Absolution under fire on 9/11

Like Fr. William Corby before him at Gettysburg, Fr. Francis Grogan was an instrument of God’s reconciling power on one of our nation’s darkest days.

Fr. Francis Grogan's name engraved at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. (Image courtesy of the author)

In the midst of the carnage of two of the most seminal and tragic events in American history, God’s saving grace was made manifest by the presence of a Catholic priest.

The Battle of Gettysburg marked the turning point of the Civil War. Confederate General Robert E. Lee sought a victory over the Union Army on Northern soil. Often referred to as “The High-Water Mark of the Rebellion,” the three-day fight in Pennsylvania was the Civil War’s bloodiest battle. Lee’s army was ultimately defeated and sent into retreat, but at a high cost. Over 50,000 were left dead on the battlefield after giving “the last full measure of devotion,” as President Lincoln said in his famed Gettysburg Address.

The only priest on that battlefield, during those three days in July 1863, was a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, named William Corby.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 stand as a dividing line between two different ages. That dark day saw almost 3,000 innocent men and women killed when 19 Islamists highjacked four planes. Two were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, a third into the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and a fourth into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after its heroic passengers fought back, preventing more heartbreak. The events of 9/11 completely changed our modern world and began a costly two decades long “War on Terror”.

The only priest in the sky that day on one of those four planes was also a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, named Francis Grogan.

A statue of Father William Corby (1910), by Samuel Murray, at the Gettysburg Battlefield. (Image: Wikipedia)

It is through the priest that Christ’s work of redemption continues until the end of the age. In administering the sacraments, the priest speaks with the voice of Christ imparting His divine life. On the battlefield of Gettysburg and in the skies of 9/11, Fathers Corby and Grogan spoke with the voice of Christ, bringing forgiveness and peace to many about to meet their tragic end.

Father William Corby was born in Detroit and enrolled in the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, only ten years after it was founded by the Holy Cross Fathers. After graduation, he decided to join their ranks and, as a young priest, began teaching at his alma mater. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Father Corby decided to leave Notre Dame, answering the call to serve as chaplain to the 88th New York Infantry of the Union Army’s famous Irish Brigade.

At Gettysburg, while his men were preparing to charge into battle, Father Corby put on his purple stole and climbed atop a boulder at Cemetery Ridge. Despite artillery and scattered arms fire, he was not dissuaded from his task. All became quiet and fell to their knees. The stirring scene is still frozen in time at the very spot there at Gettysburg, where a statue of Father Corby stands in commemoration of the sacred moment. His valor is also memorialized in Paul Henry Wood’s painting, Absolution Under Fire, kept at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame.

Standing before his kneeling men in their final minutes before running into the fires of war, Father Corby stretched forth his right hand making the sign of the Cross over the brigade as he recited the words of general absolution.

From his spot atop that boulder, Father Corby could see thousands of soldiers across the battlefield. As he recalled later in his memoir, his general absolution was “intended for all—in quantum possum—not only for our brigade, but for all, North and South, who were susceptible of it and who were about to appear before their Judge.” He then wrote of his hope that “many thousands of souls, purified by hardships, fasting, prayer, and blood, met a favorable sentence on the ever memorable battlefield of Gettysburg….”

The Church’s code of canon law provides for the possibility of absolution to be administered in this way precisely for such dire circumstances:

Can. 961 §1. Absolution cannot be imparted in a general manner to many penitents at once without previous individual confession unless:

1/ danger of death is imminent and there is insufficient time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents…

And there is nothing better for one’s eternal good than to benefit from this sacrament just before death. As the Catechism teaches:

In this sacrament, the sinner, placing himself before the merciful judgment of God, anticipates in a certain way the judgment to which he will be subjected at the end of his earthly life. For it is now, in this life, that we are offered the choice between life and death, and it is only by the road of conversion that we can enter the Kingdom, from which one is excluded by grave sin. In converting to Christ through penance and faith, the sinner passes from death to life and “does not come into judgment.” (CCC 1470)

Major General St. Clair Augustine Mulholland, witness to the stirring scene, later said of it: “I do not think there was a man in the brigade who did not offer up a heart-felt prayer. 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 2nd.”

