Columbus, Catholicism and Courage
“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 not 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 unpc 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 to criticize Columbus for 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 to ascending the pulpit to launch a jeremiad against someone of a prior time however, 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 Anti-Christ. Ecumenicalism he would have viewed 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.
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 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.
“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.
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 irresistable. 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.”