Columbus Day

Beneath the surface of several Catholic holidays in October are truths and memories that bring a maelstrom of protest from the modern world … so, let’s celebrate them!

Saying goodbyeColumbus Day, although a secular holiday, merits our attention for several reasons. First, the holiday owes its existence to the efforts of U.S. Catholic citizens, particularly the Knights of Columbus. Though the Knights were instituted as a fraternal benefits organization, they were very keen to dispel anti-Catholic prejudice in the U.S. and one way to meet  this goal was to emphasize America’s debt to Catholic figures, starting with its papist discoverer.

Pope Leo XIII celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ maiden voyage with these stirring remarks:

Nina-Pinta-Santa Maria“… But there is, besides, another reason, a unique one, why we consider that this immortal achieve-ment should be recalled by us with memorial words. For Columbus is ours; since if a little consideration be given to the particular reason of his design in exploring the ‘mare tenebrosum’ … it is indubitable that the Catholic faith was his strongest motive … so that for this reason also the whole human race owes not a little to the Church”.

Ironically, after winning the battle for Columbus Day, many Catholics today would prefer not to be associated with either the man or his holiday (most Latin American countries commemorate the date of Columbus’ discovery as the ‘Dia de la Raza’ – the day of the Race, that is, the day the races met) with a clear allusion to the bleak events that followed Columbus’ discovery.

What then should we make of Columbus in light of his spotty record?  Five things:

Colombus landingFirst, it is clear that Columbus was not a good administrator on land, and his incompetence led to cruelty. In fairness, however, before his undisciplined men des-troyed relations with the native Taino or Arawaks, his goal was to protect them from the cannibalistic Caribs (one of the most savage peoples in the Americas) who were fast advancing. Indeed, the Caribs remind us that the first step in assessing the Columban legacy is overcoming any assumption that either side in the conflict has a monopoly on evil.

Second, it is important to remember that many of Columbus’ contemporaries also deplored his deeds. Queen Isabel certainly did, which is why Columbus’ third return to Spain was in chains, and Spanish law, thanks to the Church’s teaching about the full humanity of Native Americans, consistently condemned the actions of rapacious colonists. This is significant, for no other civilization has shown such a capacity for healthy self-criticism as the Catholic.

Columbus back in SpainThird, despite tragic costs, the benefits of European contact with the New World did far more good than harm. This is particularly true in the realm of evangelization. Columbus’ genuine zeal to convert all peoples to Christianity should be commended rather than condemned. To depict all New World conversions as forced and foreign is, ironically, to patronize people of color, who were and are every bit as capable of seeing the beauty, truth, and goodness of the Gospel as their unwashed invaders.

Fourth, despite his flaws Columbus was a devout Catholic who, as Pope Leo XIII noted, was motivated by his Faith. His favourite prayer was Jesus cum Maria sit nobis in via (May Jesus, along with Mary, be with us on the way) and he always made sure his men received confession and Holy Communion.

world-map-1600Finally, Columbus Day praises not Columbus’ exploitations on land but his exploits on sea. We know that he was exceptionally courageous and resourceful, and we know that he was an outstanding seaman. There is nothing wrong with raising a glass to genuine courage and persistence, as long as one does not go on to use these to excuse other crimes and misdemeanors. I wonder if much of the animus against Columbus today really springs from a contemporary disdain for honour that would like to purge manhood of its chivalry and daring. As the historian Warren Carroll notes: “It is right to criticize the failings of heroes, but wrong to deny their greatness and the inspiration they can give”.

And if there is any note of sorrow or regret to be struck on this otherwise celebratory occasion, it should not be for the exceptional evil of the white man or the Catholic faith but for the universal darkness in man’s heart so aptly explained by the doctrine of original sin. Yet, thanks be to God, this spiritual blight is never allowed to dwarf the triumph of the Cross, which providentially uses both vessels of honour and dishonour to meet its goals.

I would like to wish you all a serene and enjoyable Columbus Day tomorrow.


20 Responses to “Columbus Day”

  1. 1 Joel Pierce October 11, 2009 at 22:52

    I fully understand the reasons against celebrating this day. After all, for some people it was a new beginning but for others, the native inhabitants of the Americas, is was the beginning of the end. And a horrible end it was too.

