How We Discuss Imperfect Heroes with Kids

by | Oct 10, 2016 | Can of Worms, Catholic Living, Things I Think | 21 comments

Happy Columbus Day!

This is not a feast of the Catholic Church, of course, but it’s a national celebration (at least it WAS a celebration, now it’s more like one-more-excuse-to-be-mad-on-Facebook) of a Catholic person with admirable qualities and great failings, both. So how do we handle a figure like Christopher Columbus with our kids? The same way we do everything else: truthfully.

Christopher Columbus is not to be confused with St. Christopher. He has not been proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church. That means we don’t expect that he lived a life of heroic virtue. That means we shouldn’t be surprised when we find that he, like most of us, listened to his little shoulder devil more often than he should have.

Does that mean he cannot be an inspiration and a role model for our children? It does not.

Christopher Columbus (like the founding fathers, and various actors, musicians, and athletes who come into my children’s awareness) was given a GREAT GIFT BY GOD. He was smarter, and more determined, and more courageous than the people around him. God made him with a purpose, and because he corresponded with the gifts God gave him, Christopher Columbus lived a life of extraordinary adventure and accomplishment. He was a Catholic, and it’s clear from his journal entries, that he loved God and wished to glorify God through his discoveries.

However, he was also a very flawed human being. It appears that he allowed himself to care more for glory and riches for himself in this world than he did for knowing, loving, and serving God and preparing himself for eternal life.

He was a visionary, daring to attempt feats no one had attempted before. But he became so obsessed with finding a passage to India and China, that he never himself appreciated having discovered a New World!

He was an inspirational leader, able to rally his men in the face of great hardship. He was also a  ruthless leader, resorting to very cruel punishments.

He was a Catholic who valued his faith and wished to bring it to the people of the world. But he seems never to have really viewed the native people of the Americas as worthy of the respect and dignity due every human person. He tricked and enslaved and mistreated Native Americans in a shameful way. He impersonated a god in order to bend them to his will. That’s a real no-no for Catholics.

Despite his great gifts, at the end of his life he was an unhappy, unsatisfied man.

He should have taken his own advice: “No one should fear to undertake any task in the name of Our Savior if it is just and if the intention is purely for His holy service.”

So, in our home, we discuss Christopher Columbus as an American Hero (from Italy via Portugal) with very real human failings. We talk about how he could have handled his life differently, how he COULD have lived his life to merit being called St. Christopher, Christ-bearer. We hope and pray that, at the end of his life, he took responsibility for his failings and made a good confession and received the sacraments and that he is in heaven today.

We talk about St. Brendan, a Catholic who visited the Americas eight hundred years before Columbus and didn’t trick or enslave ANYONE. Someone who DID live a life of heroic virtue.

And we use this same method to discuss Olympic athletes who have mind-blowing physical gifts, but appear to be less-than-humble, and singers with angelic voices and terrible judgement, and founding fathers with an amazing intellect and admirable vision and self-sacrifice, who allowed and/or perpetrated the bondage of other human beings at the founding of our nation.

The term “devil’s advocate” is taken from a role formerly used in the canonization process in our Roman Catholic Church. In 1587, Pope Sixtus V established a process involving canon attorneys in the roles of Promoter of the Faith or Devil’s Advocate. The devil’s advocate person argued against the canonization (sainthood) of a candidate in order to uncover any character flaws or misrepresentation of the evidence favoring canonization.

Saint Pope John Paul II reduced the power and changed the role of the office in 1983.

St. JPII doesn’t want us to be devil’s advocates. I’m pretty sure he’d want us to be honest about people’s flaws, but not dwell on them, and certainly not deny the obvious gifts that God has given some people, just because they’re total knuckleheads in other aspects of their lives.

My kids see my failings every day, on good days they see their own failings. But I don’t want them to define me or themselves by only our failures. I want them to search for the good in everyone. I want them to find inspiration everywhere.

 . . . . .

And, I’m back! But not really. Thank you all, my dear readers, for your patience as I disappeared from the blog here. It turns out that I DO have a maxed out point and remodeling a house + keeping said house clean + looking after a husband and eight kids and their food and clothing related needs + homeschooling five grades + driving and volunteering for one in regular school + writing a book is it for me. Something had to give and it was this. But I miss it SO MUCH, and this particular post has been bouncing around in my head for months and months and finally burst out of me this morning.

In addition to all the very real and pressing concerns in our world, would you please say a prayer for me as I try to get this book written by December? So many of you have told me you would appreciate a book on how we live our faith and the liturgical year in our home, and I’ve wanted to write one ever since I started the blog. But I am having a terrible time trying to focus on getting it done in the midst of the rest of my crazy life and all my personal failings. I have yet to resort to trickery and enslavement, but I have wasted a LOT of time on Facebook and Netflix.

Also, despite me being a TERRIBLE blogger at the moment, at least one of you saw fit to nominate me as one of the best at the Fisher’s Net Awards. There’s really no accounting for you guys. Probably you should vote for Bonnie or Haley instead of me, but that’s your call. Double cheek kisses for everyone.


