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Columbus: the Franciscan explorer


Christopher Columbus by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio.

A deeply religious Christian, Christopher Columbus belonged to the Third Order of Penance, the Secular Franciscans, a Catholic order, founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1221, of men and women living their faith in the world. 

Secular Franciscans, formerly known as Brothers and Sisters of Penance, can be young or old, male or female, married, single, widowed or divorced-not-remarried, as long as they attempt to live the Gospel in their everyday lives. 

The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people.

Christ, the gift of the Father's love, is the way to him, the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us, and the life which he has come to give abundantly.

Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to the gospel. [Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, Chapter II: The Way of Life #4]

As all Secular Franciscans, the explorer sought to live his faith in his daily life within the  general community.  Famous for his discovery of the 'New World' when attempting to reach India, 'el Almirante' or 'the Admiral' of the Santa Maria, and the twin sister ships - the Niña and the Pinta- escorting the main vessel, reached the island of San Salvador instead on October 12, 1492. He later made two other voyages.

It was Friar Juan Perez, an astronomer, who pleaded Columbus' case before King Ferdinand, to whom he was financial advisor, and to Queen Isabella, to whom he was confessor. Needless to say, the monarchs were won over. Friar Juan Perez was able to sail with Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. He is credited with celebrating the first Mass in the New World. []

However, many of the best known details about this voyage seem to be erroneous.  Along with some very interesting trivia, Joseph M. Laufer, from the International Columbian Quincentenary Alliance, lists several of the most common myths regarding Columbus, including the following:

1. The goal of his voyage was to prove the Earth was round.
   At that time, most knew the Earth was spherical, but its circumference was debated.

2. The Catholic Queen Isabella sponsored the voyage with her crown jewels.
   This was not necessary, the funds became available by other means.

3. The crew of the ships was almost entirely made up of prisoners.
   Most were experienced sailors, while only four were convicts.

4. There was a priest onboard on the 1st Voyage.
   No priest made the 1st voyage.  Five priests made the second trip.

5. During the 1st voyage, they experienced very bad weather and dire shortage of food.
   There was enough food to last a year.  They experienced good weather.  No deaths were reported on  this trip.

6. Columbus died in extreme poverty and in chains as a prisoner.
   He was relatively well-off at the time of death, and though he had been arrested, he was released by the Catholic monarchs later.

One of the most influential characters of the Age of Discovery, Columbus had above all, a deep Christian faith, which he tried to share with the inhabitants of the lands he visited, even if later on some of the men that came along from the Old World were mostly greedy, cruel, and corrupt.

Some historians suggest that Columbus played the role of global evangelist. His son, Ferdinand, relates his father had another self-image, alongside the one of an Admiral, perhaps due to his name Christopher.

It was that of Christoferens (the 'Christ-bearer').  To his mind, his given name of Christopher signified his divinely ordained mission to carry Christianity across the westward ocean to what he presumed were the pagans of the Orient. [Pauline Moffitt Watts for OAH Magazine of History]

As a sidenote, some claim that other Europeans had previously arrived at the 'New World' including Leif Ericson, a Viking from Scandinavia. Adam Miller in his book Discovering a Lost Heritage: The Catholic Origins of America, aside from highlighting other previous visitors, explains that Ericson,

'who was converted to the Catholic Faith by King Saint Olaf, took missionary monks with him on the voyage. Coastal Indians spoke to them of white, bearded men who wore robes and carried beads and crosses in procession.'

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For more information:

On Christopher Columbus' myths:

On Columbus as a Third Order Franciscan:

On Internet resources on Columbus:

On Columbus as Christoferens:

On Adam Miller's book:


  • Vanessa, Houston Roman Catholic Examiner 5 years ago

    Columbus, one of my favorite persons of history; thank you for information not widely known.