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Christopher Columbus

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Five Hundred Years Since Columbus: Lessons of the Church's History

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Talk 6

Our reflections so far on Christopher Columbus have concentrated on his Catholic discovery of America. Our stress has been on the providential role that Columbus played in initiating the most fruitful conversion to Catholic Christianity since apostolic times.

In this closing chapter we shall cover, in cameo, the five hundred years since Columbus landed in America. We hope to see what have been the outstanding features of the Church's history in the New World in the past half millennium. Even more pertinently, we will ask ourselves: What lessons does the Church's experience teach us today, as we begin the next five hundred years of Catholic history in the New World.

Inevitably, we shall have to be very selective. Too much has happened since 1492 and no two evaluations will be the same. However, there are certain aspects of our Catholic history since Columbus that are too obvious to be missed. They are also too important not to learn from the past how God wants us Catholics to live the future in a world that by His standards is only a half day old. If ever the proverb was true that, "Those who ignore history will have to relive it," it is painfully true for us Catholics as we face the twenty-first century in the Western hemisphere.

What are we saying? We are saying that Catholic Christianity is faced with a resurgent paganism in the two Americas. No less than the America discovered by Columbus had to be evangelized, America today has to be re-evangelized. No less than the native Americans of the late fifteenth century had to be converted to Jesus Christ and His humanly impossible demands on fallen human nature, so the America of the late twentieth century must be reconverted to the teachings of the Divine Master. But there is one big difference. The Aztecs and Mohawks and Chippewas of Columbus' time had not ever been Christian. They had never been touched by the Gospel. Their conversion, therefore, required only the abandonment of their non-Christian way of life. However, to give our secularized Americans a new name, the Aztecs and Mohawks and Chippewas of our day have to be converted twice over. Their minds must be converted in humble submission to the teaching of Christ which so many have rejected because they have become too educated to accept, as they say, childish dogmas of a pre-scientific age. Even more difficult, their wills have to be converted to obey what the Church teaches are divine imperatives but which so many modern philosophies dismiss as out-dated fanaticism.

Any one of these lessons of Catholic history since Columbus deserves a volume of commentary. We shall limit ourselves to only a few salient observations on each of the instructive features of the Church's history since Columbus left Catholic Spain and reached what he called San Salvador in 1492.

Missionary Zeal

As we have seen, the underlying drive that led Columbus to discover what turned out to be a new world was his passionate desire to bring the Good News of the Gospel to the non-Christian peoples of what he had first thought was the Far East. This motivation sustained him and was shared not only by Queen Isabella of Spain. It was the dominant reason why Pope Alexander VI spoke of Columbus as "our beloved son" because he had opened the door to the evangelization of millions who until then were deprived of the Light of the World. It was the underlying factor which sent ship loads of missionaries to bring God's revealed word to the teeming millions of American polytheists. The following quotation is quite lengthy. But it deserves to be given, in full. It is from the document of Pope Paul III, dated June 2, 1537, in which the Bishop of Rome defends the native Indians against the charge that they are too ignorant to be taught the Christian faith. It is, however, more than a defense of the native intelligence of the Indians and their capacity to be christianized. It is a Magna Charta for what became the Church's vision of a whole new world being brought to the Heart of Christ.

The sublime God so loved the human race that He created man in such wise that he might participate, not only in the good that other creatures enjoy, but endowed him with capacity to attain to the inaccessible and invisible Supreme Good and behold it face to face; and since man, according to the testimony of the sacred scriptures, has been created to enjoy eternal life and happiness, which none may obtain save through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, it is necessary that he should possess the nature and faculties enabling him to receive that faith; and that whoever is thus endowed should be capable of receiving that same faith. Nor is it credible that any one should possess so little understanding as to desire the faith and yet be destitute of the most necessary faculty to enable him to receive it. Hence Christ, who is the Truth itself, that has never failed and can never fail, said to the preachers of the faith whom He chose for that office `Go ye and teach all nations.' He said all, without exception, for all are capable of receiving the doctrines of the faith.
The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God's word of Salvation to the people: he inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.
We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of his flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it.
By virtue of Our apostolic authority We define and declare that the said Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living.

Nothing could be clearer than the teaching of the Pope that the Native Indians were fully qualified to embrace the Catholic faith.

What may not be so obvious is that the Spanish, Portuguese and French colonizers had a very low estimate of the intelligence and moral character necessary for conversion. This was in stark contrast to the later colonizers from the by then non-Catholic countries like England, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Spain, Portugal and France had their share of cruel and immoral citizens. But they were then still Catholic countries and the voice of the Bishop of Rome was a directive from the Vicar of Christ. In the same document quoted above, Pope Paul III warned his Catholic subjects not to oppress the Indians. he formally commanded that the Indians, "are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property." He forbade that "they be in any way enslaved." The reason for this injunction was not only because to act otherwise would be a grave sin against justice. It would also deprive and, with emphasis, deprive the Indians of their strongest motive for accepting the teachings of Christ, namely, the witness of the love of Christ practiced by the Christians who had politically conquered the Native Americans.

