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Columbus Day: the fire that burns in the heart

NYC holiday parade celebrates a spiritual explorer.

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Italian-Americans leaving Saint Patrick's church on Mulberry Street on Sunday morning, February 1943. Photo: Marjory Collins /Library of Congress OWI collection.

Italian-Americans leaving Saint Patrick's church on Mulberry Street on Sunday morning, 1943. Photo: Marjory Collins /Library of Congress OWI collection.


“This was the fire that burned within me…,” wrote Christopher Columbus. He wanted the king and queen of Spain to give him a fortune and their backing for a titanic spiritual journey that would lead to the recovery of Jerusalem from its Muslim conquerors and the return of Jesus Christ.*

The explorer said that his whole life had prepared him for this task. He had gained the skills needed to accomplish the 15th Century equivalent of a journey to Mars. He knew astronomy, astrology, geography, arithmetic and map reading, he pointed out.

Today, we celebrate the success of the Italian explorer in arriving at the Americas in October 12, 1492. New Yorkers first celebrated the occasion with religious ceremonies and other festivities in 1792. However, it was not until 1934 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a New Yorker, declared Columbus Day a national holiday. Perhaps, most people don’t realize that one of the biggest public parades in the city is in honor of a religious explorer. (Another big parade honors the missionary monk Saint Patrick.)

Columbus’ pitch to the king and queen of Spain was put in spiritual terms. Most crucial, Columbus said, was that contrary to popular opinion, God had ”opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project…”

The explorer also pointed out the pragmatic necessities of opening a new frontier as a way out of a desperate fight. At that time the European and Middle Eastern Christians were in an uncertain struggle with an expanding Muslim empire. In 1453 Constantinople, the center of Orthodox Christianity, fell to an invading Muslim army with much loss of life and enslavement. The new rulers changed the name of the city to Istanbul and turned the great cathedral Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The next target of conquest was the rest of Europe.

From the European Christian perspective the only bright light was the re-conquest of Spain from the Muslims. Columbus proposed to the Spanish sovereigns a daring master stroke in the battles: send him to China to create an alliance with the Chinese to gain gold, arms and soldiers to march on Jerusalem. Although the Europeans didn’t know it, the Chinese government had itself sent out a large exploratory naval force that had reached the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa.

At this time the overland route to China was blocked by the Muslims, so Columbus proposed to find a new oceanic route. The explorer believed that God had opened his mind to search out the vast unexplored Atlantic Ocean for a new route to China.

In the December 26, 1492 entry in his journal, Columbus hoped that he would obtain gold and spices “in such quantity that the sovereigns…will undertake and prepare to conquer the Holy Sepulcher [i.e., where Jesus was killed, buried and resurrected]; for thus I urged Your Highnesses to spend all the profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem.”

Bartolome de las Casas, his good friend and eventual great defender of the American Indians against European greed, described Columbus spiritual life and mission: “He observed the fasts of the church most faithfully, confessed and made communion often, read the canonical offices like a churchman or member of a religious order, hated blasphemy and profane swearing, was most devoted to Our Lady and to the… father St. Francis; seemed very grateful to God for benefits received from the divine hand… And he was especially affected and devoted to the idea that God should deem him worthy of aiding somewhat in recovering the Holy Sepulcher.”

Toward the end of his life the explorer was still compiling his Book of Prophecies, which may have been preparation for a long narrative poem. In the book Columbus framed his journey as a mission trip of evangelism. He quoted the prophet Isaiah (51:5) as inspiration for the exploration of the islands (the Americas), “Give ear, you islands, and hearken, you people from afar.” The coming of Columbus was to be a signal of God’s outreach to all peoples, “And I will set a sign among them…to the islands afar off, to them that have not heard of me and have not seen my glory” (quoting from Isaiah 66:19). Columbus predicted that a great nation and huge land would arise just as the Roman writer Seneca had poetically forecast in his work Medea: “An age will come when the Ocean will break his chains, a huge land will be revealed…”

The day before Columbus died he ratified his will that set up a memorial fund for the purpose of liberating Jerusalem.

Columbus’ exploration also opened the Americas to various types of cultural and religious advancements from Europe. It brought Europe into contact with cultural advances that were found among native Indian tribes and nations. However, the context of war and competition with the Muslims also meant that Columbus’ exploration brought those troubling phenomena into the Americas. Although the Spanish monarchs tasked explorers like Columbus to “endeavor to win over the inhabitants” and to “treat the Indians very well and lovingly and abstain from doing them any injury,” the treatment of the native peoples was often cruel. In 1516 the priest de las Casas wrote the polemical A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies to counter the bad treatment of the American Indians. He believed that the civilizations of native Americans was superior to his own in many ways.

So on this island of the Americas on Columbus Day, what lessons can we take from Christopher Columbus’ spiritual journey?

First, we might consider how our religious faiths can be a tremendous resource for the city. Since the time of Columbus to our time of astronauts, adventure, exploration and discovery is often based on religious motives. (See our article on religion in outer space.)

