My Cousin the Saint by Justin Catanoso

Yes, we’ve talked about My Cousin the Saint: A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles by Justin Catanoso here (with Justin’s guest post) and here, but now I’m posting a full review because I got a copy in the mail a few weeks ago and devoured this book. It’s just that good.

What would you do if you found out that your grandfather’s cousin in southern Italy was about to become a saint?

When this happened to Justin Catanoso, he went on a mission to find the miracles his cousin performed (both Vatican-sanctioned and internal family stories), his long-lost extended family in Calabria, and his own lapsed Catholic faith.

What emerged from his journey is a wonderfully written, engaging book that reminded me a lot of Gay Talese’s Unto the Sons, one of my favorites in this genre, not only because of the Calabrian setting but also because of the family tales told from impressively objective viewpoints.

Even though Justin is in Italy for much of the book, his family back in the States plays a large role; they are so obviously a cherished, integral part of his life. The parts of the book about Justin’s brother Alan, who died of cancer leaving behind a wife and young children, are some of the most poignant and touching in the book, and rightfully so. It seems this event, possibly more than all the other reasons Justin might have had, pushed Justin to come to Italy in search of miracles–particularly as it seemed one had been denied his own family despite prayers to their cousin the saint.

As for the saint, Justin does a fantastic job of detailing Padre Gaetano Catanoso’s rise to sainthood from his early days as a traveling parish priest to the founder of an order of nuns. I’m not religious, but I admit I love saints and their stories–and now I particularly love Padre Gaetano. Sure the fact that he’s the first saint from Calabria in 500 years means he has a special place in my heart, but it’s more than that.

Padre Gaetano was, to me with my Roman Catholic upbringing, what priests should be–humble, devoted, pious, and, quite simply, simple. Not simple-minded by any means, as he was obviously an intelligent man with his volumes of writing, but simple. He lived in near poverty his entire life when surely he could have moved on to higher offices and better conditions than those in Calabria.

But Padre Gaetano remained faithful and committed to preaching to his fellow Calabrese–they who have such interesting mixes of beliefs from intense devotion to the Virgin Mary to the belief in malocchio. He even shunned the appellation “Don,” keeping the humble term “Padre,” showing his deep connection with his parishioners.

I also enjoyed Justin’s tales of finding of his Calabrian family and becoming one of their own. I laughed out loud when Justin was presented with a box of family photos by his aunt; I had a remarkably similar experience when I started researching my family history.

“Take whatever you want,” his aunt said, as did mine.

I found my great-great-grandfather’s US citizenship papers, which started my path to Italian citizenship and to living in Italy; Justin found a photo of his Uncle Tony, who had gone AWOL in World War II to go find his aunt in Calabria only knowing her name–and he found her! This is often referred to as the first miracle of Padre Gaetano among family members.

Through Justin’s words, I was right there with him and his Calabrian family in both good times and bad from the canonization ceremony in St. Peter’s Square to his newly found relative’s funeral. Justin’s descriptions are vivid and moving but not over the top, offering the perfect balance so that scenes are emotional, yet not overly nostalgic and cliché.

But the aspect I enjoyed most in this book is Justin’s personal journey of faith or lack thereof. Probably because I can identify with Justin as someone brought up Catholic but no longer practicing for a variety of reasons, I loved the way Justin handled this delicate subject with candor, honesty, and such rawness, exposing his thoughts and doubts about the religion in which he was raised.

And so Justin explores this old religion, returns to church, talks to priests, reads up on the subject, and clearly thinks about it, a lot–and then he shares the experiences with us, step by step. I love reading about spiritual journeys, and Justin delivers.

I can imagine for the sake of the book, he may have felt pressured to offer up his conclusions with a pretty bow: the prodigal son returns to the Catholic faith because there’s a saint in the family! Score one for Catholicism!

But that’s not what happened with Justin, and even though it would make for a nice television movie, that’s not how he wrote it. He wrote about the truth, the reality, the struggle of wanting to believe and yet just not being there quite yet.

And that is the biggest reason why I loved this book. I’m a sucker for honesty.

I give My Cousin the Saint 5 espresso cups out of 5:

5 espresso cups out of five!

and encourage you to pick up a copy for yourself and/or for someone else.


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16 Beans of Wisdom to “My Cousin the Saint by Justin Catanoso”
  1. Gil

    What a touching story. Stories like this warm the hearts of Catholics world wide.

    Gil, it really is a wonderful story, but even better, it’s wonderfully told. And a great Christmas story to boot 🙂

  2. 12.16.2008

    Your review peaked my interest enough that I will indeed buy the book — first for a friend and then possibly for me.

    Dana’s last blog post..A Few (one) of My Favorite Things (photo)

    Glad you enjoyed the review Dana! I hope you and your friend both enjoy the book as much as I did 🙂

  3. joanne at frutto della passione

    I’ve always found it interesting how certain books find there way into your life at certain times. There are two books that had a profound effect on me because I read them when I was at a cross roads in my life. The first was *One* by Richard Bach. I was deciding whether or not to move to Italy and take a risk on my relationship with the man who is know my husband. The second book was *The Alchemist* by Coelho which also had an impact on some decisions that I needed to make. Thanks for the review!

    joanne at frutto della passione’s last blog post..The incident with the eels

    Indeed, Joanne. It always seem like the universe knows what to give us when we need it. The Alchemist came to me this year 🙂

  4. This sounds like a great book.

    I am also someone who struggles with the whole faith question. Moving to Rome and getting older has made the questions louder and stronger.

    nyc/caribbean ragazza’s last blog post..I am very salty with Italia’s Next Top Model.