There is more here than you will ever find in most books on the history of post-Columbian America. The Christian charity demanded of the Catholic colonizers was, we may say, the single most effective factor in their successful missionary zeal. This stands in sharp contrast to the hundreds of thousands of American natives who never accepted the Gospel where the fullness of Catholic truth was not made available and was not combined with the selfless Christian charity. It was the charity demanded by the Popes of their Catholic subjects who were so naturally tempted to subject the Indians to political control and even open slavery.

What is the lesson for us in our day? It is very plain. Believing Catholics are to exercise uncommon zeal in favor of their non-Catholic, or ex-Catholic, or anti-Catholic contemporaries. This zeal must be combined with a deep love for those who do not share our True Faith or who abandoned it, or who are hostile to what the Church teaches the whole world is the will of God. Catholic orthodoxy here is not enough. Orthodoxy without charity is not Christianity. It will require heroic effort on our part to love those who do not love what we believe and may even hate us for living our faith.

The Witness of Martydom

The Fathers of the Church had a saying which has become standard in Catholic history. They declared, "the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians." Christianity was born in the Roman Empire; it grew and flourished because Christians were so ready to shed their blood with Christ for the propagation of the Church which was born on Calvary. This has been the law of supernatural propagation ever since.

No history of Western Christianity in the past five centuries would be complete without recognizing this law of spiritual reproductivity in practice. From the earliest days of American colonization, the soil of the New World was nourished by the blood of martyrs.

During the three centuries between the entrance of the first priests into Florida in the early 1520's and the founding of the last California missions in 1823, hundreds of Catholic missionaries labored in every part of what is now the United States. They had one towering aim: to convert the native Indians to Catholic Christianity. Their efforts were remarkably successful, but only at the price of the lives of many of these heralds of the Gospel.

In 1540, Coronado made a historic expedition from Mexico to what is now Florida. He was accompanied by three Franciscan friars. When Coronado turned back in disappointment in the spring of 1542, the friars stayed behind to evangelize the Indians. Soon after, one of them, Fr. Juan de Padilla was soon after murdered by the red men and thus became the first martyr of the future United States. We do not know what happened to the other two Franciscans except that they disappeared from sight and were never heard from again. We are certain, however, that Juan de Padilla was killed for the Faith. One of Coronado's soldiers, who testified to Padilla's martyrdom described him as, "a man of good and holy life."

The martyrology of North and South America in the past five centuries is a library of men, women and children who shed their blood for Christ and His Church. The North American Jesuit martyrs have all been canonized. What is not common knowledge is that six of them were priests and two were lay missionaries. Saints Isaac Joques, Anthony Daniel, John de Brebeuf, Gabriel Lalemant, Charles Garnier, Noel Chabanel (priests) and Rene Groupil and John LaLande (lay missionaries) were martyred between September 29, 1642 and December 9, 1649 in the Missions of New France. They were canonized by Pope Pius XI on June 29, 1930.

So the litany of North and South American evangelization could go one. Only God knows the number of these martyrs, as only He knows what courage He inspired in them to remain faithful to the Christ in Whom they believed. The biographies of these witnesses to the True Faith are practically unknown. What we do know is that missionaries and converts suffered unspeakably. Just one example of how the Iroquois dealt with the priest John deBrebeuf and the lay catechist Gabriel Lalemant. Both were led to two posts which were to be their crosses of martyrdom. They knelt down and grasped the posts and prayed to God while Indians stabbed them with sharp instruments. They heated a half a dozen iron hatchets until they were red hot and made a necklace of these blazing hatchets which they placed on Brebeuf's shoulders. Because he kept silence, the savages were irritated at his not pleading for mercy. Brebeuf encouraged the Catholic Christians, telling them "Let us lift our eyes to heaven at the height of our afflictions; Let us remember that God is the witness of our suffering, and He will soon be our exceeding great reward." To keep him silent, the barbarians cut off his nose, tore off his lips and gagged his mouth by forcing a hot iron down his throat. In imitation of Baptism, they poured several kettles of scalding water over his head. One Indian scalped him; another cut off his feet; and still others sliced strips of his seared flesh and ate them as he continued praying for his tormentors. Finally, someone buried a hatchet in his jaw and severed it from his face. Then an Iroquois pounced on his body and cut open his breast to get at his heart which the Indians then proceeded to eat because they believed this would give them a share in his indomitable courage.

It was worth going through these details, which could be duplicated many times over the centuries that Christianity was gradually penetrating the pagan world of the Americas.

