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Christopher Columbus, The Catholic
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
(Presented 4-24-92 at St. John Vianney in Northlake, Illinois)
Hundreds of biographies of Christopher Columbus have been written in the last five centuries. They range from the poetic to the highly critical. As a result, it is not always easy to identify the real Columbus from the person who is responsible for discovering the New World.
Our purpose here is not to sift through this library of Columbus biographies. It is simply to show that Columbus was not only a good man. He was extraordinary. He was the instrument of extraordinary grace. This, then, is our focus in this chapter. It is to see how God used a very human, human being, whose faith enabled him to achieve what most writers on Columbus do not recognize. It is one thing to say that Columbus discovered America. It is something else to realize that he opened the door to the most phenomenal spread of Christianity since the time of St. Paul.
There are those who say that Christopher Columbus died a saint. Certainly the sufferings he experienced, especially from those to whom he was most devoted, chastened his heart and brought him close to God before he entered eternity. One thing we can say: his phenomenal career on earth was a heroic response to a sublime vocation. He was the destined herald of the true faith to half of the human race.
Our plan for understanding "Christopher Columbus, the Catholic" is to follow a chronological sequence. Given our necessary limitations, we shall highlight those aspects of his life that reveal what may be called the "mystic" behind the trained explorer.
Zealous Faith in Christ's Divinity
The exact date of Columbus' birth is unknown. Fourteen-thirty-six is one of the probable dates. What is more important is the fact of his baptism in the Dominican Church of St. Stephen in Genoa. All we know of his early life indicates that he was deeply pious. It is recorded of him that he assisted at daily Mass at a convent chapel where he first met his wife, Donna Philippa. What is more important, however than anything else is that Columbus came into the world at the end of more than seven centuries of Moslem domination of the Spanish people. As we have already seen, he crossed the Atlantic and found the New World within one year of the Catholic reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula.
English speaking people have only a vague idea of the struggle of the Spanish people to recover the Catholic freedom from Moslem oppression. Not coincidentally, in this quincentennial year of the discovery of America, the Catholic Bishops of Sudan issued a pastoral letter that could almost be called a commentary on the Islamic-liberated Spain from which Columbus sailed in 1492. The Sudanese hierarchy protest against the militant persecution of Catholics in their country. Islamic studies are mandatory for all students advancing to higher education. There is active discrimination against Catholics. Moslem propaganda against the Catholic Church is woven into all academic programs. The avowed purpose is to eradicate Christianity from the country. In fact, no less then twenty-four African nations have bound themselves behind the Koran to de-christianize the whole continent.
As we read these facts, we are not surprised that the same country, in the same century, should have produced two men whose lives were shaped by centuries of defense of the Catholic faith against Moslem oppression of Christianity. St. Ignatius Loyola was a born Spaniard. Christopher Columbus was a Spaniard by adoption. Both men had the vision of extending the kingdom of Christ by a spiritual militancy that seems strange to a modern unbelieving mind. The key to understanding the faith of Christopher Columbus is the Moslem denial of Christ's divinity as the Cardinal mystery of Christianity.
Woven into the Koran as a theological theme, and has since become the cornerstone of Islam, is the dogma that God could not have had a son and therefore that Jesus could not be one with Allah. "Jesus in Allah's eyes is in the same position as Adam," wrote Mohammed. "He created him of dust and then said to him, `Be,' and he is." This was revealed by Gabriel and "whosoever disputes with you concerning Him (Jesus), we will summon our sons and your sons and our women and your women and we will humbly and solemnly invoke the curse of Allah upon those who lie." In one eloquent passage, Mohammed consigns all Trinitarian Christians to eternal doom.
They surely disbelieve who say, "Behold, Allah is the Messiah, Son of Mary." The Messiah himself said, "Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your God." Whoever ascribes partners unto Allah, for him Allah has forbidden paradise. This abode is the fire. For evildoers there will be no relief. They surely disbelieve who say, "Behold Allah is the third of three," when there is no god save the one God. If they desist not from so saying, a painful doom will fall on those who disbelieve. The Messiah, Son of Mary, was no other than a messenger. Many were the messengers that passed away before him. See how God makes His signs clear to them (Christians); yet see how they are deluded away from the truth.
No Moslem who professes to accept the Koran questions these judgments about Jesus and His followers. Christ is for him only a great teacher and the precursor of Mohammed.
If there is one thing that stands out in the extensive writings of Christopher Columbus it is the divinity of Christ. Phrases like "our Lord Jesus Christ," and Christ "the Lord," recur in a way that leaves no doubt who Jesus Christ was in the faith of Christopher Columbus. He speaks of "Christ, who is the Son of God by nature." He quotes from St. Paul of "Christ Jesus before the beginning of time" (2 Timothy 1:9-10). He sees himself as contributing to the extension of Christ's kingdom when, "All the kings of the earth will bow down before Him, and all peoples will serve Him" (Psalm 72:11).
