Columbus, Catholicism and Courage

sky, storm, fear, hope, faith


sky, storm, fear, hope, faith

“This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

This is one of those years in which the government decreed Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, does fall on October 12, the date, under the Julian calendar, when Columbus discovered the New World. Columbus Day is observed also in Spain as Dia de la Hispanidad and Fiesta Nacional and as the charmingly non politically correct term Dia de la Raza in most Latin American nations.

In this country Columbus Day used to be an uncomplicated celebration, especially for Italian Americans. Now it has become controversial with Columbus blamed in some quarters for genocide against Indians and being the founder of the American slave trade. As Dinesh D’Souza pointed out in this article in 1995 in First Things, the condemnation of Columbus today tells us far more about current political battles than it does about the historical record of Columbus. From a modern standpoint there is indeed much with which to criticize Columbus since, in most ways, he was a typical man of his time, as we are, in most ways, typical children of ours. Among other views inimical to our time,  he saw nothing wrong about establishing colonies and bringing native peoples under the rule of European powers. He had little respect for the religions of native people and wanted them to be Catholic, as, indeed, he wanted all the world to be Catholic (I see nothing wrong in this myself, but rest assured most of our contemporaries in this country would).

Prior, however, to ascending the pulpit to launch a jeremiad against someone of a prior time, it might be useful to consider the criticisms that Columbus might have of our time. The embrace of nihilistic atheism by so many in the West in our time would have appalled him. The easy availability of the most degrading types of pornography would have sickened him. Our weapons of mass destruction he would have seen as a sign of the reign of the Antichrist. He would have viewed what I will call “ecu-mania” as a turning away from the True Faith. The celebration of abortion as a right would have seemed to him as the ultimate covenant with death. The Sixties of the last century popularized the term “generation gap,” describing the difficulty that parents and their teenage offspring had in understanding each other. Between our time and that of Columbus there is a generations’ chasm and the use of Columbus as a whipping boy in current political disputes only increases our problem of understanding him and his time.

Columbus’ Catholicism

I believe that there are two keys to understanding Columbus:  his Catholic faith and his courage. Columbus lived in a religious age, but even in his time he was noted for the fervor of his faith. Masses, penances, pilgrimages, retreats, the reading of the Bible, all the aspects of devotion that the Catholic faith offered, Columbus engaged in these things all of his life. Any ship he commanded was scrupulous in religious observances, with the Salve Regina being chanted by the crew each evening at Vespers. As his son Ferdinand noted:   He was so strict in matters of religion that for fasting and saying prayers he might have been taken for a member of a religious order.”

Born in 1451, Columbus was two when Constantinople fell to the Turks. All his life, except in Spain, Islam was on the march and Christendom was under siege. As a proud Genoese, Columbus grew up sailing in a Mediterranean increasingly dominated by Islamic corsairs and fleets. The sea routes to the East through the Mediterranean were blocked and the tiny Italian city states had embarked on a grim fight against the odds that would span over a century until Lepanto in 1571.

Throughout his writings Columbus emphasized that the purpose of sailing west across the Atlantic to reach Asia was to outflank the Islamic world and spread Christianity throughout Asia. Columbus was not insensible to the riches that could be gained with direct trade with Asia, but it was the desire to spread the Catholic faith that is always uppermost in his writings.  This is clear in his Journal of his first voyage to the New World. He wrote:

Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians, and princes who love and promote the holy Christian faith, and are enemies of the doctrine of Mahomet, and of all idolatry and heresy, determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the above-mentioned countries of India, to see the said princes, people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith; and furthermore directed that I should not proceed by land to the East, as is customary, but by a Westerly route, in which direction we have hitherto no certain evidence that any one has gone…

Since the foundation of the Franciscan Order, it was the sons of Saint Francis who chiefly undertook the incredibly dangerous task of missions to Islamic lands outside of Spain, and crossing the vast distances of Asia to undertake missionary efforts.  Small surprise then that Columbus was a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, and took Franciscan friars with him on his voyages of discovery.