    The question whether to celebrate this day is not only a retrospect of what happened but also are we happy with the current results. Do we celebrate the existence of the US despite the knowledge of the crimes and genocide that lay at its foundations?

    It’s important to remember that most crimes against Native Americans were not performed by Columbus himself but by his successors and that if it wasn’t Columbus, it would have been somebody else and not that much later, so I doubt if history would have taken a different path were Native Americans and new comers would have lived peacefully side by side.

    Without ignoring the pain, the suffering and the genocide, I agree with this post and still think we should pay homage to a dreamer that dared to follow his dream and in doing so has become the parent of this great nation.

    We do need to recognize past atrocities, yet we do need to accept that out of the ashes a great nation has emerged and because of a troubled past, better future does await.

  2. 2 Mary Nicewarner October 11, 2009 at 23:03

    I guess I didn’t pay attention much in history class because a lot of this is news to me. I didn’t even know that his 3rd return to Spain was in chains. Thanks for the history lesson, Gabriella 🙂 I hope you enjoy the holiday, also.

  3. 3 Katherine Jane October 11, 2009 at 23:13

    Whew! I must admit that I’ve always had qualms about celebrating this day but you’ve made me think with my left brain.
    Happy Columbus Day to you too! Do you celebrate it in Italy? I suppose you do seeing that this great seaman was Italian.

  4. 4 anne bender October 11, 2009 at 23:30

    Great post Gabriella! I will raise a glass to Columbus on his holiday and pray that I may also be courageous in my zeal for the Lord!

  5. 5 Torkel October 11, 2009 at 23:40

    I will raise a glass too, although I live in Sweden and we don’t celebrate (we prefer celebrating the vikings!) haha

    Mmmmmm – I always suspected that the biggest enemies of Columbus were the same who hate Catholics and all they represent.

    If anyone is interested in reading what I believe is the true history, here goes:

    Thanks for an interesting post – made me do some research!

  6. 6 Karinann October 12, 2009 at 00:23

    Thank you for laying out all the facts, good and not so good, on this one. It seems to explain a lot of why this holiday is barely a holiday anymore. Perhaps a little too much “political correctness” gong on.
    I may not have the day off tomorrow, but I will celebrate anyway!

  7. 7 Seth, Manitoba October 12, 2009 at 13:20

    Let us revile the memory of this supposed Discoverer. Let us question the sanity of our foreparents who made this day a holiday. For Christopher Columbus was a very bad man, his crimes innumerable, and his vices legion.

    He was a pronounced Catholic bigot with no respect for other religious traditions, counting Moslems as heretics, and Native Americans as devil worshipping heathens.

  8. 8 Asmarina October 12, 2009 at 13:31

    Regardless if Christopher Columbus was a horrible man as Seth stated…… least America was discovered and the people that immigrated there through the years have made it the great country it is today. Well done for having the courage to sail the seas in 1492.

  9. 9 Cinzia October 12, 2009 at 13:32

    Joel, what you write is so true. Crimes and genocide lie at the foundations of many countries and history pages are full.

    Just look at Australia. Even though here they celebrate “Australia Day” every year, there is very little to celebrate of its first 80 to 100 years of history since the arrival of the white settlers.

    The Aborigines suffered a very similar fate to that of the Native Americans.

    Human history repeats itself and is often sad, very very sad.

    Nevertheless, it is right, as Gabriella says, to recognise courage and exceptional achievements by extraordinary people without going on to use these to excuse other crimes and misdemeanors.

    I will go and do some research as well, and follow Torkel’s link.

    Torkel: the Vikings huh?? 🙂

    Gabriella, thanks for a very informative post, as always!

    ps: This is what I remember as a first history lesson about Cristoforo Colombo:
    “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue …..”