It is no wonder then, that Columbus wants to share his faith with others. He believed that there is nothing more important than to proclaim faith in Christ to all the nations. Jesus Christ, Columbus declared, is the One "Whom we recognize as the true God Who was to be worshiped, not only among the people of Israel, but among all peoples, in such a way that all their false gods must be cast from their temples and from the hearts of their worshippers (Christopher Columbus, Book of Prophecies, Folio 22).
Against this background, there is only one logical conclusion. The underlying motive of Columbus' historic voyage was the conversion of those who did not know Christ as the living Son of God Who became the Son of Mary. His favorite prayer, said in Latin, was Jesu cum Maria sit nobis in via, which means "may Jesus with Mary be with us on the way." For Columbus this way meant both the voyage through time into eternity and the voyage in time to bring Mary's faith in her divine Son to a still unbelieving world.
Book of Prophecies
One of the least known facts about Christopher Columbus is his Book of Prophecies (Libro de las profecias). Even among biographers who refer to this writing, they mention it only in passing or use it as evidence of Columbus' visionary personality. As we have already seen, Columbus was no visionary. He was gifted not only with a deep faith but with what may be called a mystical understanding of God's will for the world. The Book of Prophecies is one of our primary sources for understanding Columbus. In spite of the title, the Book of Prophecies is not a series of predictions made by Christopher Columbus. It is rather a collection of prophetic passages from Sacred Scripture which Columbus related to his Great Enterprise of the Indies. Written in 1502, after his third voyage to the New World, this work provides us with a clear picture of how Columbus saw himself. He saw himself as a servant of the Lord who, though unworthy, was chosen by God to discover what we now know is the Western Hemisphere. The original manuscript of the Book of Prophecies is written in two languages: the Castilian Spanish that reflects Portuguese influence and Latin which Columbus quotes at length from the Fathers of the Church and the Vulgate text of the Bible. We get some idea of the spirit of this book from the letter which Columbus wrote to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. He says:
At this time I have seen and put in study to look into all the Scriptures ...which our Lord opened to my understanding I could sense His hand upon me so that it became clear to me that it was feasible to navigate from here to the Indies, and He gave me the will to execute the idea ...I have already said that for the execution of the enterprise of the Indies, neither reason nor mathematics, nor world maps were profitable to me: rather the prophecy of Isaiah was completely fulfilled. And this is what I wish to report here for the consideration of your Highnesses (Book of Prophecies, Folos 4, 4 rvs., 5 rvs).
Most of the prophecies from Isaiah which Columbus quotes refer to the restoration of Jerusalem and its future glory. Once again Islam comes into the picture. Constantinople, the gateway to the Far East fell into Moslem hands. By the year 1500 the Turks had conquered all the territory up to the very edge of the republic of Venice. It was not until the battle of Lepanto (October 7, 1571) that Christian forces stemmed the Moslem tide into Europe. Ever since, October 7th is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary to whom the Pope credited the saving of Christendom.
What is not commonly known is that the growing power of the followers of Mohammed had closed the normal pathway from Europe to the Orient. In God's providence, this is what occasioned the search for another way to the Indies. Most historians claim that this was the dominant motive for Columbus going west so that the wealth of the East might be found. The Book of Prophecies shows the opposite. Commercial interests were certainly prominent in the minds of others. But Columbus had deeper spiritual interests at heart. It was surely part of God's mysterious design that Columbus should have planted the true faith in the New World at the same time that Islam was overrunning Africa, the Near East, and was being driven out of Southern Europe.
As one reads the Book of Prophecies, the spirit of the Crusades stands out. For centuries the Crusaders, under Papal inspiration, sought to liberate the holy City of Jerusalem from Moslem domination. This is the underlying theme of the Book of Prophecies, but with one remarkable difference. Columbus sought not so much the physical deliverance of the Holy Land. His aim was to extend the faith which makes the Holy Land holy. As he told the Spanish sovereigns, "If there is faith, you are bound to have victory from the enterprise" (Ibidem). As a matter of fact, Columbus' son Diego achieved exactly what his father had told him to do in his last will and testament. "When your days are over," the prophet told King David, "and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons ...he will be the one who will build a house for me" quoted by Columbus from I Chronicles, 17: 11,12 (Book of Prophecies folio 56). Diego Columbus fulfilled his father's wish when he built the first Catholic Church in America (Hispaniola).
