Virtually the instant I saw that Spain’s Queen Isabella the Catholic was the subject of an excellent article by Eleonore Villarrubia recently posted on the SBC website, I thought of Christopher Columbus. This was natural. Though history is largely unknown to most persons today, most still know that Columbus “discovered” America and Isabella financed his venture. The two are indissolubly linked in our minds. On this occasion I found in my thinking of Columbus something of a lesson for Catholics serious about the Faith or, if not a lesson, an example. It is one with which most persons are familiar: Columbus showing how important it is for a man to stick to a dream, except most don’t know what he really dreamed.
As Mrs. Villarrubia told us, it was not to prove the world is round, a piece of nonsense still foisted on schoolchildren by teachers who should know it is nonsense but are intent on inculcating one of liberalism’s central tenets: that general ignorance prevailed in the past but no longer does thanks to men now being “free,” especially from religious authorities (like wicked Spanish Inquisitors) who wanted to keep them mired in unscientific superstition and thus oppressed. Of this “progress” consists.
Columbus did dream of finding riches, but why? Your middle-school textbooks didn’t tell you, not if you went to a public school (and probably not in a parochial one if that was the case).
It was on December 26, 1492, five hundred and twenty-one years ago this month and two months after the most momentous sea voyage in history, that Columbus, as if reminding Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of the reason why he sought their patronage for his venture, but in actuality reaffirming its purpose to himself, wrote in his diary that he hoped to find gold and spices, but not to enrich the Spanish sovereigns or, much less, himself. Rather, any goods or treasure he found could finance a crusade to “conquer the Holy Sepulcher; for thus I urged Your Highnesses to spend all the profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem.”
Crusade? Conquest of Jerusalem?
Columbus sailed west from Europe in order to reach the East. He seems to have believed until the day he died that what he had done was explore and establish European outposts on islands off the coast of Asia. That is, he didn’t realize he had “discovered” America (or the New World as it soon was called). He didn’t because he did not know there was anything – entire continents – between Europe and Asia, and neither did anybody else. That made his “discovery” a true discovery, at least to Europeans; and Europeans, following in Columbus’s wake, would become the men who mattered most in the world, spreading their civilization to all corners of it including very primitive ones (North and South America among them); and with their civilization the Faith in which it was rooted. If factors like England’s defection from Christendom and then the Enlightenment, which was in truth a darkening, would prevent the practice of the Faith from becoming as universal as the civilization, discussion of them is beyond the scope of these present lines. We are dealing here with two questions: 1) What did Columbus’s first voyage mean to Europeans? 2) What was Columbus trying to do?
If men understood that a ship heading west from Europe would not fall off the edge of a flat world, they debated how long it would have to sail before reaching Asia. Would it be beyond the capability of mariners, living on provisions their vessel could carry, to survive? What natural obstacles (currents, wind, even unknown creatures) might the mariners encounter? And what exactly would be found at the end of the voyage? Anything to make the cost and risks of the trip worthwhile? Savages or perhaps fellow Christians? An earthly paradise or something less? Some of these questions were answered in 1492 and the others would be by great captains who followed Columbus, the greatest of all.
As for his motive, it has to be remembered that the principal overland trading and pilgrimage routes from Europe to the Holy Land and Asia were cut off when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, two years before Columbus’s birth. So were the sea routes. The Mediterranean, for the time being, was a Turkish lake. Columbus wondered, as had other men, whether it might be feasible to establish new, westerly routes from the east coast of Asia, circumventing the Turks. He also had another possibility in mind. The Venetian traveler and merchant Marco Polo had earlier found men in the court of the Mongol Khan, mightiest ruler in Cathey (as China was known) receptive to Christian ideas. The Khan himself was friendly and Polo remained in his service for nearly a quarter-century. It was also reported in Europe that Argun, son of Kublai Khan, had built a Catholic chapel at his palace, had his son baptized, named the boy for Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292) and promised to receive baptism himself in Jerusalem if the Pope furnished troops for a joint Mongol-European effort to liberate the Holy Land. Pope Nicholas would in fact call for a Crusade, but nothing had come of it before the end of his short reign as Pontiff.
