This weekend, we reach that Monday in October so longed for by school teachers, that first three-day weekend, that first day off, at least for Catholic school teachers. Yes, Columbus Day is rapidly approaching and, as it has been for several years now, the man whom we commemorate is a figure of controversy.
What type of man was Columbus? Hero or villain? Bold explorer or terrible opportunist? Devout man of the Catholic faith or intolerant religious zealot? It all depends on the context in which you perceive him.
By the societal norms of today, Columbus could be perceived as a conquering abuser who came to the already populated land that would one day be called the Americas and imposed a foreign culture, that of Europe’s, on the native population. It can be said that he brought heretofore unknown diseases and brought slavery into the existence of the native population.
However, in the standards of his day, Columbus was engaging in the missionary action of his Church and, for all his faults, brought the Catholic Faith to the lands on which we walk. For all his faults, and perhaps one should say that his biggest fault was that he could not control the excesses of some of the men whom he brought with him. He understood his sailing and exploring as the work of God and an act of evangelization.
Pope Leo XIII, in his 1892 encyclical, Quarto Abeunte Saeculo, recognizes Columbus’ intent, and even declares that a Mass of the Most Holy Trinity be offered on or around Oct. 12 in thanksgiving of his bringing the Christian faith to the New World.
Yes, Columbus was no saint; he was very human and, like all of us, had his flaws and he was a sinner. However, he was no bloodthirsty conquerer. His legacy, a legacy of faith, is intrinsically tied into Catholicism in this nation and the pride of the Italian-American community. He, like many who fade into the tides of time, represents more than just himself. Columbus represents a spirit of exploration, not exploitation, for most Americans. His statue, his parade, his holiday needs to remain.