Again, the lesson for us. From Good Friday on, the teaching of Christ has met with two different kinds of response. Some believed in Christ but most of his own contemporaries did not. Yet they not only rejected His teaching. They persecuted Him and finally crucified Him as a blasphemer and an enemy of the people. This has been the pattern ever since. A surprising number of natives accepted the Gospel and became faithful Christians. But many did not. The Christian martyrs of the New World were simply carrying on where Christ had begun. His death on the Cross has ever since been the price of those who carry out His commission to preach the Gospel to all nations.

Although we have already alluded to this, something more should be said here about the difference between the evangelization in what we now call North and South America. North America, above the Rio Grande, had been early penetrated by Europeans who by then had either rejected the Catholic Faith or were the descendants of those who broke with the Church of Rome. Objective historians of North American history are unsparing in their comparison between the way the Natives were treated by colonizers from Catholic countries and by those from countries that had abandoned the Catholic faith. Just one general observation can be made. In areas where the Catholic faith still dominated the colonial powers, the native Indians were treated with relative justice and charity. The injunctions and excommunications of one Pope after another controlled the natural selfish instincts of the European "conquerors." Without obedience to this authority and deprived of the sacraments available to believing Catholics, the colonizers would become just that: colonizers. Their interest was to acquire and dominate and exploit, and the American natives were the logical, even though unwilling, victims of this "colonization."

When, then, we speak of martyrdom, as one of the features of the Catholic discovery and conversion of America, we are saying much more than most people realize. Martyrdom is not an isolated phenomenon that characterizes the original evangelization of a pagan culture to authentic Christianity. It is what the Catholic Church experienced when the true Gospel was first preached to the polytheists of Columbian America, has been the continuing experience of every believing Catholic who is loyal to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. We said that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. But let us be clear as to what we are saying. The blood of martyrs is the constant seed of the Church. A farmer does not sow the seed of his crop only once and then the crop spontaneously grows without repeated plowing and sowing and harvesting year after year. The same holds true for the Church which Christ founded. Its seed must be sown frequently, even regularly, to ensure a constant harvest. once we say this, it becomes clear that the Church needs martyrs constantly if, in a familiar phrase, the seed of Christians is to produce the Spiritual harvest that Christ expects of His followers.

It takes no St. Paul to tell us that the New World to which Columbus brought the True Faith has fallen into the old paganism of the Roman Empire at the dawn of Christianity. If the Church needed martyrs in the age of Nero, Decius and Diocletian, she needs martyrs more than ever in our day.


Running through the sixteenth century papal documents to the bishops of South America, the Popes keep warning them not to allow their native converts to conform to the pagan practices of their former polytheism. With a wisdom that goes back to the Gospels, the Bishops of Rome could distinguish between the essentials of Christianity and the accidentals of paganism. Christianity believes in only one infinite God Who is the Creator of heaven and earth. Paganism believes in a plurality of deities, both good and bad who demand recognition and veneration. Christianity believes in the Ten Commandments and their elevation by Christ as spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount. Paganism is, at root, self-centered and, in spite of its polytheism, finally rests on the deification of self. Christianity believes that our lives here on earth are only a prelude and preparation for eternal life in the world to come. Paganism is, to say the least, very confused about the purpose of our existence on earth and even more confused about man's eternal destiny. Catholic Christianity believes in the sacraments and the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, in the Sacrament of Penance, in the Sacrament of Matrimony which unites a man and woman to a lifelong commitment to selfless love. Christianity believes that God became man in the Person of Jesus Christ, Who founded the Church which is the Mother and Teacher of the human race, with a visible head on earth who has supreme authority over the people of God. Catholic Christianity finally believes that Christ instituted the Sacrament of the Priesthood which has power from Him to change bread and wine into the Incarnate Son of God and to reconcile sinners with their offended Master and Lord.

Parallel with these beliefs of those who profess the Catholic Faith, pagans in every age and in every place do not believe what the Church founded by Christ is convinced are divinely revealed truths and norms of human morality.

What the Popes told the early American converts from Indian mythology, they have not ceased telling professed Catholics in the New World for the last five hundred years. However, a new dimension has entered American history since the Sixteenth Century. The new dimension is the New Christianity that was born in Sixteenth Century Europe with the rise of Luther and Calvin, Zwingli and Cranmer and their transfer of authority from the Church under the Pope, to the State under the King, or parliament or Congress or, as in the United States, the Supreme Court.

Already in the Gospels, Christ warned His followers not to be conformed to the world whose prince, He said, is the devil. The pressure to conformity to the world of our day is greater than it ever was in the first century after the discovery of America. History would bear out the following conclusion: The Catholic Faith brought to the Western World by Christopher Columbus has flourished in the exact measure that professed Catholics have resisted conforming themselves to the secular world of their day. Paganism and polytheism are not limited to any particular era or culture. They are as universal as human nature and are only as controlled at the Catholic Church is strong in her resistance to the power of the secularized society in which her members live.