    Profound stuff 🙂

  10. 10 Eduarte October 12, 2009 at 13:50

    The history of mankind is replete with stories of war, enslavement and wholesale slaughter. Cristobal Colon was a man of his times and should be judged by his contributions to the advancement of civilization. He acted as any number of men would have in 1492 when a more advanced society meets a more primitive one.
    Sadly, until recently cultural exigencies dictated brutal repression, exploitation and subjugation by the dominate society. But this is nothing new in history. To blame one man from doing no more than what most men and societies would have done before him is clearly a mis-reading and mis-understanding of history.
    All persons inhabiting the earth today descend from both conquerers and slaves. We all have blood stained hands as well as the cruel marks of chains burned into our necks. While the first Americans lament the coming of Columbus as the end of some paradise of love and understanding in the America’s, it is not true. There was cruelty, death and genocide before the European stumbled upon our shores. Man the animal is the same all over the world. Thank God we have come a long way recently.
    Surely, Columbus cannot shoulder the burden of what had been the norm until now. Today we have the luxury of standards his world did not possess. It is easy to sit in judgment from our lofty perspective, but his way was the way it was. And he was not as bad as some would have us believe. In fact, he did not agree with the cruel way his brother governed and chastised him when he returned to the America’s.
    Besides what revisionist historians say about him, Columbus did set exploration ahead and sent men in a new direction that led to the world as it is today. So, we seek not to honor a man who was without faults. We seek not to revere perfection. We seek only to acknowledge the first explorer to show the rest of us that a New World was here, waiting for our forefathers to make it what is has become. For better or worse, the fact is that we are here, that this is our country, and it is the best hope for mankind on this planet.

  11. 11 Bill Turner October 12, 2009 at 15:25

    Sail on! America, sail on!

    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 Admiral, 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 Admiral, 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 Admiral, 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 to-night.
    He curls his lip, he lies in wait,
    With lifted teeth, as if to bite!

    Brave Admiral, 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!”

  12. 12 Asmarina October 12, 2009 at 16:03

    Wow….Bill……..what a lovely poem and shows such great faith and endurance of the captains and their sailors in those times…
    Thank you for sharing this poem……Amen I say ..sail on !sail on ! and on !

  13. 13 ginny October 12, 2009 at 16:37

    I did not know too much about Columbus Day, except here in the U.S. it is a huge Italian holiday with celebrations at all the Italian American clubs and organizations and big celebratory dinners everywhere.

    • 14 churchmouse October 13, 2009 at 11:44

      Sorry to ask, Ginny, but your post surprised me. I hope this isn’t embarrassing, but — we had many Christopher Columbus lessons at school (in the 60s). Maybe you attended later?

  14. 15 Cosimo October 12, 2009 at 16:56

    Cheers to America!
    Cheers to Cristobal Colon!
    A good day to all!
    I siciliani di Broccolino vi salutano:

  15. 17 Davide October 12, 2009 at 19:57

    Just a quick reply to Seth’s comment. Columbus was a discoverer and not a ‘supposed discoverer.’ His title of discoverer was not given to him just for the heck of it. He discovered the Americas… quite a huge discovery if you ask me and any sane person. But I am aware that some people may have some difficulty with this thought process. Especially those who have been brainwashed by the liberal left-wing public school system here in the U.S. His discovery was HUGE, and therefore that makes him a GREAT man of history. Was Columbus a sinner? He definitely was. But who isn’t? Perhaps his sins were graver than those committed by most of us and nobody in here denies that. But he was a GREAT discoverer and this is why the day is celebrated. If we were to remove and ‘revile’ all the feasts on our calendar that are associated with sinners, we would be left with very few. Something to think about.

  16. 18 nazareth priest October 13, 2009 at 05:05

    Gabriella, beautiful post!
    This is most spiritual and realistic description of Columbus I have ever read or heard.
    The modest and sinful aspects of our quests to do the will of God are something that we have to be ready to account for; and yet, God is EVER GREATER! He works in spite of our sins and weaknesses.
    Thank you for a most beautiful meditation on this day.

  17. 19 Brian October 13, 2009 at 21:43

    Thank you Gabriella!

    Very good information about Columbus. When I was a child, in Catholic grammar school, this day was a holiday. NO SCHOOL. Today – you do not find many companies here giving the day off – my company in New York included.

    I think we should have the day off!

    God bless…

  18. 20 anne bender October 20, 2009 at 01:05

    Gabriella, I thought you might enjoy reading Archbishop Dolan’s blog post on his Columbus Day Homily!

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