MY COUSIN THE SAINT
A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles
by Justin Calanoso

Archive for July, 2008

An extraordinary historian

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Mariotti
Chapter 18 of my book is titled “The Real Gaetano.” It describes my search while in Calabria two summers ago to find the man behind the saint, to gain insights into Padre Gaetano Catanoso that went beyond hagiography and into the heart and soul of the real human being who endured such difficult times in the first half of the 20th century. As I wrote:

“For weeks I would try occassionally, gently, to scrape off a bit of the saintly patina gilding the life of Padre Gaetano. I had this notion that I would recognize him more fully, and relate to him more clearly, if I could somehow glimpse the man who walked the earth like the rest of us, foibles and all…Yet who alive would know the real Gaetano? Who would be old enough now, forty-three years after the saint’s death, to have known him as a peer, not as a child? Who would have seen him through clear eyes in the context of his time and in concert with other priets toiling in the same troubled fields?”

Well, you’re looking at her here, on the left, Maria Mariotti, of Reggio Calabira, 91 at the time, and sharp and feisty as someone 30 years younger. I was led to her by Enza Catanoso, on the right, a cousin of mine. Maria Mariotti was a rare breed for her generation in Italy (or anywhere else, really) — a college-educated woman, a scholar and historian, independent and strong-willed. I spent an spellbinding morning with her, as my interpreter translated her wisdom and insight for me. Maria Mariotti knew the real Gaetano (“He was not the only priest doing good; don’t create these idols!”.) And she told me as much as she could.

The inset photo is of her desk in the modest and spare room, filled with books and papers and lit by a single bare light bulb, where we spoke with her.

Common sense

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

There is a chapter in my book called “Believe What You Can,” and it underscores a common-sense outlook for lapsed Catholics like myself who are interested in returning to church, but know there is much about Catholic teachings that we can never embrace or support. I came across two fine essays by thoughtful Catholics that give voice to a couple of issues that tend to keep many Catholics comfortably on the sidelines: the ban on contraception and voting issues.

Excerpt No. 1: “Catholics the world over support the use of contraception, and those who can access it use it. It would enable hundreds of thousands if not millions more families to make informed decisions about their futures if the church lifted this ban – not to mention the impact it would have on HIV prevention.”

Excerpt No. 2: “In 2008, the group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good have put out a very different voter guide. They list 10 key issues: Dignity of work, economy, environment, education, foreign policy, health care, immigration, Iraq war, life, and poverty. For each issue, they highlight some key positions held by both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama. There is no negative condemnation of either candidate.”

Miami, Houston and Pittsburgh

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

Last Saturday, the op-ed page of The Los Angeles Times carried an column I wrote regarding the old pope, the new pope, my favorite saint and the saint-making process. This weekend, that same column was picked up by the Miami Herald, the Houston Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Post-Gazette went the extra step of publishing a photo of Saint Gaetano Catanoso with the piece (thanks to op-ed page editor John Allison).

An excerpt: “A Catanoso saint? What kind of joke was this? Intrigued, I decided to look into this strange family phenomenon. I met with Vatican priests and interviewed relatives in the South of Italy for whom this distant cousin remains a powerful spiritual touchstone. In the process of learning about my relative, I learned plenty about why John Paul was so intent on making saints.”

A Houston reader wrote: “Pope John Paul II might have been a bit profligate in overseeing the canonization of so many saints, but I agree with Catanoso that his heart was in the right place. We Catholics here in America appreciate the Church elevating a few of our own, like the inspiring philanthropist Mother Katherine Drexel, to sainthood.”

The First Miracle

Sunday, July 27th, 2008


This video was shot in Chorio, a small village in the southern Aspromonte in Calabria. The saint and his cousin, Carmelo Catanoso, who was my grandfather, were both born there. My Uncle Tony is the star of this story. He calls it The First Miracle. It is, without doubt, one of my favorite stories in the book, taking place as it does during World War II — in Chorio. Sticklers should note: this miracle was not vetted by the pope’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

This video was shot and produced by UNC-Greensboro film professor Michael Frierson in Italy last March.