There is a close connection between martyrdom and the conformism of which we are now speaking.. It takes heroic strength to witness to Christ, even unto death, in a world that is naturally hostile to Jesus Christ. Another name for this heroism is martyrdom. What the first generations of Christians in America should teach us is that, like them, we must be willing even to die for our Catholic convictions if we are to be conformed to Jesus Christ and not be conformed to the world which crucified Him.

Marital Stability and Morality

The people of the Western Hemisphere in 1492 were natural in the plainest sense of the word. Their fallen human nature was notorious. All the premises of Christ's teaching on marriage were contradicted by the natives that Columbus found in Central America. Nor were the practices of the Native Indians much different anywhere else in the Americas. Polygamy was commonplace. Incest was often a law of life for the survival of an Indian tribe. With the prevalence of slavery, it was assumed that wives became the property of those who had conquered their tribal enemies. One historian after another, in describing the dress and behavioral pattern of the native Americans leaves no doubt that Christian chastity was an innovation in the society that Columbus found.

As you read the story of the widespread conversion of the natives to Christianity in sixteenth century America, you are struck by its remarkable similarity to the rise of Christianity in the first three centuries after Christ. What especially attracted the pagans of Rome was the example of chastity and charity by the believing Christians. These two virtues were always seen together. They were especially remarkable among the unmarried who preserved their chastity and some even died in defense of their virginity. Among the married, the pagans were struck by the Christian commitment to a lifetime fidelity of the spouses to each other and their absolute rejection of contraception, abortion and infanticide that were the rule in the non-Christian Roman Empire.

An exact parallel to this phenomenon was the dramatic change in morals among the Christian converts after the evangelization which followed on Columbus' discovery of the Indies. One Papal document after another to the bishops of the New World in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries assumes that those who had embraced Christianity were also living their Christian faith, especially in their practice of chastity and marital morality. A classic example of the spiritual heights that the former pagans could reach is the story of Kateri Tekakwitha. Born in what is now Auriesville, New York in 1656 (?), she died in Southern Canada in 1680. Her mother was a Christian Algonquin who was taken captive by the Iroquois and made the wife of a pagan chief of the Mohawk tribe. Tekakwitha was one of two children born of this coerced marriage. At the age of four, the girl was taken into the home of an uncle after she lost her father, mother and brother in a smallpox epidemic. The disease left her disfigured and with impaired eyesight. In 1667, she met her first Christian missionaries. But fear of her uncle kept her from taking instructions. Finally, in 1675 she was instructed in the Catholic Faith and baptized on Easter Sunday 1676. She took the name of Kateri or Katherine. Her conversion and virtuous life stirred up so much opposition that she had to flee for her life to a Christian Indian village two hundred miles away. Her life of extraordinary charity was joined with a private vow of chastity which placed her under superhuman pressure from those with whom she lived. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. Her popular name of "Lily of the Mohawks" testifies to her heroic practice of chastity and the influence that her charity had in bringing her fellow Indians to accept the Gospel of Christ.

As we look at our own day, the lesson this should teach us is both sobering and inspiring. It is sobering when we see the dregs of immorality to which so many of our fellow-Americans have fallen. It is inspiring because we know that part of the responsibility for the unchastity and uncharity in our society is due to our failure, as Catholics, to be the channels of grace to our fellow-Americans that Our Lord expects us to be.

Our Responsibility

In closing this final presentation on the Catholic discovery of America, I would like to emphasize the duty we have to rediscover America. What do I mean? I mean that we are extraordinarily privileged to be celebrating the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus's finding the New World exactly 500 years ago.

How are we privileged? We are able to learn from the past half millennium that God has special designs for us Catholics in our day. What are these designs? They are nothing less than the purpose that God had in sending Columbus to pagan America. It was to bring Christ and His teaching, to bring the Church and her sacraments to the polytheists who had never even heard the names of Jesus and Mary.

But in 500 years, Christianity in the Western world needs repair – call it reparation; it needs reform – call it reformation; it needs rebuilding – call it edification.

It is our God-given obligation, as believing and practicing Catholics in America to not only commemorate the discovery of the New World. We are to cooperate with God in the spiritual rebuilding of our country.

The grace of God is available. What He wants from us is something of the zeal of Columbus to extend the Kingdom of Christ in the hearts of our fellow-Americans. What God wants of us is something of the courage of the martyrs who watered the soil of our country with their blood. Why? That we might be free, in the deepest sense of the word, by possessing the Truth, which is Jesus Christ, so that by believing in Him here on earth, we may possess Him as a society, in that eternal Kingdom of heaven for which we were made.

Copyright © 2003 Inter Mirifica

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