Columbus’ Courage

All the faith in the world however is of small use to others if not combined with courage. There are two types of courage. There is the courage that comes in hot blood when the adrenaline is flowing. This courage is to be honored. A higher type of courage however is one that endures endless obstacles and frustrations over a great span of time and struggles on. For two decades prior to 1492 Columbus failed to gain any support for his mission. Men of lesser courage would have long before decided that the task was hopeless and moved on to other things in their lives. Columbus never wavered in his determination, against all odds, to see his dream become a reality. Critics of Columbus contended that he underestimated the size of the world and that he could not reach Asia across the Atlantic due to the vast distance. Ironically the critics were completely correct. If the Americas, and the islands of the West Indies, had not existed, Columbus and his crews would have perished long before any possible landfall. Against even such accurate criticism Columbus struggled on until finally he and the three ships under his command, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, sailed off into the watery wastes of the Atlantic on September 6, 1492 from the Canary Islands towards the setting sun.

Master Mariner that he was, Columbus had somehow learned the secret of the Trade Winds. Utilizing them, Columbus made the Atlantic passage in five weeks, a very swift voyage.

Five weeks out of sight of land was an unprecedented voyage for the time. As the days passed the temptation to turn back and abandon the effort must have been almost irresistible. This poem by the colorful  Cincinnatus Miller a/k/a Joaquin Miller, which all American schoolchildren once read, illustrates the situation well:

Behind him lay the gray Azores,

Behind, the Gates of Hercules;

Before him not the ghost of shores;

Before him only shoreless seas.

The good mate said: “Now must we pray,

For lo! the very stars are gone.

Brave Adm’r’l, speak: what shall I say?”

“Why say: ‘Sail on! sail on! and on!’”


“My men grow mutinous day by day;

My men grow ghastly wan and weak.”

The stout mate thought of home; a spray

Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.

“What shall I say, brave Adm’r’l, say

If we sight naught but seas at dawn?”

“Why, you shall say at break of day:

‘Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!’”


They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,

Until at last the blanched mate said:

“Why, now not even God would know

Should I and all my men fall dead.

These very winds forget their way;

For God from these dread seas is gone.

Now speak, brave Adm’r’l; speak and say—”

He said: “Sail on! sail on! and on!”


They sailed: they sailed.  Then spake the mate:

“This mad sea shows his teeth tonight;

He curls his lip, he lies in wait,

With lifted teeth, as if to bite!

Brave Adm’r’l, say but one good word:

             What shall we do when hope is gone?”             

                       The words leapt like a leaping sword:                         

“Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!”

Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,

And peered through darkness.  Ah, that night

Of all dark nights!  And then a speck—

A light! a light! a light! a light!

It grew; a starlit flag unfurled!

It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.

He gained a world; he gave that world

Its grandest lesson: “On! sail on!”

On Columbus Day I honor a faithful Catholic who had a dream to spread the faith of Christ throughout the globe and the courage to make that dream a reality. Historians and critics will argue about Columbus until the final trump, but what he accomplished is a reality that will withstand all analysis and criticism. Let us give the Admiral of the Ocean Sea the last word. By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.”

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49 thoughts on “Columbus, Catholicism and Courage”

  1. Pingback: Columbus, Catholicism and Courage | Deaconjohn1987's Blog

  2. Phil, you have been warned numerous times to stay on topic, and you continue to ignore that request. Likewise, we have received numerous complaints about your conduct on other article discussions on Cathoic Stand. Let’s take a little break from Catholic Stand. Thank you.

  3. “The transformation of part of the northern part of this continent into “America” inaugurated a nearly boundless epoch of opportunity and innovation, and thus deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto, with or without the participation of those who wish they had never been born.”
    Christopher Hitchens

  4. “I can never quite decide whether the anti-Columbus movement is merely risible or faintly sinister… It is sinister, though, because it is an ignorant celebration of stasis and backwardness, with an unpleasant tinge of self-hatred.”
    Christopher Hitchens

    1. Seems to me that one does not need to celebrate whatever backwardness exhibited by the native inhabitants of the lands Columbus visited in order to be able to criticize the brutality of his practices.

