When The Catholic Gene premiered last month, I promoted the site by describing us authors as friends who share a love for both genealogical research and the Roman Catholic faith. Then I remembered – didn’t I once hear about a book on both topics? If there was ever a book that was perfectly suited for this blog, it would be My Cousin the Saint by Justin Catanoso. Published in 2008, it was neglected on my “to be read” list ever since. Fortunately, I remedied that by reading it to review here – and I’m sorry it took me so long to get to it because it’s an inspiring story for anyone interested in either the church, family history, or both topics.
In learning about his family’s Italian Catholic heritage, the author discovered a rather interesting fact – his grandfather’s cousin was on the road to bona fide sainthood in the Catholic Church. What is it like to have a saint in your family? Catanoso digs deeper to learn more about this saintly relation, and in the process he learns about family, faith, and miracles.
A miracle maker? In our family? Could this really be possible? How come I had never heard of this person before? And even if I had, my Catholic moorings were so tenuous that I had little means to make sense of something so incredible.
Catanoso’s grandfather’s story is one that many genealogists can relate to no matter their country of origin. At age sixteen, Carmelo Catanoso arrived at Ellis Island in 1903 in an effort to find a better life than the harsh conditions in his homeland – in his case, southern Italy (Calabria). Once here, he never looked back. Carmelo’s story is the typical American success story – and, like so many of our grandparents and great-grandparents, he became an American and spoke little of his humble roots or the family he left behind.
One of the family members back in Italy was Gaetano Catanoso, Carmelo’s first cousin. Gaetano’s life led down a different path – he became a priest. Rather than escaping the poverty and suffering like so many emigrants, Padre Gaetano saw his mission in life as an opportunity to help those who were suffering. The author describes the Padre’s call as a simple yet radical idea: “Through trust and prayer you can build your faith and soon life your own life above the muck of despair.” In a land and time where “trust no one” was a more apropos motto, the young priest slowly changed hearts, minds, and souls. In sixty years as a priest he became a humble example of faith and piety, founded an order of nuns, and was remembered years after his death for his love for God and others.
My Cousin the Saint explores several different themes. First is the family story and uncovering the mysteries of ancestors. Where did they come from? Why did they leave their homeland? What was it like? Genealogists are well familiar with these questions. While this isn’t a book about research methods or sources, Catanoso’s story to learn more about his grandfather’s roots and his journey to meet his previously unknown cousins is one that most family researchers will find familiar.
A second theme is the process of sainthood – what is a saint anyway? And how does one become a saint? Why do we even need saints? Catanoso explores the meaning of sainthood and the church’s process to formally recognize individuals who have led saintly lives through canonization. The topics of miracles and intercessory prayer become personal when tragedy befalls Catanoso’s family.
Finally, the book is about the saint. St. Gaetano Catanoso may be the author’s cousin and he may have inspired the author to reconnect to his own Catholic faith, but the Padre’s story is one that will inspire all of us. Catanoso feels a personal connection to his cousin and calls him “a new prism through which to view life, a model of goodness to strive for, a rock to stand upon in times of sorrow.” Personally, I was struck by the Padre’s catchphrase of “in domino” – in God, always in God. His trust in God and his desire to help others in need motivates me and reminds me to place my trust in God more than I do.
In a small way, Catanoso’s family story reminded me of the parallel path of two cousins in my Polish Catholic family. My great-grandfather emigrated to the U.S. in 1907 and labored in the textile factories of Philadelphia. His first cousin stayed in Poland and became a soldier, a painter, and ultimately a resistance fighter against the Nazi regime. He was imprisoned for his resistance work and died at Auschwitz in 19 42 while his wife and son were put to death in two other camps. I don’t know if the cousin was a saint or led a saintly life, but I do know that he was a hero – and his story is one that the American cousins were never told.
My Cousin the Saint is about one man’s journey and how both family and faith affect him on his way. We all have different families, we come from different cultures, and we may even have different faiths. But traveling along with Justin Catanoso on his journey will delight and inspire you – and perhaps even teach you something about faith, family, and miracles.
St. Gaetano Catanoso, pray for us!
For more information:
My Cousin the Saint by Justin Catanoso. HarperCollins Publishers. 2008. Hardcover 978-0-06-123102-5; Paperback 978-0-06-172932-4.
Biography of St. Gaetano Catanoso – Vatican web site
Book and author web site