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.”




More to explorer


  1. Thanks Mr. McClarey.
    In your years of study and learning have you come across any explanations on the naming of his first three ships?

    Santa Maria is obvious, however Nina and Pinta not so. I ask because you have an extensive thirst for history and do a marvelous job bringing it to life at TAC.

  2. La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción and the other two ships were ships which had previous owners and I do not believe that Columbus named them. It was the convention at the time in Spain for ships to have a saint’s name and a common name for daily usage. Of the three ships the Nina was the favorite of Columbus. Her saint’s name was Santa Clara. The nickname came from the name of her owner Juan Nino. We do not know the official name of the Pinta. La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción was run aground on Haiti Christmas Day 1492 due to the crew being hung over from celebrating the night before and a ship’s boy being left to steer the ship, and had to be abandoned.

  3. “Columbus lived in a religious age…”

    Columbus lived in a remarkably irreligious age. Nothing illustrates this more starkly than the fact that it was 60 years after the invention of printing and only after 30,000 titles had passed through the press that any publisher thought it worth his while to publish the original text of the New Testament.
    The mind of Europe seemed wholly preoccupied with the New Learning, with literature, architecture painting, sculpture, philosophy; everything but religion.

    Of course, there were exceptions, Cajetan, Ximénes and Erasmus spring to mind, but they were by no means typical of their age.

  4. Incorrect MPS. It was a highly religious age, as demonstrated by the Vulgate Bible being one of the first books published by Gutenberg in the 1450’s after he invented the printing press. The publication of the New Testament in Greek was actually a product of the Christian Humanism that you reference. However, as demonstrated by Saint Thomas More and his circle, men of the generation following that of Columbus, the New Learning could exist quite nicely with Christian piety.

  5. Donald R McClarey

    The 16th century was passionate about religion, but the leading figures of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation belonged, for the most part, to the generation following Columbus and came to manhood in the last decade of the old century and the first decade of the new.

    A further indication of the religious indifference of the age of Columbus is that Pico della Mirandola had to seek out a Jewish teacher, Elia del Medigo in order to learn Hebrew and Aramaic. By contrast, iby1530, the three Scottish universities all had chairs of Hebrew. Cambridge established one in 1540 and Oxford in 1546.

  6. “A further indication of the religious indifference of the age of Columbus is that Pico della Mirandola had to seek out a Jewish teacher, Elia del Medigo in order to learn Hebrew and Aramaic.”

    You are confusing scholarship and piety. I would say that the Reformation Era, after the time of Columbus, had far too much of the former and far too little of the latter.

  7. MPS,
    The entire Reconquest was both a political and religious undertaking. Queen Isabel was a devoted Catholic and began reform of the Church in Spain before the Reconquest was completed. Spain was plagued with weak kings, selfish nobles and corrupt bishops. Queen Isabel put an end to all of it, defeated the Muslims in Granada and gave her royal blessing to Columbus’ endeavors.

    That Columbus was not a skilled administrator of the lands he discovered is true. Columbus was, despite what any of his faults were, a magnificent navigator whose discovery led to the New World, the Western Hemisphere, of which over two thirds was evangelized by Catholics – and let’s not leave out Our Lady of Guadalupe. From the upper reaches of Quebec, through Florida, the Caribbean, Western New York State, Louisiana, the American Southwest, California, Central America and the entire South American continent – all was opened to the Church through Columbus’s voyage and Queen Isabel’s approval of it.

    Given that Islam completed it quest of conquering Constantinople in 1451, attacked Otranto in 1480, was thrown out of Spain in 1492 and the evangelization of the New World, it was indeed a religious age.

  8. Penguins Fan

    The evangelization of the New World was mainly the work of the reformed religious orders, particularly the Capuchins, formed in 1520, the Jesuits, founded in 1534 and the Carmelites of the Reform around the end of the century. The increase of the religious orders, both in numbers and fervor and in new foundations is a very notable feature of the 16th century in contrast to the 15th.

    In other words, an age largely indifferent to religion, from the Fall of Constantinople in 1451 to the Reformation in 1517 was succeeded by an intensly religious age that lasted from then until the generation born after the Wars of Religion in France and the Thirty Years War in Central Europe and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

    Thereafter, a period of growing sceptisism was followed by a largely indifferent 18th century, with both Protestant and Catholic revivals in the 19th.

