An Italian-American writer embarks on an inspiring journey in search of faith and family after learning that Pope John Paul II has put his Italian cousin on the pathway to sainthood.
Like millions of other Italians in the early twentieth century, Justin Catanoso’s grandfather immigrated to America to escape poverty and hardship. Nearly a hundred years later, Justin, born and raised in New Jersey, knows little of his family beyond the Garden State. Growing up Italian-American meant macaroni on Sunday and going to Mass, but for the most part, the family embraces American culture wholeheartedly.
For Justin, that is enough.
That changes in 2001 when he discovers that his grandfather’s cousin, Padre Gaetano Catanoso, is a Vatican-certified miracle worker. After a life of serving the poor and founding an order of nuns, Gaetano had been approved by Pope John Paul II to become a saint, the first priest from Calabria, ever to be canonized. A typically lapsed American Catholic, Justin embarks on a quest to connect with his extended family in southern Italy, and ultimately, to awaken his slumbering faith.
My Cousin the Saint charts the parallel history of two relatives—Justin’s grandfather, Carmelo, and his sainted cousin, Gaetano. While Carmelo leaves his homeland to pursue New World prosperity, Gaetano stays behind to relieve Old World misery. Justin reunites the two halves of a sundered family by both exploring the life of the saint in Calabria and uncovering the untold story of his grandfather’s family raised in New Jersey between two World Wars.
Justin confronts his own tenuous spiritual moorings in the process. After meeting with Vatican officials in Rome, he is astonished by the complexity of saint-making. After hearing one miracle story after another, he struggles with the line between the mystical and the divine. After seeing his brother fall ill with terminal cancer, he questions the value of prayer. And after reveling in the charm and generosity of his newfound Italian relatives, he comes to learn what it means to have a saint in the family.
A compelling narrative written with grace and honesty, My Cousin the Saint is a testament to the challenge of being Catholic in twenty-first-century America. More than a biography, more than an immigrant memoir, more than a chronicle of renewed faith – it is a love letter to a family now reunited across oceans and years.
On Oct. 20, 2005, I delivered a bittersweet commentary on National Public Radio titled “Our Cousin the Saint.” In 500 words, I tried to articulate some powerful forces that had been stirring in me for nearly two years. In late 2003, my family and I traveled to Italy and were lovingly embraced by long-lost relatives I never knew I had. One relative I learned about for the first time was Gaetano Catanoso, a contemporary of my grandfather’s, born in the same tiny Calabrian village. He had been a priest for 60 years, and his service to the poor had been so extraordinary that he had been beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1997. At the time of our visit, he was one miracle shy of sainthood.
In 2004, back in the United States, my family found itself in desperate need of a miracle. My older brother Alan had been diagnosed with brain cancer, which took his life by Christmas of 2004. My NPR commentary aired ten months later, just three days before Gaetano’s canonization in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. In that piece, I spoke about my brother, my Italian relatives and whether our soon-to-be sainted relative had in any way answered our prayers. I had written elements of this story previously in several national magazines, including Attaché and The Catholic Digest. I thought I was done with it.
But listening to my commentary in California was Randi Murray, a literary agent. She believed she heard the makings of a book and called to ask if I was interested in pursuing the story. I was flattered. And doubtful. I tried to put her off. I was busy. I have a wife and three daughters. I have two jobs — running a newspaper, teaching at a university. I had plenty of reasons to say no. But during the canonization ceremony in St. Peter’s Square, where I was surrounded by relatives as well as pilgrims from around the world, I remembered being moved to ponder so many things I didn’t have answers to: Where was my brother? What happened to my Catholic faith? Who was this saint in our family and why had I gone most of my life having no idea he ever existed? What does it mean to have someone so holy in the family tree? Does it mean anything?
That call from Randi Murray soon came to feel more like a gift, the means by which I could possibly set out in search of some answers. I put aside any notions that my now-sainted cousin was working his intercessory powers through a Jewish literary agent (even though my mother certainly believes that St. Gaetano has guided this entire project!). But I did come to believe Randi’s initial instincts when she insisted that there really was a good story in all of this. An editor at HarperCollins thought so, too. I was offered a contract on March 10, 2006, and soon got started.
How I Got the Story
While my story sits within the context of a couple of centuries of Italian history and Catanoso family history, much of the contemporary action takes place between 2003 and early 2007. I started simply enough, sitting down for hours with my father, Leonard Catanoso, then 85. With my digital voice recorder running, I asked him questions about the large family in which he grew up in South Philadelphia and North Wildwood, New Jersey, between two world wars. I spent long hours interviewing my elderly aunts and uncles as well, hearing their own unique perspectives on their immigrant parents, their upbringing, and their dreams and aspirations as first-generation Italian-Americans. They were so generous with their insight and memories, and shared with me old photos, family letters and historical documents. Slowly, a rich and resonant story emerged that I barely knew existed.
Of course, special research and travel was required. To learn why saints are needed and how one becomes a saint, I spent several days in Rome in June 2006 and interviewed three vastly experienced Vatican saint makers – all members of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Then I headed deep into the toe of the boot of Italy– the region of Calabria — for nearly a month. That’s when I slowly came to understand the life of the saint and the extraordinary way he still lives in so many of my relatives, of all ages. Along with searching for the remnants of my own faith, I was also hunting for clues as to why my grandfather was among the very few Catanosos to emigrate, leaving Calabria in 1903 as a teen-ager, and ultimately making my American birth possible. I learned and experienced so much.
People the world over are charmed by the kind of humor and hospitality, the kind of love and simple zest for life that is purely Italian — la dolce vita. I was fully immersed in all of it, with the added benefit of being surrounded by newfound relatives. I also spent a morning with the recipient of a Vatican-sanctioned miracle, Anna Pangallo, and later interviewed her doctor, Giuseppe Bolignano, who had given her up for dead. I heard miracle stories from many Catanoso cousins. I shared long meals lovingly prepared and had in-depth conversations, through a trusted interpreter, about their faith and our family. I amused them with my own fractured Italian, limited both in scope and verb tenses. And tragically, I mourned with them as well, as the family patriarch died suddenly during my visit.
By the end of my month in Italy in the summer of 2006, and coupled with a couple of years of research, I knew I had a powerful story to tell — a story of faith, family and miracles.