Columbus had no doubt that he was the servant of the Lord, but in a very definite sense. He was the man who saw himself chosen by God "to fulfill my purpose," as Isaiah had prophesied (Isaiah 46:11). It was to be a "holy enterprise." This vocation came from the Holy Spirit. It was nothing less than to liberate the nations that walk in darkness and bring them to the light of Christ. Columbus quotes from the Prophet Jeremiah who saw himself as chosen by God: "I formed you in the womb. I knew you before you were born. I set you apart. I set you as a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5). After giving this quotation, Columbus speaks to the Lord, "This is what You ordained beforehand according to Your good pleasure, such [prophesies] as were written in Your book about me, in conformity with your secret purpose (Book of Prophecies, Folio 15).
Many people, on reading this would accuse Columbus of either a psychotic delusion or of consummate pride. But this would be contrary to fact. Before God, Columbus saw himself as totally subject to the will of God. This after all, is the essence of humility.
What especially stands out in the Book of Prophecies is the principal source of Columbus' motivation to convert the people of the Indies to "our Holy Faith." It was his faith in the word of God revealed in the Scriptures which inspired him to do what was thought humanly impossible. Writing to Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus shared with them his trust in God as revealed in the Bible.
The working out of all things was entrusted by our Lord to each person, (but it happens] in conformity with His sovereign will, even though He gives advice to many ...I found our Lord well-disposed toward my heart's desire, and he gave me the spirit of intelligence for the task...Who doubts that this illumination was from the Holy Spirit? He [the Spirit], with marvelous rays of light, consoled me through the holy and sacred Scriptures, a strong and clear testimony ,...encouraging me to proceed and continually without ceasing for a moment, they inflame me with a sense of great urgency. (Book of Prophecies, Fols. 5 rvs., 4)
As early as 1493, Columbus wrote a letter to the Royal Treasurer of Spain in which he speaks of the discovery of the New World as a great victory. Yet, it was not a victory by force of arms but a victory of bringing the truth to people who were sitting in the darkness of unbelief. He wrote, "Since our Redeemer gave this victory to our most illustrious King and Queen and to their famous realms, in so great a manner, it is fitting for all Christendom to rejoice and to make celebrations and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity with many solemn prayers for the great exultation which it will have and the turning of so many peoples to our holy Faith."
As an afterthought, Columbus assured the Royal treasurer that there would also be temporal benefits not only to Spain but to all Christians. What must be emphasized, however, that this was an afterthought. The primary reason for thanking God is because so many people would come to know Jesus Christ and become members of the One, True Church.
We get some idea of how literally Columbus saw his discovery as a fulfillment of divine predilection. On Sunday, October 14th, two days after he landed at San Salvador, he is describing the people who stood on the shore as they watched Columbus and his crew bring their ships to land.
By the signs they made, I think they were asking if we came from heaven. One old man even climbed into the boat we were towing, and others shouted in loud voices to everyone on the beach, saying, "Come see the men from heaven, bring them food and drink." Many men and women came, each one with something. They threw themselves on the sand and raised their hands to the sky, shouting for us to come ashore, while giving thanks to God. I kept going this morning despite the pleas of the people to come ashore, for I was alarmed at seeing that the entire island is surrounded by a large reef. Between the reef and the island it remained deep, and this port is large enough to hold all the ships of Christendom.
The next day Columbus reached another island where he hauled in the sails. He adds the statement, "To this island I gave the name Sancta Maria de la Concepcion." He had no doubt that his Book of Prophecies was being fulfilled to the last detail.
To understand the character of Christopher Columbus we must say something of his association with St. Francis of Assisi. Almost as soon as St. Francis formed the Franciscan Friars, he established the Third Order Secular of his new community. The substance of the original Rule of these tertiaries is contained in St. Francis' Letter to All the Faithful. To read this letter is to see the life and spirit of Christopher Columbus. St. Francis' directives read like a catalogue of what Columbus sincerely tried to put into practice.
All that we know about Columbus testifies to his having lived up to his Franciscan Rule. We know that he would wear the Franciscan habit, especially when he appeared before the Royalty or nobility. Except for the Franciscans with whom he stayed before leaving on his historic voyage, he would never had received the entree to Ferdinand and Isabella which opened the door to the New World. He went to confession to Franciscan priests. He would spend long periods of time in worshiping before the Blessed Sacrament in Franciscan chapels. When he left Palos, Spain on August 3, 1492 to cross the Atlantic, he left his son in the care of the Franciscans at their monastery.
There was one feature of Columbus' Franciscan spirituality that by now we have seen was dominant in his historic discovery. It is the zeal of St. Francis, as expressed in his Rule of Life, "To go among the Saracens or other unbelievers." As we know, Francis himself did the incredible thing of personally visiting the Moslem Sultan in the Near East to bring him the Gospel of the Christian faith. To this day, Franciscans are the authorized guardians of the sacred places in the Holy Land.
