Although many are familiar with the ridiculous and hyperbolic novel charges against Christopher Columbus from the left, few Catholics know that a number of Fathers of the First Vatican Council actually submitted a petition for Columbus’ canonization to the Pope! In addition to being a famous explorer and discoverer of the New World, it seems the amazing virtues of Columbus the man are still little known to contemporary Catholics.
The following selections first appeared in an article on Christopher Columbus in The Month and Catholic Review of 1876 by the Rev. A Knight. Below, the Rev. Knight tells the story of the petition for canonization, how St. Christopher is tied to Columbus, and the reasons favorable to a canonization.
Without further ado, I give you the Rev. A. Knight…Chris Jackson
…A petition for the introduction of the cause [of Columbus’ Canonization] has been numerously signed by Fathers of the Vatican Council, wherein it is declared that the services of Christopher Columbus of Genoa in the propagation of the faith are unparalleled; that his earthly recompense was calumny, insult, and personal ill-treatment; that the Holy See from the first befriended him ; and that Pius the Ninth is the only Pope who has set foot in America. It is added that Count Roselly de Lorgues has vindicated the memory of Christopher Columbus, and has manifested his supernal vocation and high virtues, especially his Catholic zeal, and that an ardent desire is felt that the public honours of the Church should be decreed by the Holy See to the Christian hero. Cardinal Donnet is mentioned as having already sued for the introduction of the cause exceptionali. It is stated that Europe, Asia, Africa, and America share the movement, that the lapse of time bas interposed some technical difficulties, but that these ought to be over ridden in a case which has no precedent.
An extract from a translation which appeared in the Tablet (August 19th, 1876), of a letter addressed to the Holy Father by Cardinal Donnet, Archbishop of Bordeaux, writing, as he in the course of the letter says, in his character of "Metropolitan of part of the Antilles and member of the Sacred Congregation of Rites," will perhaps best explain the drift of the document and the state of the question. He says-
Urged on by a secret inspiration from on high, and encouraged by the gracious sympathy of your Holiness, he (one of the most illustrious writers of France, the Count Roselly de Lorgues) gave us a new history of Christopher Columbus, in which he refuted all the calumnies heaped up by previous historians and proved to demonstration that the discovery of the New World was pre-eminently the work of God, and held up to our admiration Christopher Columbus as a providential man, a messenger of heaven prepared by especial graces for the accomplishment of his especial mission.
Thus both Europe and America have been moved by these revelations of history, which invest the celebrated navigator with a supernatural splendour. The facts and documents on which the impartial historian has based his account are so numerous and so conclusive that they have carried conviction to the mind even of writers separated indeed from Catholic unity, but guided by the love of truth alone. This conviction, Holy Father, has become in a short time so strong, that a large number of the Fathers of the Vatican Council have voluntarily affixed their signatures to the petition for the introduction of the cause. The solemn expression of their desires would have been presented to the Council itself had not the grave events which have agitated Europe supervened to cause the suspension of the labours of that august assembly.
…Is it then likely that Columbus will ever be St. Christopher, second of that name? If it be not prediction and accomplishment, it is a coincidence worth noticing that the legend of the original St. Christopher symbolizes so beautifully the achievement of his namesake. Columbus, saint or not, was a giant, and he carried Christ across the water. There are, it must be admitted on all bands, abundant materials in the life of Columbus of the kind with which we are familiar in the lives of the saints--very much earnestness of purpose, deep religious convictions, superhuman labours, incredible sufferings, lofty enthusiasm, grand achievements, and disgrace and dereliction. St. Francis Xavier left to die alone under the trees on a little deserted island : Columbus passing away absolutely unnoticed amid the rejoicings of a royal marriage-the history of the Church is full of such examples, from the days of John the Baptist, who was put to death to please a dancing-girl. The greatest reward in God’s gift is martyrdom, and the next greatest is to meet with ingratitude.
Protestant historians like Washington Irving may well be excused if they fail to discern in the undertaking of Columbus the marks of a Divine commission, when his Catholic contemporaries seemed so little conscious of any such hypothesis. No doubt there were good reasons for their reticence. It was natural for them to shrink from publishing their shame, and it was more pleasant to suppress, if possible, in silence the unworthy treatment of a noble soul, which rouses indignation even now after four centuries. It is fair to consider also that contemporaries cannot see in one comprehensive glance, as their descendants can, the harmonious connection of the various incidents that go to form a great career. Writers of saints' Jives understand that their main business is to dive beneath the surface and trace if possible the subtle action of divine grace ; but essayists and historians are usually content to deal with facts and the visible course of affairs, and the working of political motives and the external manifestations of natural character, and seldom venture into the inner world of souls, or care to estimate the bearing of temporal action upon eternal destinies, and the true value before God and His angels of the words and deeds under consideration. If Washington Irving had been a Catholic, he might still have failed to detect the signs of sanctity in a career which certainly owed much of its splendid success to the power of human genius and indomitable will. Lofty enthusiasm may be natural impulse, not the inspiration of heaven ; deep religious conviction may be the result of early education ; great sufferings and startling reverses are found even among the unregenerate. To Catholics a few proofs of genuine humility in the hour of glory, of meekness under persecution, of tender devotion to our Blessed Lady, of sensitive regard for purity, would go farther to make known a messenger of God and a child of grace than any number of great results or assemblage of brilliant qualities.
…Tried by so high a standard [of canonization], will the life of a Lord High Admiral, holding command over rough sailors and mutinous subjects, reach the required immaculateness? Mild words and gentle treatment would scarcely avail to keep in order the fierce spirits of the Spanish main. It is at all events a fact that he was never known to swear, and it is certain that many saints, even qua tales, have contrived, like St. Bernard and St. Antony of Padua, to awe into tame submission to their will the fiercest tyrants with their robber-bands behind them. St. Gregory the Seventh (Hildebrand) could use imperious tones and deal hard blows, and his worst enemies did not accuse him of weakness. St. John in the Apocalypse puts cowards out of heaven, and Rome does not canonize feebleness or inertia.
Columbus certainly bears on all hands a high character. About his general honesty of purpose and deep sense of religion there has never been a doubt since the petty jealousies of personal ill-will were hushed in death. Prescott says-"Whatever were the defects of his mental constitution, the finger of the historian will find it difficult to point to a single blemish in his moral character. His correspondence breathes the sentiment of devoted loyalty to his sovereigns. His conduct habitually displayed the utmost solicitude for the interests of his followers. He expended almost his last maravedi in restoring his unfortunate crew to their native land. His dealings were regulated by the nicest principles of honour and justice. His last communication to the sovereigns from the Indies remonstrates against the use of violent measures in order to extract gold from the natives as a thing equally scandalous and impolitic. The grand object to which he dedicated himself seemed to expand his whole soul, and raised it above the petty shifts and artifices by which great ends are sometimes sought to be compassed. There are some men in whom rare virtues have been closely allied, if not to positive vice, to degrading weakness. Columbus’s character presented no such humiliating incongruity. Whether we contemplate it in its public or private relations, in all its features it wears the same noble aspect. It was in perfect harmony with the grandeur of his plans and their results, more stupendous than those which heaven has permitted any other mortal to achieve.”