Over the past several decades it’s been blood sport to bash Christopher Columbus. For the champions of superficial diversity, Columbus represents everything they find so despicable about “bad old western Europe.” It’s too bad then that so many of those who see Columbus as an Icon of White Man’s Imperialism, know so little about the man, his motivation, his faith and his ultimate mission. I suspect that most of his modern day critics would be hard-pressed to even tell you the man’s nationality. You’d never know it from his anglicized name, but Columbus was a Genoa-born Italian and – everyone agrees on this part – one of the greatest sailors in history.
Columbus, unlike anyone else of his time, was willing to sail into uncharted waters in hopes of finding a new trade route to Asia. In the 15th century, men rarely sailed out of sight of land, and were even reluctant to sail down unfamiliar coastlines. After all it was a treacherous affair. Columbus’ courage truly set him apart from other sailors of his era.
His courage, it is instructive to note, was rooted in a deep faith and a strong conviction that he was the mariner chosen by God to bring the Catholic faith to the Asian people. He was a man who knew the New Testament by heart and could quote long passages of the Old Testament from memory. That being said, it would be dishonest to suggest that Columbus was motivated by his love for the faith alone. He was also hoping to find gold in the Far East, to amass great wealth. But he did not want the wealth simply for himself. His plan was to find enough gold to be able to finance a crusade for the reconquest of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Although his contemporaries found Columbus to be an arrogant character, Queen Isabel of Spain was impressed by his deep faith and so supported him in his mission. She financed his voyage and commissioned him as Royal Admiral of the Ocean Sea. On his ships—the famous Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria—he flew a white flag bearing a green cross, on either side of which was a crown. Under one crown was the letter F for King Ferdinand and under the other crown the letter I for Queen Isabel.
Against all odds, and however accidentally, Columbus guided his crew to the New World. Without the great faith he placed in cooperating with God’s will and grace, he would have turned back at the urging of many of his crew. Some even thought he was deranged and were plotting a mutiny when on October 12, 1492, at 2:00 am, they finally spotted land. The crew landed about eight hours later. Columbus went ashore, knelt in the sand and thanked God for steering him safely to what he thought at the time was the East Indies.
He planted the Spanish flag in the sand and claimed the land for Queen Isabel. He called the island San Salvador, “Holy Saviour.” Throughout the autumn of 1492, Columbus and his crew sailed from island to island in search of the wealthy Eastern civilization they thought they had found. Instead of finding gold and spices, they found primitive, impoverished natives, who the Spaniards mistakenly called “Indians,” a name that seems to have stuck.
On January 4,1493, Columbus set sail to return to Spain. In February he and his crew ran into some of the worst sea storms recorded in history. The crew felt that had no hope left except in God. Each crew member pledged to make a specific pilgrimage should God have the mercy to spare them their lives. Two days later, they arrived safely in the Azores.
When Columbus was faced with the dangers of the sea—tempestuous storms, shipwrecks and still waters—he took recourse to Our Lady and St. Francis, to whom he was deeply devoted. He relied not only on his own expertise as a veteran sailor; he relied on the intercession of the saints and God’s grace to get him through his impossible voyage.
Columbus faced many dangers. At one point, one of his ships was in great danger of sinking from a leak that had sprung in the hull. According to the journal he kept throughout his voyage, he realized that there was no hope left in the natural order of things. So he called upon the Creator of nature, and recited the first verses of St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was God, and the Word became flesh.” Columbus took courage in these words announcing the entrance of God into human time. He therefore had faith that God could enter into the course of human events and steer him toward his end.
Although there is no doubt that Columbus was motivated out of his love of God and the Catholic faith, he was no saint. His faith was strong, but his charity was weak. He was a defender of the Faith even though he did not always live his faith to the fullest. Although he may have been one of the greatest sailors in history, he was not suited to govern the lands he discovered and claimed for Queen Isabel. He made many grave errors in administering the colonies, including his choice to permit enslavement of the native people, which was expressly forbidden by the Queen. When Isabel sent her men to investigate, Columbus was arrested and sent home in disgrace.
In the 18th century, a few hundred years after Columbus’ death, a group of French Catholics proposed the cause of his beatification. But this idea was quickly put to rest by a book penned by an Italian monk from Genoa, the hometown of Columbus, which showed how Columbus faith was not always translated into Christian living. If it had been, no doubt we’d have another St. Christopher – another patron saint of travelers. As it stands, Columbus serves as a reminder to all Christians that our faith must always be put into practice. Faith without charity is dead.