Iraq, Obama & McCain

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Thoughtful commentary at the Jesuit-led America magazine blog. An excerpt:

“Barack Obama’s tour of Afghanistan and Iraq is already paying dividends politically. The pictures of enthusiastic troops cheering him on were worth a thousand words: He is no peacenik a la Jane Fonda. Ditto the photos of Obama in a helicopter with General David Petraeus. They may not agree about strategy but they appeared to be enjoying each others’ company. And, standing alongside Obama in virtually every photograph is Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, giving a bipartisan glow to the trip.”

Read the whole story.

Rina remembers

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Rina Catanoso
Tonight at The Monti in Chapel Hill, I will tell the story of my Uncle Tony and how he came to find and meet his long-lost aunt during World War II in Chorio, the Calabrian village where his father was born. There’s a side story that I won’t tell but is in my book, and it centers on Rina Catanoso, the lovely Italian woman on the left. She remembered the day in 1944 when Uncle Tony showed up in the piazza in Chorio and the commotion it caused. Two summers ago, she invited me to her home in Messina, Sicily, to share the story. Others pictured here include her husband, who was held as a POW by Americans during the war, as well as her three daughters and son-in-law. Next to me is Patrizia Catanoso, my cousin from Reggio.

The News & Observer wrote about the Monti on Sunday.

Travel alert: the pleasures of Calabria

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

This is truly something you do not see every day, or hardly at all — a glowing story about travel in Italy not focused on Rome or Tuscany or Venice, but CALABRIA. Amazing. But that’s what today’s story in The Independent of London offers, without any equivocations or apologies. An excerpt:
Lungomare Regio Calabria
“While Tuscany can point to its Renaissance treasures, the Calabrians patiently explain the widespread evidence in their province of great and ancient civilisation. The Bronzi di Riace – full-size bronzes of Greek warriors found in the sea and on display in Reggio di Calabria, the regional capital – and the archaeological jewels of Locri Epizefiri, a walled Greco-Roman town – are held up as proof of Calabria’s status as the cradle of Italian civilisation. It is no coincidence that Calabria’s first indigenous tribe was called the Itali.

“Above all, Calabria, with its turquoise waters, hidden coves and ancient villages, is a place that rewards curiosity. Although their compatriots have long since discovered the region’s charms, it remains largely undiscovered by foreigners. The region, one of Italy’s poorest, is taking a new-found pride in the myriad treasures that have survived down the ages, cut off from the coach-party hordes by miles of twisting country roads.”

Read the whole story. The inset photo shows the coastline of Reggio along the Strait of Messina with Mount Etna looming beyond on the east coast of Sicily. Bella vista.

Apologies, calls for unity

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI
The Los Angeles Times reports: SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — Pope Benedict XVI chose this land of majestic natural beauty to condemn the squandering of the planet’s resources. He used a gathering of tens of thousands of Catholic youths to warn against sterile materialism and the exploitative manipulation of mass media and the Internet. But, as in his spring visit to the United States, one theme loomed over Benedict’s weeklong pilgrimage to Australia: the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

Read the whole story.

Los Angeles Times op-ed

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

The Los Angeles Times today carries a column I wrote about the new pope, the old pope and my favorite saint. Thanks to my good friend Frank Wilkinson, executive editor of The Week in New York, for motivation and editing assistance. The piece is here.

It starts like this: “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” George Orwell said. The Vatican lately seems to share Orwell’s skepticism.

Pope Benedict XVI has made no secret of his disdain for the high volume of saints named by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005. John Paul II conducted 482 canonizations, naming more saints in 26 years than his predecessors had canonized in the previous four centuries.

Since becoming pope, Benedict has stopped attending the elaborate beatification ceremonies in St. Peter’s Square, the last step before canonization, and has issued a call for “greater sobriety and rigor” in the process. Last week, he replaced the leader of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, an office that fully supported John Paul’s active saint-making philosophy. Vatican-watchers expect the new leader, Archbishop Angelo Amato, to throw more wrenches in the saint-making machinery.

So who need saints, anyway? That’s a question I take personally. Read the whole thing.

Sacred relics

Friday, July 18th, 2008


Relics are an important part of the Catholic faith, and an important part of the prayer life of true believers. In this video, shot in Calabria and North Carolina by my friend and filmmaker Michael Frierson, I talk about the relics relating to Padre Gaetano Catanoso. Several sacred relics from the saint were given to me as gifts from my Italian relatives — including one believed to have been involved in a healing miracle in Reggio Calabria