  5. ….For those who like actual history, by an actual historian, rather than political posturing over the issue of Coumbus, Dr. Warren Carrol’s excellent essay from 1992 is available here on the subject.

    Columbus was neither a devil nor a Saint. But he was closer to a flawed saint than a genocidal devil, such is the straw-man propped up by the hate-America crowd for the past few decades:

    Read, think.

  6. Didn’t Columbus cut of the hands and noses of natives who ran away from forced labor and have others burned alive. Is it not recorded in his journals and those of others who accompnied him that one way they broke the natives was the repeated raping of their women. Didn’t the priest Bartolomeo de las Casas, a contemporary of the explorer, describe what was done by Columbus and his men to the natives as “against nature” and cruel in the extreme? The argument that we are all children of our age only goes so far. Jesus said “Do to others whatsover you would have them do to you”, “love your enemies”, “Whoever wants to be first must become the least and servant of all”, etc. What in his message was so obscure as to be misunderstood? What was too difficult to comprehend? And what of the natural law written on every human heart? Jesus taught that the most important commandments were to love God with one’s whole being and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Would this not be known, even to the non evangelized (with respect to loving God perhaps implicitly as love of the good, beautiful and true), as a consequence of possessing this natural law? God is merciful and the sacrifice of Our Lord on the cross all powerful and so I hope Columbus and company died in God’s friendship. But based on what I have been told about these men’s actions, it is impossible to justify orexpain away the evil they perpetrated, however “pious”nthey were “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord’, ‘Lord’, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven”.

  7. You say “Among other views inimical to our time, he saw nothing wrong about establishing colonies and bringing native peoples under the rule of European powers. He had little respect for the religions of native people and wanted them to be Catholic, as, indeed, he wanted all the world to be Catholic (I see nothing wrong in this myself, but rest assured most of our contemporaries in this country would).”
    There is nothing Catholic or Christian about a fundamental disrespect for the beliefs of other people, there is nothing Catholic nor Christian about the forced conversion of Native Americans to Catholicism, there is nothing Catholic nor Christian about the destruction of our ancestors culture, language nor the forced colonization of their lands by European overlords.
    Columbus’ travels to the new word precipitated the Catholic Doctrine of Christian Discover in 1493 which was established by P Alexander VI in his bull Inter Caetera which essentially gave European overlords property rights in the “new world” to all non-Christian lands and the interjection of Catholic belief into “new world culture” by all means necessary. It is the most odious, heinous promulgation of imperialism and colonialism in history. Religion justified the theft of lands from indigenous people, the theft and destruction of their culture an forced adoption of foreign religious beliefs.. This is all the antithesis of Christ’s message. For years, many Catholics petitioned for a repudiation of the Catholic Doctrine of Discovery as an affront to human rights of indigenous people, to little avail. This year, the Sisters of Loretto petitioned the Pope to repudiate this doctrine publicly. Amazing…
    BTW, Dinesh (for people unaware) is a convicted felon, a neoconservative, aligned with several ultra right groups and a supporter of imperialistic colonialism. In his book on What’s Great About America…he maintains that the problem with Africa is not that it was colonized, but that it was not colonized enough. Amazing thinking,,,,
    For those unaware, the Catholic Doctrine of Christian Discovery

    1. Actually, there is. “Go and make disciples of all nations…” That was the command. I know this might offend your delicate sensibilities. But this is the obligation Columbus labored under. From your profile picture it would appear you support Sodomy or engage in it yourself. I would not imagine you to understand the obligations of evangelism any more than the obligation of chastity.

