One Saturday after mowing the lawn, Justin Catanoso flipped through the day's mail when he spotted an envelope from his mother. Inside was a translated document about a priest named Gaetano Catanoso, whom the Roman Catholic Church wanted to elevate to the sainthood.
"Thought you'd be interested," his mother wrote on a sticky note.
But who was this Padre Gaetano Catanoso? Was he related? And even if so, could it be possible that someone of his own flesh and blood was worthy of sainthood?
A journalist working in Greensboro, Catanoso looked over the document with a skeptic's eye and tossed it aside. But the mystery of Gaetano Catanoso soon launched Justin Catanoso on a journey toward family and faith that few Italian-Americans ever undertake.
In the process, he learned he was, indeed, related to Gaetano. And a whole clan of Catanosos, including his grandfather, Carmelo, hailed from a small town called Chorio in Calabria, a region of Italy located at the tip of the boot, across the strait from Sicily.
In the six years since getting that envelope, Catanoso discovered an extended family centered on a short, stocky priest who demonstrated how to persevere and keep a strong faith. And it forced him to ask how he, a lapsed Catholic who grew up in New Jersey and married a Protestant, could incorporate his newfound heritage in his life.
"I've got a Catholic role model," Catanoso said. "I feel very fortunate about that, and I've taken a few steps down a very long road."
One big step is a book, "My Cousin the Saint: A Search for Faith, Family and Miracles" (William Morrow, $29.95). In it, Catanoso traces the saint's life in contrast to his own ambivalent Catholic experience growing up as the son of a second-generation Italian-American couple who were always looking forward -- never back.
The book begins with the lives of two contemporaries -- a country priest named Gaetano and a U.S. immigrant named Carmelo.
The two men, second cousins, both born before the turn of the 20th century, took divergent paths out of the hardscrabble poverty of the Italian countryside. One became a widely renowned priest, "the little donkey of Christ," as he liked to call himself, devoted to sacrifice and charity. The other became a successful New Jersey grocer and the father of nine children.
Gaetano (1879-1963) entered the seminary at age 10 and began serving as a priest to the downtrodden and illiterate of Calabria in 1904. His favorite gospel story was about Veronica, the woman from Jerusalem who wiped Jesus' face with her veil. That act of compassion was one he sought to emulate when he founded a nun's order called the Sisters of St. Veronica of the Holy Face. His nuns started schools, orphanages and nursing homes.
Meanwhile, Carmelo (1887-1941) left for New York City in search of a better life. He married a fellow Italian immigrant and eventually became a grocer, selling cans of tomato sauce, jars of olives and boxes of pasta -- most of them from Italy. When he became a U.S. citizen in 1922, he turned his back on his homeland forever.
With the exception of Carmelo's eldest son, Anthony, who served briefly in Italy during World War II, none of the children met their relatives in Italy. And none had heard of Padre Gaetano until Anthony got word in 1997 that the priest with their last name had been beatified -- the first step toward sainthood.
Six years later, it was Justin Catanoso who decided to take his wife and three daughters on an Italian vacation and drop in on relatives he had discovered via e-mail. Catanoso figured he and his family would spend two days in Calabria with his cousins and then head to Florence.
"It turned out to be a warm and loving embrace by total strangers who were waiting for us as though they knew us already and couldn't wait to pull us into their lives," Catanoso said.
A hard time in the faith
While he was thrilled with his newfound family, he was still having a hard time with his faith. Though he attended a Roman Catholic church as a boy and later a Catholic high school, Catanoso drifted from religion. The death of his brother, Alan, in 2004, led to an even deeper crisis of faith. He struggled to understand why Padre Gaetano had reportedly performed miracles for some but was not able to intercede with Jesus to cure Alan's brain cancer.
Still Catanoso and his extended family all boarded planes to Rome for Gaetano's canonization on Oct. 23, 2005. The ceremony at St. Peter's Square led by Pope Benedict XVI included about 60 U.S. Catanosos and hundreds of Italian Catanosos. Standing in the crowd amid the drama and pageantry of the day, Justin Catanoso felt he could no longer avoid the faith that had nurtured his Italian and American families for so long.
"It's really easy to bail on the religion for a lot of really valid reasons," he said. "I decided not to do that."
He was helped along by a providential phone call. A three-minute radio commentary he had written about being the cousin of a saint had just aired on National Public Radio and was heard by a literary agent who called and persuaded him to write a book proposal.
An advance from publisher Judith Regan allowed him to go to Italy for an extended stay to research his cousin and find out whether the holy man was really worthy of becoming a saint.
Ultimately, he found that his cousin was not just one of the 482 men and women whose cause for sainthood was pushed by Pope John Paul II. He was also an extraordinary priest in the tenacity and consistency of his service under harsh conditions. More important, he did what saints are supposed to do. He served as a role model, showing people it was possible to live a generous, patient life of faith regardless of one's circumstances.
Rejoining the church
Now back in Greensboro, Catanoso juggles two jobs, as executive editor of the Business Journal of the Triad and adjunct journalism professor at Wake Forest University. Recently, he also joined St. Pius X Catholic Church.
He still doesn't believe everything the faith teaches, but he's following the advice of a mentor who said "believe what you can."
"Am I going to have a conversion experience, or rush out to have my kids baptized? I don't think so," said Catanoso. But he said he's trying to learn how to have a deeper spiritual life. Having a saint in the family, he concluded, is like being handed a gift.
"I'm in the process of accepting the gift," he said. "I'm leaving myself open to where it will take me."
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