    These things do seem to go in cycles.

  9. It was common to give nick-names to ships, especially in groups. I think the Nina (baby) was nick-named such because she was the smallest in the group. The Pinta may have been colorfully painted. The Santa Maria would have been called the capitan.

    Pre-post-modern sailors were pious. They mixed prayers with their work. They faced instant death at the mercy of atmospheric/oceanic forces.

    The book, “Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea”, by Eliot Morrison is an excellent account of the first voyage of discovery. The author explains Columbus’ courage, piety, and seamanship.

    It’s easy, in fact formulaic, to be a post-modern jabberer. Simply tear down the west and dead white men employing libels/slanders based on the following short-list: capitalism/private property, the Church, class, gender, race, sexual orientation/homophobia, etc. The post-modern pea-brains gush ideology not truth.

    For the ideologues, every western milestone is subverted to a horrid tale of century’s-old crimes and the genesis of evil.

    Our God is infinitely stronger than theirs.

  10. MPS,

    The New World was discovered at the end of the 15th Century, by a devout (and imperfect) Catholic, financed by the Catholic Queen of a Catholic nation reunited after 770 years of struggle against the Muslim invaders.

    Columbus had a home in a monastery who always supported him and who looked after his son while he sailed to the New World.

    Religious intensity varies from nation to nation and within the same nation. Polish Catholics are more fervent these days than German Catholics.

  11. Just last night I was reading the chapter in Stripping of the Altars, in which Eamon Duffy discusses how rapidly laymen’s catechisms were published and distributed widely in England prior to the Reformation, by men such as William Caxton and Wynken de Worde, right alongside the Canterbury Tales, poetry books, and Latin grammars.
    Publishing the New Testament may have been delayed due to concerns over the Wyclif heresies.
    But no matter. MPS pronounces that it was an irreligious age.
    On a lighter note, I’ve enjoyed dipping into de Worde’s THE PAYNE AND SOROWE OF EVYLL MARYAGE, on this very solemn occasion of an Extraordinary Synod on the Family.

  12. Tasmin wrote, “Publishing the New Testament may have been delayed due to concerns over the Wyclif heresies.”

    It may have done. Buchanan records that “James V made it a capital crime to be punished with the fire to have or read the New Testament in the vulgar language and to make them to all men more odious, as if it had been the detestable name of a pernicious sect, they were named New Testamentars.” As a ballad of the time has it

    Quha dois present the New Testament
    Quhilk is our faith surely,
    Priestis callis him like ane heretikc,
    And sayis burnt sall he be

    And another, recorded by Archbishop Hamilton of St Andrew’s

    I wuld prelatis and doctouris of the law
    With us lawid pepill wer nocht discontent
    Thocht we into our vulgare toung did knaw
    Of Christ Jesus the lyfe and testament

    Erasmus was of a very different mind and produced his Greek NT as an aid to more accurate vernacular translations: ““I totally disagree with those who are unwilling that the Holy Scriptures, translated into the common tongue, should be read by the unlearned. Christ desires His mysteries to be published abroad as widely as possible. I could wish that even all women should read the Gospel and St. Paul’s Epistles, and I would that they were translated into all the languages of all Christian people, that they might be read and known not merely by the Scots and the Irish but even by the Turks and Saracens. I wish that the farm worker might sing parts of them at the plough, that the weaver might hum them at the shuttle, and that the traveller might beguile the weariness of the way by reciting them…”

    A provincial synod held at Edinburgh in 1549 pointed out the real source of the advance of the Protestant heresies: “the corruption of morals and the profane lewdness of life in churchmen of all ranks, together with their crass ignorance of literature and of the liberal arts” – plus ça change!

  13. Such chest thumping … my history is better than yours. You both speak truths, but use different contexts and points of reference …. clearly you see that.

  14. “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.”

    Since the time of Eratosthenes, we have known the circumference of the earth. The critics were correct in that if Columbus wanted to reach Asia, he would have to travel a long way. But imagine a Planet Earth where the Americas did not exist, and open water stretched from China all the way to Europe and Africa. Knowing what we know about climatology, monster typhoons would batter China every year. Chinese civilization as we know it would probably not exist.

    Columbus was lucky he found land where he did. But then again, maybe his intuition told him that something was out there waiting to be discovered.

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