The news reached many on July 4, 1863, offering consolation and some perspective as our nation marked its independence yet again in the midst of the ongoing interior turmoil of the Civil War. Two days before, as the 88th New York Infantry, a regiment of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, prepared to engage in the Battle of Gettysburg, their chaplain, Fr. William Corby, Captain USV, instructed the men of his regiment to prepare themselves to receive general absolution before going in to fight.
In his book, Memoires of Chaplain Life, Fr. Corby quotes Major General St. Clair Mulholland’s recollection of the scene:
“Father Corby stood on a large rock in front of the brigade. Addressing the men, he explained what he was about to do, saying that each one could receive the benefit of the absolution by making a sincere Act of Contrition and firmly resolving to embrace the first opportunity of confessing his sins, urging them to do their duty, and reminding them of the high and sacred nature of their trust as soldiers and the noble object for which they fought. As he closed his address, every man, Catholic and non-Catholic, fell on his knees with his head bowed down. Then stretching his right hand toward the brigade, Fr. Corby pronounced the words of the absolution: ‘Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat, et ego, auctoritate ipsius, vos absolvo ab omni vinculo, excommunicationis interdicti, in quantum possum et vos indigetis deinde ego absolvo vos, a pecatis vestris, in nomini Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.’ (sic.) (‘May Our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you, and I, by His authority, absolve you from every bond of excommunication and interdict, insofar as it lies within my power and you require. Therefore, I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’)”
“I do not think there was a man in the brigade who did not offer up a heart-felt prayer,” Mulholland continues. “For some, it was their last; they knelt there in their grave clothes. In less than half an hour, many of them were numbered with the dead of July 2.” Fr. Corby recalls also that he intended his absolution for all those fighting on that day, both from the north and the south, since a priest’s sacred duty is not bound by the divisions harbored between men.
Though Fr. Corby, a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, went on to become twice the president of Notre Dame University, this fleeting moment in a field on a hot summer’s day became the defining moment of his life. A statue of him vested in stole and with his arm extended in blessing stands to this day on a boulder on the eastern slope of Cemetery Ridge, where he offered God’s grace to these soldiers. It was the first statue of a non-general erected on the Gettysburg Battlefield, and its replica stands outside of Corby Hall on the Notre Dame campus.
The moment probably seemed quite ordinary. But God’s grace comes to us in the particular. It is how he chooses to bestow it. His grace is not bound by the sacraments he gives us, but the sacraments he gives us are the ordinary means by which he chooses to pour it out upon us. God does not operate in vague generalities in this world. He operates in particulars. He was born among us in a particular stable on a particular day. He chose particular men to found apostolic churches in particular places. There could be no Universal Church without its embodiment in the particular Church. That means real human beings, actually responding to God’s call and becoming conduits of his grace for the redemption of the world. God’s grace was poured out upon that battlefield on that particular day through that particular man and through all the particular things in his life that led him to that moment. It is astounding if you stop to think about it.
In its ordinariness, God’s grace can be challenging to recognize. The people of Nazareth refused to believe that Jesus could be as wise and mighty as his words and deeds indicated. (See Mark 6:1-6.) He was a Nazarean. He had a Nazarean accent, wore Nazarean clothes and liked Nazarean food. His mother was called “Mariam,” as Matthew’s version of this week’s Gospel points out – the way her name would have been pronounced in Nazareth. The salvation of Israel could not possibly come through this ordinary carpenter.
But that is just it. We want to be dazzled, but God comes to us in a barn. We want cake, but he gives us bread. We pray for growth, and he answers our prayer with struggles. (See 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.) It can be so hard for us to see the wise beauty of his hidden grace.
Our nation pauses this Sunday to remember the high ideals for which we stand. Opinions differ sharply as to where we have been, where we stand now and where we are headed. As Catholics, we have a sacred duty to stand in the gap of the divisions harbored between men, and in our own small particular way, to be conduits of his healing grace in our particular time and place. (See Ezekiel 2:2-5; Psalm 123.) It is as he ordains it.