"And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." St. John, 1:14.
On the last voyage of Columbus to the new world the four vessels in his command were struck by the wildest storm the fearless sailor had ever encountered. The waves ran mountain high; they pounded the boats so violently that the sailors could not control them. To top their danger, Columbus fell dangerously ill. An old wound reopened, and for nine days his life hung in the balance.
During eight of those days the wind and the waves and the rain made toys of their ships. On December 13, 1502, at the height of the confusion, a shriek burst forth from one of the ships, and was echoed by the other three. A typhoon, horror of the deep, a deadly wind whipped into a water-spout - woe to those who meet it on the ocean lanes.
The despairing cry of the crew struck to the very soul of Columbus; he shuddered; he called from his bed below; he groaned, as with superhuman effort he rolled out of bed, staggered to his feet, and clutched his way to the deck. A devil's trick, thought he; would that the chaplain, Father Alexander, had not died; the powers of good must overcome this evil of the deep.
He would recite the last Gospel of the Mass. He ordered candles lit and their flag unfurled; he buckled on his sword beneath the cord of St. Francis, which was always a part of his dress. He took the Bible and faced the onrushing monster. In a voice that could be heard above the howling elements, Columbus repeated the beloved Disciple's inspired and inspiring words.
At the sentence, "And the Word was made Flesh, and dwelt among us," he drew his sword, stretched soul and body to the full stature of his faith, and made in the air, in the very teeth of the typhoon, the holy sign of the cross. As a tiny wave is broken by the hand of man, so the hand of God turned the towering water-spout from its track, broke and scattered it over the ocean.
Turn back in the discoverer's life to that day of the first departure. We see 120 men paced by Columbus, marching toward the monastary of La Rabida. He was leading the crews of his three sailing vessels to receive Holy Communion from the Franciscan Friar, Father Perez, the former confessor of Queen Isabella of Spain, he who had persuaded the powers that were to outfit the ships and crew who were to set out tomorrow over the trackless Atlantic.
Though wrinkled with worry and disappointment, the leader's face was firm with determination; it was softened with a smile that expected the best in the midst of setbacks and failures. Nothing could dim, much less drown, the flame of his hope and faith. He was convinced. And his conviction was built on a trust in God's protecting hand. He proved that trust by attending Holy Mass and receiving Holy Communion the day before his departure.
Before daybreak on the morning they were to pull up anchor Columbus again received Holy Communion from the hands of his Franciscan friend. He wanted the Lord of the deep to be with him on his voyage. This was in line with his practice of not beginning any action of whatever importance without calling for divine help and offering the work for the glory of God.
A loyal Catholic then, he remained one throughout his life, as we gather from the high motives and intentions he demostrated with regard to his travels.
Notable was his plan to recruit another army, outfit it from the profits of his discoveries, and with this army recover the Holy Land from the Turks. One primary purpose of all his explorations was to spread the gospel to those who knew it not. His first action upon landing was to plant the cross.
In one so Catholic we can expect a tender love of our Blessed Mother. The Star of the Sea shone throughout his life. He found help at the monastary of Our Lady of La Rabida; he called his first ship "Santa Maria"; he and his crew received Communion in the chapel of the Blessed Virgin; and every evening on the voyage the crews of all three ships sang a hymn to Christ's Mother.
Place after place he named after Mary - Our Lady of the Sea, Mary, Star of the Sea, Our Lady of Montserrat, Holy Mary of the Rotunda, Conception, Assumption, Our Lady of the Grotto. While returning to Spain he taught the Indians accompanying him, the Ave Maria or Hail Mary, and other prayers to the Mother of God.
His second voyage was placed under the special protection of the Immaculate Conception. His admiral's ship was called "Gracious Mary." Even in death Mary's mantle was about him for he was buried in a church dedicated to his heavenly Mother.
These are but photographic flashes of Columbus, courageous Catholic. He was a true Franciscan Tertiary; he wore the cord of St. Francis constantly; he believed in the power of the cross; he put trust in the words of Scripture; he loved Holy Mass and Communion; he was concerned about the Holy Land. Like St. Francis and seven centuries of his followers, he wanted to win it back for Christian hearts.
How proud we American Catholics should be of Columbus. How doubly proud American Franciscans should be of the discoverer of America.
Columbus Day should have a deep significance for all Catholics and all Franciscans. May I suggest that you keep the day by attending Holy Mass and receiving Holy Communion. May I recommend that you pray your October Rosary with renewed fervor, thinking the while of the fearless, faithful Columbus who took time out from the cares of leadership to teach the Hail Mary to primitive Indians. May Columbus Day and all it stands for encourace us in the brave, undaunted living of our faith. Amen.
Adapted from Occasional Talks
by Fr. Arthur Tonne, OFM (©1949)