This day in 1863 was the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a day that saw many dramatic events. Chief among them was the moment when Father William Corby, a Holy Cross Father serving as Chaplain to the New York-based Irish Brigade, gave absolution to the brigade just before it went into battle. The American Catholic has a great blog entry on this inspiring moment:
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.”
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