Now that four centuries have sped since a Ligurian first, under God’s guidance, touched shores unknown beyond the Atlantic, the whole world is eager to celebrate the memory of the event, and glorify its author. Nor could a worthier reason be found where through zeal should be kindled. For the exploit is in itself the highest and grandest which any age has ever seen accomplished by man; and he who achieved it, for the greatness of his mind and heart, can be compared to but few in the history of humanity.
Therefore, amidst so lavish a display of honor, so unanimous a tribute of congratulations, it is fitting that the Church should not be altogether silent; since She, by custom and precedent, willingly approves and endeavors to forward whatsoever She see, and wherever She see it, that is honorable and praiseworthy. It is true She reserves Her special and greatest honors for virtues that most signally proclaim a high morality, for these are directly associated with the salvation of souls; but She does not, therefore, despise or lightly estimate virtues of other kinds.
But there is, besides, another reason, a unique one, why We consider that this immortal achievement should be recalled by Us with memorial words. For 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. … He was distinguished by this unique note, that in his work of traversing and re-traversing immense tracts of ocean, he looked for a something greater and higher than did these others [explorers].
Miserable it is to live in a barbarous state and with savage manners: but more miserable to lack the knowledge of that which is highest, and to dwell in ignorance of the one true God. Considering these things, therefore, in his mind, he sought first of all to extend the Christian name and the benefits of Christian charity to the West, as is abundantly proved by the history of the whole undertaking. For when he first petitioned Ferdinand and Isabella, the Sovereigns of Spain, for fear lest they should be reluctant to encourage the undertaking, he clearly explained its object: “That their glory would grow to immortality, if they resolved to carry the name and doctrine of Jesus Christ into regions so distant.” And in no long time having obtained his desires, he bears witness: “That he implores of God that, through His Divine aid and grace, the Sovereigns may continue steadfast in their desire to fill these new missionary shores with the truths of the Gospel.” He hastens to seek missionaries from Pope Alexander VI, through a letter in which this sentence occurs: “I trust that, by God’s help, I may spread the Holy Name and Gospel of Jesus Christ as widely as may be.” He was carried away, as we think, with joy, when on his first return from the Indies he wrote to Raphael Sanchez: “That to God should be rendered immortal thanks, Who had brought his labors such prosperous issues; that Jesus Christ rejoices and triumphs on earth no less than in Heaven, at the approaching salvation of nations innumerable, who were before hastening to destruction.”
And if he moved Ferdinand and Isabella to decree that only Catholic Christians should be suffered to approach the New World and trade with the natives, he brought forward as reason, “that he sought nothing from his enterprise and endeavor but the increase and glory of the Christian religion.” And this was well known to Isabella, who better than any had understood the great man’s mind; indeed it is evident that it had been clearly laid before that most pious, masculine-minded, and great-souled woman. For she had declared of Columbus that he would boldly thrust himself upon the vast ocean, “to achieve a most signal thing, for the sake of the Divine glory.” And to Columbus himself, on his second return, she writes: “That the expenses she had incurred, and was about to incur, for the Indian expeditions, had been well bestowed; for thence would ensure a spreading of Catholicism.”
He implored the Queen of Heaven to assist his efforts and direct his course; and he ordered that no sail should be hoisted until the Name of the Trinity had been invoked. … The very names he gave to the newly discovered islands tell the purposes of the man. At each disembarkation, he offered up prayers to Almighty God, nor did he take possession save “in the Name of Jesus Christ.” Upon whatsoever shores he might be driven, his first act was to set upon the shore the standard of the holy Cross: and the name of the Divine Redeemer, which he had so often sung on the open sea to the sound of the murmuring waves, he conferred upon the new islands. Thus at Hispaniola he began to build from the ruins of the temple, and all popular celebrations were preceded by the most sacred ceremonies.
Given at Rome, from St. Peter’s, on the 16th day of July, 1892, in the fifteenth year of Our Pontificate.