    2. I am married with two children…my son was a near drown under water for 25 minutes without 02 and is a spastic quad, cannot move nor communicate and can do absolutely nothing for himself. I have cared for him at home since 1998. Your accusations are outrageous, heinous and need condemnation …you are no Christian if you assume people who support gays are sodomites themselves. I understand chastity quite well and you would also if you took care of a person 24/7 for 17 years…just doesn’t leave time for sex.
      The injunction to make all disciples was certainly never meant by force nor cohersion but rather by love, by example and by dialogue.
      I comment on many sites and I find that some people on this site, like yourself, spend a lifetime condemning , assuming and judging without any facts but a simple avatar,
      The vast majority of my son’s therapists are gay….they love him in way which is courageous and consistent. They do not walk away and embody the spirit of genuine mercy to him where even family (good Catholics ) have walked away. So, yes, I acknowledge and celebrate them because they care…and you…..thank God that you have confession and absolution readily available and should avail yourself immediately.
      I await your apology as it is a prelude to your confession….

    3. I think I read in your other comments that you are not Catholic. So I presume you are something of a spastic troll that comes on Catholic sites and craps all over everybody. Then, when challenged, you trot out your disabled son and his homosexualist caregivers and a kind of shield for the blowback. I am not interested in playing your little game. The Catholic Faith is true and necessary for our salvation. That is all I have to say to you.

    4. If you follow the thread, I described my family to a person who called me a sodomite or one who engaged in sodomy…also demented, etc. because of my avatar and I explained the rationale behind my avatar. Did I say I supported homosexual acts or a pride in those who are gay? You, as usual, assume much!

    5. Learn to read please!! I was involved on a discussion about Columbus….a person went on a tirade about the heresy of my using a rainbow in my avatar. I explained that my profile pic was that of my son and honored many of his gay therapists who have worked with him for the past seventeen years. I did not speak of homosexual acts, but was rather accused of being a “sodomite”, etc. What is it that you do not understand…my answer to the homophobe was that my son’s pic was a celebration of this therapists undying devotion and love for many years. I did not speak AT ALL about homosexual acts, gay marriage or any such topic. I did not bring up the topic and simply explained why this is my facebook profile pic….NO mention of homosexual acts, as you refer to…If that does not answer your question…ask it in an understandable fashion…You knoe I will not shy away from answering questions.

    6. Let me un-confuse you! Therapists are people who commit their lives(1) either to the healing process of a patient or (2) to be compensate and make money. Some therapists keep a professional boundary so that they don’t get involved others bond closely with the patient and family and give beyond what they are compensated for. For they past 17 years, we have traditional Catholic therapists, atheist therapists, buddhist therapists, tibetan clairvoyants, TCM practioners….probably over a hundred different types. I do not speak ex cathedra, nor do I make a sweeping generalization…this is my observation based upon MY EXPERIENCE.
      I have found that Adam’s therapists who also happened to be lesbians have lived a life that was marked by judgement, marginalization, name-calling, non-acceptance as people, deemed “disordered” by a older society and Church, etc. In their suffer they learned to go deep into self to find meaning for their existence and that meaning exhibited in unconditioned service. They were readily able to tune into Adam pain and suffering, his abandonment by ALL his aunts and uncles and sisters, by his pre-accident friends and by a society which treats disability with indifference. That’s reality. We you have lived a life of social and religious marginalization, you go very deep and you can readily connect at a deep level with other marginalized people. In my experience this is a unique trait and serves the healing process in others well. So I laud my son’s therapists who are gay as they are so much better than the others who have never experenced this level of marginalization….in my experience. So I am very defensive of those who castigate gays and I celebrate who they are because they play a significant role in MY son’s continual survival. I am sure you will not understand my experience, but it is what it is and it’s MINE, maybe alone.

    7. Thank you for the kind concern. It is 17 years post accident and he cannot move nor communicate and is no cure… we work to sustain his life with the highest quality. Over the past 17 years, most of his bodyworkers happened to be lesbians and they emanated great warmth and love with or without pay. Haven’t had the same experience with straights and no they did not care for him, just the money.

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