“If faith can make you feel a part of something bigger than yourself, so, too can an Italian family bearing the love of the ages.”
This line from My Cousin the Saint: A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles by Justin Catanoso (HarperCollins Publishers) pretty much sums up the central theme of this riveting memoir of sorts about the author’s discovery that he has saintly bloodlines.
When Justin Catanoso, a Pulitzer-nominated journalist, learned that his grandfather’s late cousin, Padre Gaetano Catanoso was a saint in the making, he becomes driven to get the facts straight. He decides to travel to Italy to interview Vatican officials about the beatification and canonization process and to meet some of his long-lost Italian relatives.
As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Catanoso’s fact-finding mission evolves into something more. The author finds himself on a personal journey of faith exploration that inspires him, if nothing more, to pay homage to his cousin, who like so many saints before him was simply an ordinary man with an extraordinary faith.
The book opens with a captivating prologue that recounts one of St. Gaetano’s miracles (I don’t want to be a story spoiler, so that’s all I say). Then the reader is thrust into the life of Padre Gaetano “the little donkey of Christ” and “a tireless advocate of the poor.” Catanoso juxtaposes details of Padre Gaetano’s life with that of his immigrant grandfather (Catanos’s dad’s father), who was busy pursuing the American dream and making a life for his family as an Italian grocer in New Jersey far away from his homeland. Catanoso manages to tie the two vast story’s threads together for the reader – even though the men lived wildly different lives on separate continents.
Both of the stories are firmly rooted in historical facts, but Catanoso does a brilliant job of writing in a lyrical, compelling way – so much so that you have to remind yourself you’re reading about real people, not characters in a gripping, plot-driven historical novel.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the book, especially learning about Padre Gaetno’s path to sainthood (if only we all saw suffering as a way to purify and sanctify us and to bring God’s mercy to us as this holy man did), the second half of the book where Catanoso not only begins connecting with his Italian ancestry but also with his faith was the highlight of the book for me.
Catanoso discovers his extended family still living in Italy and his familial tie to a saint around the same time he is watching his brother, Alan, die from cancer. In this time of revelation as well as loss, Catanoso cannot help but confront his own Catholic faith, which has been dormant for many years.
Catanoso describes himself as a “mostly lapsed, mostly doubtful Catholic” and considers his spiritual life as little more than an afterthought. He remembers the “forced march to Mass every Sunday.” He questions some of the Church’s teachings and in fact does indulge in a bit of rationalization by citing Garry Willis’s Why I Am a Catholic, a book that criticizes some of the core beliefs of Catholicism.
At first, I admit I “tsked, tsked” at the few passages that seemed to trivialize some of the Church’s teachings.
But then I stopped myself and realized I had no grounds to scorn this seeker. Really, who am I to judge? Haven’t I, like Catanoso, been Catholic in name only during parts of my life? Sure, I’ve always gone to Mass. But have I always really believed? Perhaps more importantly, have I always lived my faith even when my belief was strong?
The truth is I have my own share of spiritual shortcomings. I suspect most of the faithful do in one way or another. Earlier in my life, I even remember asking “Why should I believe?” when considering certain tenets of the faith.
Instead of finding criticism in his dubiety, I came to admire Catanoso’s raw honesty about his incertitude, about his often tenuous faith, and this humanness is perhaps what inspired me the most – even more than St. Gaetano’s documented miracles. Because Catanoso seems real. He is still seeking even as the book comes to a conclusion and isn’t that what we all must do – to not rest on our laurels and to continue to grow in our faith, no matter how small it may be at the present moment?
As a professional journalist, Catanoso admits his entire adult life has been about “asking questions and gathering details: evidence.” Ironically, it was his own saintly relative who believed you must illuminate the mind for the heart to follow. So, Catanoso, like so many fallen away Catholics is working on the illumination of the mind. This is a good start. May the heart follow… Because that’s what it ultimately takes: A faithful heart.
I only say this as someone who has, at times, also sought proof, certitude, and a more solid understanding in things pertaining to my faith. Throughout my spiritual life, I’ve often had to remind myself of the words of St. Augustine:
“Since it is God we are speaking of, we do not understand it. If we could not understand it, it would not be God.”
These same words are aptly included in Catanoso’s book.
Or, as a priest explains to Catanoso:
“For many people, there comes a time when you just start asking fewer questions because you accept that there are now answers to be had; you have to trust. You search and you search until ultimately, you have to say: ‘I believe.’ I don’t know if that’s going to happen to you. You’re a pragmatist. You’re a rationalist. You’re very American. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed. You have to be true to yourself. You have to be honest. But basically, it all comes down to one thing: Faith is a gift. Are you accepting the gift?”
Catanoso’s cousin the saint not only accepted this gift – he embraced it and made it a way of life. And with Padre Gaetano’s unwavering faith, his humility, his work on behalf of the poor as well as the physical suffering he endured from chronic health problems like arthritis and diabetes, he earned himself sainthood.
A friend of Gaetano, Monsignor Vincenzo Lembo said of the pious man after his death in 1963, “Indeed he was crazy, but he was crazy for God, like all great saints are.”
So maybe believers are crazy for believing in things beyond understanding, for having faith when there is no hard evidence, for putting our confidence in saints and their friendship with Christ even when most of us will never witness a saintly miracle, but I’d rather be crazy for God than go crazy without Him.
I may be guilty of (hopeful) presumption, but I have an inkling Catanoso feels the same way because thanks to this miracle-making relative and the other faithful relatives he met in Italy, he may have received a miracle of his own: The realization that there is most definitely something bigger than himself.
I recommend My Cousin the Saint. It’s a good read and from a more pragmatic standpoint, the book enlightened me about what it means to be a saint (both according to Vatican standards and in God’s eyes) as well as prodded me to reexamine what it means to be a faithful Catholic. It is a book for the faithful, the doubtful, and everyone in between.