Faith for the Journey of Life

My Thoughts on Faith, Life, and 2,000+ Years of Catholicism / Christianity

07 October 2006

Columbus's Voyage of Faith

Christopher Columbus was and is to this day, a man of myth and controversy. Others set foot in the New World before him. He is attacked for his worldly ambition and his supposed treatment of the native peoples. He is castigated for having opened the New World up to European colonization and exploitation.

Oftentimes lost in the various controversies and myths surrounding Christopher Columbus is the fact that his 1492 voyage of discovery was also very much a voyage of faith. True, Columbus had worldly intentions. However, his voyage was also both based upon his devout Christian faith and intended to bring that Christian faith to the indigenous peoples of the lands he sailed to.

Columbus faced a great many obstacles in his efforts to prepare and embark upon such a momentous voyage. Contrary to popular myth, however, convincing people that the world was not flat was not one of them. Most educated persons of Columbus's time knew that the world was round based upon the learning of the ancient Greeks. Those who doubted Columbus's enterprise did so because they believed the world was much larger than he had calculated. They were right; Columbus gross over-estimated the circumference of the world.

For a mariner embarking upon such a great voyage during the 15th Century, great faith was also needed. Columbus's ships were miniscule compared with the ships that cross the Atlantic today. The famed Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria are estimated to be less than 80 feet in length, with a draft of 6 to 10 feet and a beam between 20 and 25 feet. His ships were subject to the vicisitudes of wind, weather and waves. He lacked accurate charts and weather information. His navigational equipment was rudimentary compared with today's equipment. Any number of factors could have destroyed him and his ships, rendering him a historical footnote.

To help him overcome these difficulties, Columbus drew upon great faith in God. Columbus was a devout Catholic who regularly attended Mass. On the morning of setting out on his voyage, Columbus attended Mass. As was common among mariners of the day, Columbus and his crew prayed at frequent intervals throughout the day while at sea. Everyday at sunset, they sang the Salve Regina. His writings and his journal of the voyage have frequent references to God. He placed great trust in God for his safety and that of his crew.

"In matters of the Christian religion, without doubt he was a Catholic and of great devotion," wrote the famed Spanish priest and historian Father Bartolome de Las Casas in his Historia de las Indias. Not only did de Las Casas know Columbus personally but both his father and uncle had sailed with him.

For Columbus, this voyage was not just about trusting in God to see him through it. It was very much about bringing God and the Christian faith to the people whom he would meet. As de Las Casas wrote of Columbus and the indigenous peoples, "he desire and was eager for the conversion of these peoples and that in every region the faith of Jesus Christ be planted and enhanced." Columbus strongly believed that God wanted him to bring Christianity to the peoples of the Far East.

On 12 October 1492, Columbus and his party set foot upon an island he named San Salvador after Jesus Christ. On the shore, they knelt in thanks to God for having brought them here. On this and other islands he visited, Columbus erected Crosses to claim these lands for Christ.

It was Columbus's faith and his opening of the New World to Christianity that inspired a young priest in New Haven, Connecticut in October of 1881 to name his new charitable order in his honor. The order is known as the Knights of Columbus and that young priest was named Father Michael J. McGivney.

Altogether, Columbus ultimately made a total of four voyages to the New World. He set up colonies, explored and conducted missionary activities to spread Christianity. To his dying day, he believed that he had reached India, not realizing he had literally bumped into a new continent.

[Hundreds of books have been written on Christopher Columbus. One of the best is Samuel Eliot Morison's Admiral of the Ocean Sea - A Life of Christopher Columbus. (NY: MJF Books, 1942).]


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