Would it be possible to make contact with the Great Khan of Columbus’s day? More than that, if the present Khan proved friendly would it be possible now to forge an alliance to wrest the Holy Land from Ottoman rule and restore the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem established after the success of the First Crusade of 1099? No less a personage than Crusader King St. Louis IX of France had thought along the same lines.
Columbus, of course, did not reach Asia. There would be no Sino-European conquest of the Holy Land. Except for the hiccup of the British Mandate, Palestine and Jerusalem would be Muslim-ruled until the establishment of the modern Jewish State of Israel in 1948.
Neither did Columbus find riches that amounted to much, but gold and silver soon mined in the Americas would finance Charles V and Philip II’s defense of Europe against both the Turks and the Protestant revolt commonly referred to as the Reformation. In a word, it was thanks to Columbus that all of Central Europe, at the least, didn’t fall to Protestantism and that Turkish domination of the Mediterranean was ended by the Christian victory at Lepanto.
That Columbus did not reach Asia was not a failure. His discovery of America was enough for him to be honored as once he was. The honors included a national holiday in every American republic, even the Protestant United States, and an entire nation, Colombia, being named for him. In the U.S. we have Columbus, Ohio, and the District of Columbia. Statues of him abound, including in D.C.
Today the statues are regularly defaced. In the U.S. the federal government still observes the holiday but most persons see it as no more than a sales event. The place names haven’t been changed but regnant multiculturalism reviles the man. Textbooks and teachers present him not as a Christian hero but as “genocidal”. Of course he is not alone. Which man of the past who was Christian before he was anything else is regarded today as heroic? The achievements of all of them are disparaged as the undertakings of “dead white men” even as birth rates continue to plummet among peoples of Western Europe and the Americas contracepting and aborting themselves out of existence. The very words written here would border on “hate speech” in some places. Meantime, sharia law is preached in mosques in London, Paris, Toronto and more than one U.S. city. And in all this may be found the connection that makes Columbus an example, his life and what is now made of it a lesson, for the serious Christian today.
Heretics were burned at the stake on occasion in Queen Isabella’s Spain, we hear endlessly. Think of how often we see it depicted in popular movies. But in 1492 demon-worshipping Aztecs practiced human sacrifice on an industrial scale where Mexico City now stands. How often are we reminded of that, and that only the arrival of the Spanish stopped it? What we are told is that the Spanish destroyed Native-American “civilization”. The point is that a world in which defense of the Faith is execrated and barbarity ignored is every bit as alien to the Christian today as the New World was to Columbus. The further point is that he used to be honored and is now reviled even as men everywhere in Europe and the Americas used to live by the teachings of the Faith and now those who still would are relegated to the margin of society. What meaning can we draw from these facts?
It is that Columbus in his quest for Jerusalem, and men like him, conquered the New World and we can conquer ours. The question is how did they do it and how can we?
Perhaps it was because they remembered words of Our Lord with which we are as familiar, hearing them as often as did they. The words are quoted in two Gospels, those of Mark and Luke. This is the version we hear from Luke (21:12-13): “They will lay hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogue and into prison, dragging you before kings and governors, for my name’s sake. And it shall happen to you for a testimony.”
I said Columbus and other of our ancestors in the Faith may have remembered those words as Christians today do not. What is meant by “remembered” is that they acted on them heedless of the consequences foretold by Our Lord. They gave their testimony, and in a real sense are still giving it. That is insofar as in their achievements, if not in the eclipse we ourselves have cast them and let them be cast, they could be models for today – if we were as willing to give our own testimony.
If we were, instead of a shopping trip to the mall next Columbus Day, we might have a wreath-laying ceremony at the nearest statue of the Great Captain, and then declare, as our Jewish brothers repeated until they made their dream reality: Next year in Jerusalem!