  1. Martianne

    Love this piece and will be sharing it – also so respect your need to take a break. We can all learn from that as we try to balance life, prioritizing our main callings. 🙂

  2. AnneMarie

    This is great! Growing up, I loved watching the CCC video about him…but when I grew older, I found out that countless people like to use his flaws to discredit all of his great attributes or achievements. I really dislike how in our current society, people seem so ready to demonize anyone who makes a bad judgment, even in the Catholic world. You'll read awesome things by a Catholic writer or speaker, but the minute they say or do something unorthodox, suddenly, all that they have said and written becomes unsuitable and unable to be recommended to others. And that's just not cool, or very Catholic. I love how JPII really focused on the fact that yes, we're concupiscent people, we are also redeemed by God and have the ability to glorify Him in our deeds!

  3. mel

    So glad to see you post! write that booook!

  4. Kara Warme

    Love this post! This morning over pancakes (no school!) with Nana & Grandad I fumbled through an explanation of Columbus to the girls. Wish I had read this first!

  5. Ann-Marie Ulczynski

    Yay! That's a great post. My six year old has started asking me about each person we read about, "so, was he/she a good person or a bad person?" This will help me give an answer. Many prayers for you as you finish the book. How exciting! I look forward to reading it whenever that may be.

  6. Elisa BlissfulE

    Ah, the keeping said house clean. I'm pretty sure that's the only aspect of moving to a bigger place that I'm not excited about… Prayers for you as you write this next book!!!

  7. Lizzie

    We can wait for for you 🙂
    Best of luck with the book. It's like having a baby, so much work.

  8. Elaine M

    Oh oh oh you're back! I have missed your posts soooooo much any totally understand your absence. Don't see how you do so much. Hugs and prayers are sent your way.


    So glad you're back and hope it can be more often after the book is finished–prayers for sure!

    I love the basic approach to discussing imperfect achievers from history but I am afraid in Columbus' case his behavior was so utterly horrific as to disqualify him from being considered heroic or an exemplary Catholic even for his own time. Please look at this brief explanation giving the historical facts and proposing Fr. Bartolome de Las Casas as a much better choice for a Catholic hero of the time and place. Thanks so much for considering.

    • Leah

      Second Fr. Bartolome de las Casas from a theology student over here! He exemplified Christ's call to defend "the least of these" and followed his example of calling to account the religious/military elite for their horrific treatment of the native peoples.
      Glad to see you back!

  10. Olivia Larocque

    You have so much on your plate! Praying for you to keep it all balanced and reach your goal!

  11. Melanie Wittorf

    I was so delighted to see you had a new post!! Your words of wisdom and logical approach to things is always so refreshing in this crazy world. I will be praying for you and the progress of your book. It seems when we are doing God's work the distractions get louder, but living out the liturgical life with so much love, as you share here in this space, gives God such glory. You have opened my eyes to such a beautiful way of sharing our faith on a daily basis with our kids and I am very grateful for that! Blessings to you and your family and again, so good to be reading your words!

  12. us

    You are back!!!!!!! So good to see you post here again. Can't wait to see some more progress pictures on the house.

  13. Jean

    So glad you're back! I wish that we had this post last year when my son's class discussed Columbus, but I'm glad that we'll have it for next year when my daughter is in that same class! Best wishes on the book. I look forward to reading it.

  14. Andrea and all her wisdom

    I was very happy to see a new post from you. I think that in referring to Columbus' as a 'knucklehead' and his actions as 'no-no's' you are minimizing mass killings and maimings, terrible pain, and atrocities. That these actions were taken or directed by someone who sees himself as a man of God should not blind us to the less inspiring reality that bad people can do great things as opposed to your message which seems to be great people can do bad things. I will tell my children that it is preferable to live humbly, choosing goodness over greatness, than daring greatly if it comes at the cost of other people's human dignity. Greatness without kindness, without empathy for all others is no virtue worth valuing even if the gifts for greatness are coming from God.

  15. Jada Lagos

    Best article on how to handle flawed people with incredible heroic choices. I love how you stressed showing imperfection and ordinary human traits can be found in others even inspirational heroes, but that you don't demonize them by only focusing on their list of flaws. No need to be a Devil's advocate, but no need to make them any greater. We view them as normal human beings who made heroic choices, and could have made even greater choices had they put God in the center of any goal they wish to achieve.

  16. Jeska Goldfox

    You're brushing off genocide as "he made some mistakes." That's pretty outrageous – will pray 4 u

    • Kendra

      I sincerely appreciate your prayers.

      However, throwing around words like genocide when they aren't applicable amounts to calumny, which is a sin.

      The term genocide was coined in 1944 very specifically in order to indicate violent crimes committed against groups with the intent to destroy the existence of the group. Columbus hoped to profit by the labor of Native Americans, he certainly didn't wish to destroy them.

      If you read the post, which I think maybe you didn't, you'll see that I would never deny Columbus' very real and grave failings. Some were a product of his own character flaws, some were a result of him being unable to rise about the prejudices of his age, which is a very common failing. He tricked and abused and enslaved people of both European and Native American descent. That was wrong. It wasn't a "mistake." I would never characterize his behavior in that way.

      He inadvertently contributed to the deaths of countless Native Americans through exposure to diseases, but he couldn't have been expected to know that would be a consequence of his journey to the New World. That, I guess, would be a mistake.

      But doing bad things doesn't cancel out his admirable qualities any more than your faults or mine cancel out anything we may have managed to accomplish in spite of them. To deny his achievements today is just as wrong as the many many years our society spent denying his faults. Let's just be truthful. No more, no less.

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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