The Rock of the Church

Fr. Peter Rocca C.S.C., a Holy Cross priest, Rector Emeritus of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and chaplain to the ROTC detachment here on campus, explores a painting familiar to many in the Notre Dame family: Absolution Under Fire by Paul Henry Wood, painted in 1891.

Created almost thirty years after the event, this work depicts the Rev. William J. Corby, C.S.C., offering absolution, or forgiveness of sin, on July 2, 1863, to the soldiers of the Irish Brigade who had arrived at Gettysburg, a battle that marked a turning point in the Civil War. 

The Irish Brigade was a group of five infantry regiments comprised mostly of Irish Catholic immigrants. Fr. Corby was one of seven Holy Cross priests who volunteered to be Union Army chaplains. He later became president of the University of Notre Dame, not just once but twice.

Corby stands on a boulder, his arm raised in blessing over the men kneeling in prayer. Prominently displayed in the center of the scene and rising above the men’s heads is the flag of the United States as well as the Irish Brigade flag, its golden harp standing out against a Kelly green background. Such patriotic displays were counterarguments to the discrimination Irish immigrants and Catholics faced during this period. 

During Holy Week, Peter’s denial is one of the major events in the narrative. Peter attempts a heroic response to Jesus during the Last Supper, but Jesus correctly predicts Peter’s coming failure. When that denial takes place three times, Peter understands his sin and is overcome with grief.

How can it be that Peter, the rock of the Church, to whom Jesus gave the power to forgive sins, is himself in need of forgiveness? So it is with all of us who are ministers of God’s merciful love through the sacraments. Nevertheless, we give thanks that God’s grace can flow through imperfect vessels, like Fr. Corby, to grant forgiveness to those who seek it in a time of need. As we approach the momentous events of this week, we pray for the courage to ask for and accept the mercy that Christ offers us all.

This Lent, ThinkND invites you to join FaithND and the Raclin Murphy Museum of Art for a journey of Lenten discovery through some of the most significant liturgical paintings in the Raclin Murphy collection, challenging you to contemplate prayer, fasting, sinfulness, mercy, grace, and God’s infinite love from the perspectives of the artist’s gaze. To subscribe to the FaithND Daily Gospel Reflection visit

Paul Henry Wood, Absolution Under Fire, 1891, Oil on canvas. Raclin Murphy Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame. University Collection, by transfer, 1976.057.

For closer viewing of this work through the digital collections of the Raclin Murphy Museum of Art, please click here.

Art and HistoryReligion and PhilosophyAsh WednesdayChrist with Mary and MarthaDigest184Digest274EucharistFaithNDHoly WeekLentRaclin Murphy Museum of ArtRocco Marconi

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