Our Cousin, the Saint

Commentator Justin Catanoso's Italian relatives passed along some unusual family update a few years ago: His grandfather's late cousin was under consideration for sainthood by the Catholic Church. This Sunday, in Pope Benedict's first canonization ceremony Father Gaetano Catanoso will become a saint.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to stay in Italy a moment to hear some unusual family news from commentator Justin Catanoso. A few years ago, he learned that his grandfather's late cousin was under consideration for sainthood by the Catholic Church. This Sunday, in Pope Benedict's first canonization ceremony, Father Gaetano Catanoso will become a saint. Justin Catanoso and 160 of his relatives will be in St. Peter's Square for that.

JUSTIN CATANOSO:

When my brother was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, my mother prayed relentlessly for a miracle. Every day, she prayed to Father Gaetano Catanoso, a humble priest from southern Italy who died 40 years ago and who was about to be canonized. Gaetano was our cousin, our cousin the saint.

I come from a family of Italian immigrants. My grandfather left Calabria in southern Italy a century ago to escape poverty. He cut all ties with his family and never looked back. While he mustered the courage to leave, his cousin Gaetano made an equally courageous decision--to stay. He became a priest and hiked into remote mountain villages to spread the gospel. He founded an order of nuns. He ran a prison ministry. He spent a lifetime in devotion to the poor and elderly. And after he died, his nuns began working for his canonization. The church has attributed two healing miracles to him.

Last year, I traveled to Reggio Calabria for the first time with my wife and daughters. We visited a small church high on a hill where Father Gaetano lies well preserved inside a glass tomb. I stood staring at his face. I was struck by just how much he resembled my father. Afterwards, we went to the home of some relatives, all close cousins of Father Gaetano. We were the first Catanosos to visit Calabria in 30 years and had no idea what to expect. But more than 25 people awaited us, three generations, all clapping, all cheering, all Catanosos. Looking at their faces was like looking at a family photo album. The endless lunch of macaroni and grilled eggplant and homemade wine could have been prepared by my own mother. Slowly, I saw my daughters falling comfortably into the embrace of this lovely family, our family.

When my brother's cancer progressed last summer, my mother asked if I would contact a relative to light a candle at Gaetano's church. I was happy to tell her that cousin Giovana(ph) had done more than that. She told Gaetano's nuns about my brother's plight and other Calabrian relatives as well. They were all praying for him. Father Gaetano was no abstract religious figure to my family. Now he was real. My brother Alan died about five months later. At 49, with a wife and two young daughters, he passed far too soon. During his ordeal, he sometimes wondered aloud if our sainted cousin had a miracle for him. Well, Alan lived months longer than his doctors predicted, giving him time to make peace with his condition. He felt the heroic love of our older brother who cared for him every day. He was never in pain and we were all with him at the end. And far away in southern Italy, family we never knew we had mourned my brother's passing. I don't know if these are the miracles Father Gaetano Catanoso gave us, but I'd like to think so.

INSKEEP: Commentator Justin Catanoso is a journalist in Greensboro, North Carolina. He teaches writing and editing at Wake Forest University.

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