My Cousin the Saint: A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles by Justin Catanoso

This month, my book club read My Cousin the Saint by Justin Catanoso. Because he lives in Greensboro, we were lucky enough to be able to have him come to talk with us when we had our discussion, so I waited to write it up until I heard what he had to say.

After learning that his grandfather’s cousin, Padre Gaetano Catanoso, was beatified and on the track to sainthood, Justin Catanoso’s interest was sparked and he began learning about family in Italy that he never knew he had. As he researched Padre Gaetano, he was faced with new ideas about faith, miracles, and family (as the subtitle describes) and the question: What does it mean to have a saint in the family?

At book club on Thursday, one of the other members mentioned that he found the beginning of My Cousin the Saint, which was focused more on the history of his family and of the saint, a little bit dry. I was playing my usual “be quiet in the corner” role, but I felt that way as well. My favorite part of the book was Catanoso’s spiritual journey, especially when he talked about his brother Alan’s battle with cancer and how his family begged Padre Gaetano for a miracle. I’m not Catholic, and I don’t pray to saints, but when my dad had cancer, we prayed for a miracle. And I think I believe in miracles, but like Catanoso, our family had to look for a different sort of miracle than the one we were hoping for. In his case, throughout the course of Alan’s illness, another brother, one without a strong faith, served Alan in a very Christlike way. At Alan’s funeral, Catanoso claimed that was the miracle their family received, seeing one brother care for another in such a selfless way, and that even though it wasn’t the ending he was hoping for, what he saw ultimately strengthened his faith.

I feel a bit of that about my own brother and how he responded to our father’s illness and death. At Dad’s funeral, it was as if he became a man right in front of me, and since then I have seen him give of himself out of incredible care and compassion. Last year on Father’s Day, I said that I know our Dad is proud of him and how he cares for us, and after reading the book, I think I could draw a parallel and say that, in many ways, Joseph has been the miracle we received.

There were other parts of the book that I connected with – I was especially amused by the part where Catanoso’s spiritual mentor recommended that he stay away from the woman who would become his wife, Laurelyn Dossett, because she comes from a family of Baptists. Mike is not Catholic, but I couldn’t help smirking a bit at that section, because his parents had similar objections to my Baptist background. I also liked what Catanoso explored in the book and in his talk – the idea that saints are, more than anything, simply role models for the rest of us. I have always been a little bit fascinated by the idea of saints, and I was touched by the faith that Catanoso’s family has that when a family member passes away, Padre Gaetano is there to help usher him or her into heaven.

As I was writing this, I saw a review on Amazon that said that this book is the weakest when Catanoso focuses on himself rather than his family. I feel just the opposite, maybe because I am so drawn to stories of spiritual journeys and maybe because I could picture him and his life here in Greensboro a little bit easier than I could picture his relatives and their lives in Italy.

There are other aspects of the book that I haven’t really touched on – the immigrant experience, reconnecting with distant family, watching the process of canonization as it took place. I enjoyed all of that, but I recommend this for people who enjoy spiritual memoirs, especially if you share my interest or fascination with saints.

For fans of: Though very different, people who enjoyed My Life With the Saints will probably also enjoy My Cousin the Saint.

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