Second, New York City’s history and current life is intricately connected to the creative mixing of spiritual journeys.  Over a longtime, we have developed a way to peacefully harness multiple religious beliefs and non-beliefs to the furtherance of exploration, knowledge and the public good. For us religious belief is not a zero-sum game: that if you believe differently from me, then my life will be impoverished. That was the view by Christians and Muslims in Columbus’ day.

Now, in our city we can see that multiple and even clashing beliefs create a plus-plus public square in which new ideas, cultural innovation and knowledge arise out of the mix of perspectives.

Third, time is always too short for life’s exploration. One should let one’s heart and mind to be “on fire” for doing good and spiritual journeys in directions that we have never traveled.

Columbus Day greeting: have a good journey!

Map by Columbus' navigator Juan de la Cosa. At top is St. Christopher bearing Christ between Europe (on the right) and Americas (on the left). Some think that the likeness of St. Christopher is actually the earliest portrait that we have of Columbus. Map from the Naval Museum, Madrid, Spain.

Map by Columbus' navigator Juan de la Cosa. At top is St. Christopher bearing Christ between Europe (on the right) and Americas (on the left). Some think that the likeness of St. Christopher is actually the earliest portrait that we have of Columbus. Map from the Naval Museum, Madrid, Spain.

The quotes are taken from Carol Delaney’s path-breaking book Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (2011) and her writings like “Columbus’ ultimate goal: Jerusalem” in the Journal for Comparative Study of Society and History (2006). Also from: Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley, Jr.’s edition of The Diaro of Christopher Columbus’ First Voyage to America 1492-1493 (1989) and Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942). In 2013 the director of the Vatican museum announced the discovery of perhaps the earliest portrayal of American Indians in a painting by someone outside of the Americas. Two American Indians are painted in the fresco “Resurrection of Christ” done between 1492 and 1494 by the Renaissance artist Pinturicchio. The NYC Columbus Day Parade is organized by the Columbus Citizens Foundation and will be live-streamed from their website starting at 12N until 3 pm.

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  • Yes indeed! What will future generations say about us in our time and of our Christianity? Blessings and regards.

  • Your reflections on our earthly responsibilities versus our heavenly-mindedness is a good question for all of us. Thanks!

  • I'll check it out.

    The ignoring of the religious aspect may be an affliction that has touched a lot of history writing, esp. in the 20th century.

    Could it be that in earlier eras too, his religiosity was not discussed because it was assumed, or even because in a predominantly Protestant society like the USA, his Roman Catholicism was a point to be avoided if he was going to be culturally canonized? I doubt that CC's religiosity proves little more than what we know about the whole Spanish Roman Catholic enterprise, that it was just as able to contemplate the heavenlies, missionary work, and God's (and the pope's) glory as it was the massacres, enslavement, and robbery of the indigenous.

  • All good points. We briefly mentioned John Brown and his contribution to the abolitionist newspaper Ram's Horn. So glad you point us toward your work on him. We did some time ago a feature on Girabaldi as a New York figure:

    I think that our primary purpose in highlighting Columbus' religious side is to correct a forgetfulness. Scholars for centuries have ignored it, according to a Stanford anthropologist that studied the matter. Consequently, we hardly have been given the opportunity to assess Columbus in his totality and to wrestle with his contradictory aspects.

  • It's good to be balanced and I always point out in my history class that the Golden Rule applies to the dead as well as the living.

    Personally, I don't admire the man, regardless of what his "good" side might reveal. He was a mercenary for a Roman Catholic and imperialist power, the work he did advanced white supremacy and opened the door to tragic loss, suffering, and oppression; and as an Italian American, I resent his profile being upheld as some winsome ideal for my community, when Garibaldi could just as easily have been promoted.

    Sometimes the "good" side of a man is just not that useful, esp. when his "bad" side is so monumentally so. I'm more willing to consider Luther that way, despite his latter day anti-Jewish rants, considering all that he that was positive. But Columbus?

    I would ask perhaps that you also consider my work on John Brown the abolitionist. Would you also reflect on his two sides? I have written my third and fourth books, respectively, on Brown--a narrative of his last days in Virginia, and a collection of his letters and interviews. As he was both an evangelical and an antislavery man, I suppose he had a good side, and if he had a bad side, I'd suggest it was far, far less problematic than that of Columbus.


  • Hi Danny, It is always a good idea to reflect on the two sides of a man. We included a short note about Christopher Columbus' deprivations. It is helpful to fill in the details. In his second voyage, the explorer (or his men) was only very briefly in Puerto Rico on his way to the island Hispaniola where the Dominican Republic and Haiti now lay. It was here that the first attacks on the Taino took place. This was the Taino center of power. A few years later, after Columbus had died, Ponce de Leon settled in Puerto Rico and subsequently enslaved the Taino there.

  • Wow! For real? There's a lot more this man did like subjugate, enslave, raped and murdered the Taino Indians from Puerto Rico amongst many other atrocities!

  • Like this!

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