After receiving absolution and reciting their acts of contrition, the men of the Irish Brigade went into action at Little Round Top and the Wheatfield where they faced the superior numbers of the Confederate forces. They offered a dogged resistance that slowed the enemy advance but ultimately lost control of that quarter of the battlefield. In the skirmish 27 men were killed, 109 wounded and 62 were reported missing. By battle’s end the next day, with Lee’s retreat, 202 of the Irish Brigade’s 530 men had been killed in the fight.

After the war, Father Corby went on to serve two terms as Notre Dame’s president where he died and was laid to rest in 1897.

Father Francis Grogan was born in 1925 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. His life was similar to Father Corby’s in many ways. He too served our nation in uniform as a sonar expert on a Navy destroyer during the Second World War. He too chose to dedicate his whole life to God as a priest in the Congregation of the Holy Cross and also studied at Notre Dame.

Ordained in 1955, Father Grogan spent the next 46 years ministering at a college, a high school, and parishes in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Vermont and Texas. He even served for a time at a media apostolate in Madrid. After a full life in generous service, his last assignment would be as superior of a residence of his community in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

He was 76 years old when the fateful day of September 11, 2001, dawned.

Planning to visit his sister living in California, Father Grogan made arrangement to travel there in coach with Delta, but a friend, who worked for United, managed to get him a first-class ticket so the elderly priest’s cross-country journey would be more comfortable. Perhaps it was Providence, then, that had Father Grogan board United Flight 175 with 55 other passengers and nine crew members.

Father Grogan was seated in seat 1-C directly in front of James Hayden, an alumnus of Stonehill College which was founded by the Holy Cross Fathers in Easton, Massachusetts and where Father Grogan once taught.

The flight took off at 8:14am from Boston’s Logan Airport and, 20 minutes later, five Islamic terrorists seized control of the cockpit after killing both pilots.

American Airlines Flight 11 departed from the same airport 15 minutes before. It too was hijacked and was the first plane to reach its target, crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York at 8:46. Few thought this first crash was terrorism, showing how different the world was before 9/11. The American consciousness was naïve and unused to the possibility of mass public terror.

A flight attendant and two passengers were able to make phone calls from Fr. Grogan’s plane after the hijacking. These phone calls reveal that all passengers were herded together to the back of the plane, were in communication with one another, and were able to assess the full extent of the hijacker’s evil intent.

Passenger Brian David Sweeney was able to reach his mother at 9:00 and told her that he and others were considering storming the cockpit to take control of the aircraft. Another passenger, Peter Hansen, made a phone call to his father also at 9:00 and is reported to have said: “It’s getting bad, Dad—A stewardess was stabbed—They seem to have knives and Mace—They said they have a bomb—It’s getting very bad on the plane—Passengers are throwing up and getting sick—The plane is making jerky movements—I don’t think the pilot is flying the plane—I think we are going down—I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building—Don’t worry, Dad— If it happens, it’ll be very fast—My God, my God.”

We can clearly surmise from these calls that the passengers of United Flight 175 were fully aware of the gravity of their situation and that they were in danger of death. Given this, and Father Grogan’s fidelity to his vocation for over four decades, it is a moral certainty that he would have ministered in some way to his fellow passengers and have administered general absolution to them.

There was no time for the passenger’s plans to storm the cockpit to unfold. At 9:03 United Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in a huge explosion televised live around the world causing shock and horror. All now knew America was under attack and that the world was changed forever.

No remains of Father Grogan were able to be recovered. Instead, a small amount of ash and rubble from the ruins of the World Trade Center were buried before a gravestone in his memory at the cemetery of the Holy Cross Fathers at Stonehill.

The five terrorists certainly thought they were the only ones on board United Flight 175 carrying out a religious mission—depraved though it was. Little did they know that another passenger was as well. It was a Catholic priest carrying out a mission of goodness that ultimately prevails over their evil.

As terror rained down from the skies on 9/11, it is consoling to know there was also a measure of God’s grace, given through the hands of a priest for those who perished on United Flight 175. As Saint Paul writes: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Cor 5:18).

Like Father William Corby before him at Gettysburg, Father Francis Grogan was an instrument of God’s reconciling power on one of our nation’s darkest days.

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About Father Seán Connolly 68 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Ordained in 2015, he has an undergraduate degree in the Classics from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts as well as a Bachelor of Sacred Theology, Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Theology from Saint Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York. In addition to his parochial duties, he writes for The Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Register and The Wanderer.


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