, all fell on their knees & recited an act of contrition. Officers mounted waiting to advance removed their hats, and then the Chaplain, in solemn fervent tones pronounced the words of Absolution. A few minutes after, all were plunged into the dense smoke of battle. A more impressive scene, perhaps, never took place on any battlefield. It was indeed so earnest & truly sublime that non-Catholics prostrated themselves in humble adoration of the true God while they felt that perhaps in less than half an hour their eyes would open to see into the Ocean of Eternity.”
In 1893 Father Corby wrote Memoirs of a Chaplain’s Life. In it he has this sentiment which it perhaps is good to recall on this Memorial Day: “Oh, you of a younger generation, think of what it cost our forefathers to save our glorious inheritance of union and liberty! If you let it slip from your hands you will deserve to be branded as ungrateful cowards and undutiful sons. But, no! You will not fail to cherish the prize– it is too sacred a trust– too dearly purchased.”