THE STORY OF
COLUMBUS: THE BLESSED MOTHER'S MISSIONARY
Christopher Columbus packed his boat to sail from Spain to America on August 2, 1492, the feast of Our Lady of the Angels and asked for protection from the Blessed Mother. The next morning, after receiving the sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist, at the hands of Fr. Juan Perez, the officers and crew set sail on one of history’s greatest adventures.
But who was this man, Christopher Columbus? He was a child of the Renaissance. Columbus was not a saint, but certainly a defender of the faith. He was a Christian and a Catholic and his faith was strong, sincere, inexhaustible, free from superstition and hypocrisy. He made frequent references to God. In his own words, he said, “With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible ... And he opened my will to the desire to accomplish that project ... The Lord purposed that there should be something miraculous in this matter of the voyage to the Indies.”
What inspired Christopher Columbus? Was he searching for personal recognition or some financial reward? The answer to that question is “no.” Christopher Columbus was inspired by a very deep spiritual goal. And the clue to this is his very name. “Christopher” means “Christ Bearer.” And Columbus believed that he was destined to carry the gospel of Jesus across the ocean.
There was another motive that drove Columbus. His continuous obsessive search for gold and riches had a precise purpose: to setup a crusade in order to recover the Holy Land. The true aim of such a crusade was to unite what had been split with the fall of Constantinople. It was to bring the world back to unity.
As many educated men of his time Columbus knew the world was round. In fact, he often made notes in the margins of his books that one could reach the far east by sailing west across the ocean. His voyages were not really about discovery as much as they were intense religious missions. He saw them as a divine plan for his life as well as for a world that would soon be coming to an end. He put it this way in 1500, “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John [Rev. 21:1] after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me the spot where to find it.”
Throughout his journals, we find him constantly in prayer, invoking the names of Christ, Mary, and the saints and solemnly giving praise to God. Columbus was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary due to his Genoese background and named his flagship, the Santa Maria, in her honor.
It was typical for Spanish crewmen daily to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Columbus and his men did this. But Columbus went far beyond conventional practices. He, himself, prayed several times a day. The crew started every morning with the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and many prayers found in the Liturgy of the Hours. They had prayers throughout the day and at sunset sang hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Columbus knew the Vulgate Bible thoroughly and carried it with him. Whenever he faced a storm, a waterspout (tornado-like whirl of seawater), or a rebellious crewman, he made vows to God. Religion was always Columbus’ first refuge in adversity. Whenever he undertook a mission he would begin: “In the name of the Holy Trinity I will do this.” He prayed, fasted, frequently received the Sacraments and recited all the daily canonical hours, just as the priests and monks. It is said that he was a member of the Franciscan Third Order.
His voyage was beset with calamities - - a broken rudder, major leaks in the boats, and broken compasses. On September 23, the ship hit a calm, causing seamen to complain they’d never be able to get back to Spain. But later, the sea rose without the aid of any wind. This “astonished them,” and Columbus compared it to the miracles that accompanied Moses.
After going months without seeing land, the crewmen became restless. Columbus told his men that if he did not see land by October 12, the feast of Our Lady of the Pillar, he would turn and go back to Spain. This feast commemorates the apparition of the Mother of God during her own lifetime to Saint James the Great, Apostle of Spain, in the year 36, in the town of Saragossa in Spain. This was to encourage Saint James to be the apostle to the country of Spain, which by its valiant Catholicism and its many saints was to mean so much to the church in centuries to come. He chose it because the feast of Our Lady of the Pillar meant so much to him and to Spain itself.
At 10:00 p.m. on October 11th, the crew gathered to sing the Salve Regina (“Hail, Queen”) on the deck. Columbus saw a faint flickering light like a candle but did not take it as a sign of land. At 2:00 a.m. a crewman yelled “Terra!” (land). Then at daybreak, they saw the land which Columbus promptly named San Salvador, “Holy Savior.” They had indeed been saved.
Columbus saw himself as the advance man for a mighty evangelistic campaign. He would open new worlds and unseen people to the gospels. In a sense, he would be like the legendary giant St. Christopher, who carried Christ on his back across a wide river. He would carry Christ across the wide ocean to people who never heard of him. On every island that he explored, Columbus erected a large wooden cross. Islands and settlements were named after saints or bear religious names such as St. Croix, San Juan Bautista (now Puerto Rico) Virgin Islands, La Navidad, Santo Domingo, and so forth.
When Columbus returned to Spain seven months after he left, the church bells rang out and a letter was delivered to Ferdinand and Isabella: “Our Redeemer has given this triumph ... for all of this Christendom should feel joyful and make great celebrations and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity ... for the great exaltation which it will have in the salvation of so many peoples to our holy faith and, secondly, for the material benefits which will bring refreshment and profit.”
Contrary to paintings of the first landfall, there was no priest on the first voyage. There were, however, five priests on the second voyage. In 1501 Columbus wrote, “I am only a most unworthy sinner, but ever since I have cried out for grace and mercy from the Lord, they have covered me completely. I have found the most delightful comfort in making it my whole aim in life to enjoy his marvelous presence.”
Columbus’ deep Christian faith still causes academic bewilderment to many. Some try to explain it away. But Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Samuel Eliot Morison puts it this way: “There can be no doubt that the faith of Columbus was genuine and sincere, and that his frequent communion with forces unseen was a vital element in his achievement.”
Each of us should embrace the thought that it was the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, that America was discovered. The whole New World was meant to belong to her. It is no coincidence that the patron saint of the United States is Mary under the title of “Immaculate Conception” and the patron saint of the Americas is “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
One of the first known celebrations marking the discovery of the "New World" by Christopher Columbus was in 1792, when a ceremony organized by the Colombian Order was held in New York City honoring Christopher Columbus and the 300th anniversary of his landing in the Bahamas. Then, on October 12, 1866 the Italian population of New York organized the first celebration of the discovery of America. Three years later, in 1869 Italians in San Francisco celebrated October 12 calling it C-Day.
To mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison made a commemorative proclamation. Over the following decades, the Knights of Columbus, an international Roman Catholic fraternal benefit society, lobbied state legislatures to declare October 12 a legal holiday. Colorado was the first state to do so on April 1, 1907. New York declared Columbus Day a holiday in 1909 and on October 12, 1909, New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes led a parade that included the crews of two Italian ships, several Italian-American societies, and legions of the Knights of Columbus.
Since 1920 the day has been celebrated annually, and in 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed every October 12 as Columbus Day. That's where it remained until 1971 when Congress declared it a federal public holiday on the second Monday in October.