    I hear you; I’m sure being in Rome makes a lot of people think about questions of faith….

  5. 12.16.2008

    I am so excited to read this! It really sounds like something that’s just up my alley. Thanks for all the posts on this fascinating story.

    jen of a2eatwrite’s last blog post..Sad

    My pleasure Jen! Hope you enjoy it too 🙂

  6. 12.16.2008

    Dear Michelle — Thank you so much for your wonderful, thoughtful, heartfelt review of my book. That you read it in Calabria is especially meaningful to me. I hope that one day it gets translated into Italian so that my Calabrian relatives can read it!
    Buon natale mi’amica,


    Justin Catanoso’s last blog post..Only in Reggio

    This book definitely has to be translated…Italians need to know more about Padre Gaetano too! It’s been a pleasure “meeting” you and hopefully we’ll get to meet (without the quotations marks) in person someday 🙂

  7. 12.16.2008

    I’m glad you liked it and can give it a thumbs up. I am so wary about books about Italy written by people, usually Americans, coming here to ooh and aah. There are so many bad ones out there, I’m happy to hear this one is not sappy.

    saretta’s last blog post..Erboristeria Elios

    I could be biased since it’s about Calabria, but I really think Justin balanced the emotional aspect of this book well; there was often a level of cautiousness in believing even the fairy tale of “coming home again,” which I appreciated as well. I will say that at one point in the book Justin bursts out laughing at the absurdness of a miracle…I appreciated that as well 😉

  8. 12.16.2008

    Great review Michelle! 🙂
    I’m so intrigued by this book. It is on my list of books to read in the New Year. I can’t wait to read it! 🙂

    I think you’ll really enjoy this LuLu, especially with your strong connection to Calabria 🙂

  9. 12.16.2008

    It sounds like a book I should read as I’m looking for miracles of my own.
    I love the pic of Padre Gaetano. Why is there a skull behind him ?

    Scintilla’s last blog post..Getting things into Perspective.

    The skull is covered it the book, but I’ll let you in on the secret: Padre Gaetano used it for “prayful contemplation,” and it’s now kept in a museum in Reggio Calabria 🙂

  10. 12.16.2008

    I’d like to answer Scintilla’s question. The skull behind Padre Gaetano was an object of meditation for him, a reminder of the brevity of life and the persistent need to prepare onself, in this life, for what comes later. At Gaetano’s church in Reggio Calabria, the skull is on display in his former living quarters, which is now a small museum. At my web site — — there is a video called The Saint’s Room where you can see where he lived; the skull makes a cameo appearance.

    Thanks for asking,

    Justin Catanoso

    Justin’s last blog post..Book review: bleeding espresso

    Thanks Justin! I have to admit, the fact that Padre Gaetano used a skull for meditation makes him even more intriguing to me…what an interesting man he must have been.

  11. 12.16.2008

    I’m sold! Great review, really telling.

    Thanks Judith 🙂

  12. 12.16.2008

    Wow. I don’t think I have ever read a review that was able to balance being thorough without giving too much away as well as you have. The book sounds fantastic! As a practicing Catholic, I have struggled the past couple years with my faith, so that aspect of the book appeals to me. The wanting to believe, but not quite getting there. I also love stories about Saints, so I will have to keep an eye out for this book!

    Kalee’s last blog post..Beginning of the Birthday Extravaganza!

    I’m glad you enjoyed the review Kalee, and I hope you find yourself a copy 🙂

  13. 12.19.2008

    It does sound like an interesting story Michelle. Padre Gaetano sounds like just the kind of person who might be able to rekindle the dying embers of one’s faith, but not by bashing one into submission. He was what every priest should be.

    This is the sort of book which the RC church should ensure is in every RC school in the world!

    I see the book is on Amazon – so I think I’ll add it to my stores.

    Good stuff!

    All the best in this festive season,


    Alex’s last blog post..Milan’s Ecopass Results

    Agreed, Alex. Padre Gaetano is someone who led by example and, for that, is such an inspirational figure. The Catholic Church would be wise to talk a lot more about him.

  14. Pina

    I live in Calabria and, as a member of the Anglo-Italian Club of Reggio, I met Justin Catanoso twice. In fact, one of her cousins is a member of the club and he came here to speak about his book. The first time he only had the project in mind, the second time (about one year ago) he had already finished his of book.
    He is a very nice, kind person and his way of telling the story was fascinating.
    I am looking forward to reading his book either in English or in Italian.
    Reading one report about it, I found this blog. It’s very interesting. Congratulations!

    Pina, it’s a great book, and I know you’ll love it; glad you found my site!

  15. Pina

    Sorry for my mistake. Of course I meant “his cousin”….

    Understood 🙂

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