Throughout the eight centuries of Christian history before Columbus, we find the three features that typify the life and work of the discoverer of the New World.
We have seen something of the first two aspects of what may be called the Franciscanism of Christopher Columbus. What needs to be stressed, however, is Columbus' faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. St. Francis could not have been more bluntly clear than what he wrote in his Admonitions which were basic directives for his followers, whether religious or the faithful in the world.
God the Son is equal to the Father and so He too can be seen only in the same way as the Father and the Holy Spirit. That is why all those were condemned who saw our Lord Jesus Christ in His humanity but did not see or believe in spirit in His divinity, that He was the true Son of God. In the same way now, all those are damned who see the Sacrament of the Body of Christ which is consecrated on the altar in the form of bread and wine by the words of our Lord in the hands of the priest, and do not see or believe in spirit and in God that this is really the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
These words of the gentle St. Francis are a commentary on the faith of Christopher Columbus. Like Francis, Columbus believed that Jesus Christ was on earth in His living humanity. Not unlike Francis, Columbus was rigidly adamant in extending this faith to the farthest reaches of the globe.
Defense of Columbus' Character
The biographers of Columbus, as we have seen, range from ardent admirers to virulent enemies. The hostility of his critics has taken many forms. But one group of detractors should be answered in any appraisal of Christopher Columbus the Catholic. They are those who claim that Columbus lived with another woman than his wife. In our day, this calumny is accepted even by otherwise believing Catholics. They go so far as to say that this was the main reason why Columbus was never canonized. All serious historians of Columbus now recognize that this detraction goes back only to the late seventeenth Century.
What are the facts? Within two years of his marriage to Phillipa, she died shortly after giving birth to Columbus' first son, Diego. At the time of his wife's death, Columbus was thirty years old. It caused Columbus deep grief, so much so that his early biographers say that the death of Phillipa occurred at the same time when his hair turned suddenly gray.
Some ten years later, in the autumn of 1487, Columbus married his second wife, Donna Beatrix Enriquez. She was a member of one of the oldest aristocratic families in Spain. Fernando Columbus, the only child of this union, was born in August of the next year.
What gave rise to the calumny? It was an obscure note made by one Nicolao Antonion, librarian in Spain. He came across a copy of Columbus' last will in which a pension was provided for Beatrix Enriquez, "mother of his second son, Fernando." Columbus noted in his will that he is making this provision "for the relief of my conscience." Antonio reads into these words of Columbus what almost two centuries of history simply deny, namely that Beatrix was not Columbus' wife but only his concubine.
After Antonio, the illegitimacy of Fernando Columbus became the target of all his father's hostile biographers. This has occasioned what may be considered the single most researched defense of a historic character. Only the main lines of this defense can be given here.
Columbus was a man of deep religious faith which absolutely excluded illicit love. In Columbus' own language this sin would consign his soul to eternal punishment. His frequent reception of the Sacrament of Confession testifies to his sensitivity of conscience.
Everything we know about the life of Columbus witnesses to his life long practice of continence and chastity. This was in marked contrast to the practice of his Spanish followers in Hispaniola.
Columbus was a man who knew the world and knew how to cope with its temptations. None of his contemporaries, even those who envied his achievements, ever accused him of giving in to impurity. Columbus' life was pure in an atmosphere of impurity.
The family of Arana, to which Beatrix belonged, had the reputation for extraordinary piety. As with Columbus, her religion was a powerful protection against her fall.
During the voyages of Columbus, the members of both his first and second family were brought together in frequent social relationship. It is unthinkable that those who belonged to his first family would have permitted or submitted to contact with Columbus and Beatrix if the latter were living dishonestly.
From 1487 to 1494, Columbus left both his sons, Diego, the son of his first wife and Fernando, the son of Beatrix, in the custody of Beatrix. The very fame of Columbus after 1492 precluded the possibility of Beatrix not being Columbus' lawful wedded wife. Yet not a word of scandal among the contemporaries of Christopher Columbus.
Bartholomew Columbus brought his two nephews, Diego and Fernando, to Queen Isabella and presented them at court. Isabella immediately received them with respect and honor and appointed them as pages in her retinue. The Queen's delicate conscience and recognized sanctity ruled out the possibility that Fernando was illegitimate.
All the foregoing might have been unnecessary except that the English speaking world has been so critical of Christopher Columbus. We must distinguish, however, between English biographers who shared Columbus' Catholic faith and those, no matter how erudite, whose religious ancestry did not exclude what Catholic Christianity believes is a grave sin.
It is imperative for any objective study of the character of Christopher Columbus to sift the chaff from the wheat in defending the virtue of the discoverer of America.
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