My Cousin the Saint
by Justin Catanoso
William Morrow, 337 pp.
If someone says a word aloud enough times in succession, the word stops making sense and you have to reconsider it. The same is true for phrases, and there's one that echoes around Justin Catanoso's memoir, My Cousin the Saint: "Miracle worker," and its cousins, like "work a miracle."
Catanoso, a Greensboro journalist, is related to a certified miracle worker. Padre Gaetano Catanoso, who died in 1963, was a parish priest in the rugged Calabria region of southern Italy, and he was later beatified for healing the sick. But before you get too excited for his Tar Heel cousin, remember (as the author does) that Pope John Paul II canonized more saints (482) in his 26-year papacy than all the popes combined in the previous four centuries. He was criticized for turning the Vatican into a politically driven assembly line for saint manufacture.
Catanoso's job is thus doubly difficult: For one, saints make for inert protagonists, because flawlessness is anathema to drama; and second, this saint has been blessed with diluted holy water.
As the book progresses, though, it becomes clear that the protagonist isn't Padre Gaetano at all, but the author himself. Having chanced to learn that he has a sainted relative, Catanoso begins a long odyssey of travel, doubt, revelation, grieving and growing that occupies the rest of My Cousin the Saint.
Although Catanoso often shows us his skeptical-journalist card (he's a Pulitzer nominee and the executive editor of the Triad's Business Journal), the combination of his ardent earnestness and his felicitous discoveries mark him as a man who wants very much to believe—partially for the very reason that he seems to keep finding only good news everywhere he looks. Even when people close to him die, there's uplift at the end.
There's little external friction anywhere in My Cousin the Saint, save for the author's easily vanquished uncertainty.
In the urgent immediacy and excitement of a narrative that unfolds at breathless speed and in workaday journalistic prose, Catanoso plunges headlong through multiple trips to Italy to meet relatives and attend ceremonies; through exhaustive family and personal histories; through long sicknesses and deaths; and through a dizzying array of Catanosos on both sides of the Atlantic. Nearly all involved (including every single one of his innumerable family members) are goodhearted, intelligent, virtuous and winning. There's not a single bad apple, it seems, in his entire clan—a point driven home near the very end of the book when the author spends a month in Calabria. Interviewing every Catanoso he can scare up, he concludes that he comes from a "good" family, and that it is good because of his justly sainted cousin, the beacon of Catanosos the world over—or their "point of reference," as the family phrases it.
The lesson Catanoso doesn't seem aware that he's learning, though, might be the most important in the book. In his mad dash toward belief and belonging—that is, in pursuit of his cousin's miracle—he does an almost unthinkable amount of work. There is the heavy lifting of luggage carried on transatlantic journeys, of sick and dead bodies, of weighty grief and spiritual inquiry. How many hours of labor has Justin Catanoso—indeed, all of the Catanosos—logged for Padre Gaetano, in thanks for his miracles and in prayer for more? Whole books, whole lives have been dedicated to him who toiled all his impecunious hours on earth for the poor and the punished.
My Cousin the Saint is a reminder that the word "work" is as crucial as "miracle" in the phrases they share. But in order to work those miracles, we probably all need that "point of reference": that person who keeps us in line, who keeps us striving and growing, who keeps us faithful and in thrall to the goodness of life—whether that person is Jesus or a saint or a spouse, or some more distant light. Love is never enough and faith is never enough: If a miracle has already happened, it's surely because work was done. And if you need another one, you have to do what Justin Catanoso did. Figure out what your work is, and do that.
Justin Catanoso speaks at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, at an event hosted by The Order Sons of Italy at the Knights of Columbus, 4301 Columbus Drive, Raleigh. Admission is $10. Visit www.trianglesonsofitaly.org for more information.