“I am so for this!” exclaimed a Facebook friend, linking to a headline about the Los Angeles City Council’s vote to replace Columbus Day with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” On its face, this may seem like an innocent change. Who would be against celebrating the indigenous peoples of the Americas?
Alas, the movement to strip our first Catholic “Founding Father” of his public honors is anything but innocent. It’s imperative that all American Catholics understand this effort to abolish the holiday, and that we continue to celebrate the man himself: Christopher Columbus. Hispanics and others of Native American descent must be especially diligent, as we in particular are being targeted to support the move to replace Columbus Day. After all, it was our indigenous ancestors whom Columbus and his men allegedly pillaged and enslaved. Why should we glory in the oppression of Native Americans by white, Christian conquistadors? I mean, it’s 2019!
Now, let’s set the record straight.
The first recorded celebration of Columbus’s discovery of the New Word was conducted by the Tammany Society of New York on October 12, 1792. One hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison encouraged Americans to mark Columbus’s history-making discovery. By 1934, after tireless lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and Italian civic leader Generoso Pope, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared October 12 a federal holiday: Columbus Day.
Interestingly, the anti-Columbus Day movement started even before it was declared a federal holiday. That movement presented itself in three waves. The first was led by the Ku Klux Klan, who protested against state Columbus Day holidays, disrupted Columbus Day parades, and wrote articles against the “papal fraud,” as they called it. The second wave was dominated by far-left historical revisionists beginning in the middle of the 20th century. Self-described anarchist and socialist Howard Zinn wrote about Columbus’s enslavement and abuse of the native inhabitants of Hispaniola. (That’s a historically dubious claim—one that we’ll address in greater detail presently.)
The third and present wave of opposition to Columbus Day is the movement to replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. That cause has been taken up with relish by the youngest, trendiest corners of the mainstream media, as epitomized by a 2014 episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight. “How is this still a thing?” asks host John Oliver, before going on to call Columbus a “murderous egomaniac.” With the recent barrage of anti-Columbus television shows, books, and articles, it’s a wonder the federal holiday hasn’t been struck down already.
But Oliver and his ilk are wrong. All Catholics—particularly those with Hispanic and Native American ancestry—should confidently celebrate Columbus Day, for three principal reasons.
Firstly, Columbus was a man of deep faith. Few of his detractors know, for instance, that he was a Third Order Franciscan. As a pious Catholic, he didn’t own slaves, assault women, or commit any of the vile crimes attributed to him. On the contrary, Bartolome de las Casas wrote that “his person and venerable mien revealed a person of great state and authority and worthy of all reverence; he was sober and moderate in his food, drink, garments, and shoes… In matters of Christian religion, no doubt he was a Catholic and of great devotion.”
There’s no denying that the Spanish perpetrated great evils against the indigenous population of the Americas. But this only occurred after Columbus. He himself admonished the Crown to send no Spaniard to the New World “if he is not truly Christian, inasmuch as the planning and execution this undertaking has no other purpose but the increase and glory of the Christian religion.” Moreover, he described our native ancestors as “the best people in the world, and especially because I have great hope in Our Lord that Your Highnesses will make them Christians.”
Secondly, for Hispanics and Italians—lest we forget, he was born in Genoa—Columbus is a part of our ethnic, cultural, and racial heritage. For the vast majority of Hispanics, ours is a complex identity handed down to us by our indigenous, European, and African forebears. If we erase Columbus and the Spanish from our history, we’ll never be able to fully understand and appreciate who we are and where we came from.
We all know the Spanish unwittingly brought new diseases to the Americas, against which the natives had no immunity. Yet how many will recall that they also brought schools and hospitals? Indeed, most of their contributions were decidedly positive: some of the well-known barbarities encountered in pre-Columbian America include infanticide, cannibalism, and human sacrifice. Columbus was the herald of a Christian civilization that sought to end such cruel practices; that civilization is itself integral to our Hispanic heritage.
Thirdly, Columbus brought the Faith to our indigenous ancestors. Had he not attempted his historic venture, it’s doubtful that Central and South America would be predominantly Catholic: a seafaring Protestant nation could just as easily have “discovered” the New World and changed the course of history. Instead, it was settled by men whose first objective was to found a seminary for the propagation of the Faith. Consequently, almost 40 percent of the world’s Catholic population today is Latin American.
In 1892, Pope Leo XIII promulgated his encyclical Quarto Abeunte Saeculo. In it, he writes:
Columbus is ours; since if a little consideration be given to the particular reason of his design in exploring the mare tenebrosum, and also the manner in which he endeavored to execute the design, it is indubitable that the Catholic faith was the strongest motive for the inception and prosecution of the design; so that for this reason also the whole human race owes not a little to the Church.
In order, therefore, that the commemoration of Columbus may be worthily observed, religion must give her assistance to the secular ceremonies. And as at the time of the first news of the discovery public thanksgiving was offered by the command of the Sovereign Pontiff to Almighty God, so now we have resolved to act in like manner in celebrating the anniversary of this auspicious event.
We decree, therefore, that on October 12, or on the following Sunday, if the Ordinary should prefer it, in all the Cathedral churches and convent chapels throughout Spain, Italy, and the two Americas, after the office of the day there shall be celebrated a Solemn Mass of the Most Holy Trinity.
Pope Leo declares that Columbus noster est—Columbus is ours—because of the intrepid mariner’s devotion to the Catholic faith. The Holy Father reminds us that, at the first sight of land, Columbus immediately offered up thanksgiving to God. Leo encourages us to continue offering thanks and praise to God in his example. By honoring Columbus at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we form a living bond with our first fathers in the New World—one that stretches to the saints of future ages, who will win this, our homeland, for Christ’s holy Church.
¡Feliz dia de Colón!
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