A saint in the family

Justin Catanoso is the author of "My Cousin the Saint, A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles."

‘Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” George Orwell said. The Vatican lately seems to share Orwell’s skepticism.

Pope Benedict XVI has made no secret of his disdain for the high volume of saints named by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005. John Paul II conducted 482 canonizations, naming more saints in 26 years than his predecessors had canonized in the previous four centuries.

Since becoming pope, Benedict has stopped attending the elaborate beatification ceremonies in St. Peter’s Square, the last step before canonization, and has issued a call for “greater sobriety and rigor” in the process. Last week, he replaced the leader of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, an office that fully supported John Paul’s active saint-making philosophy. Vatican-watchers expect the new leader, Archbishop Angelo Amato, to throw more wrenches in the saint-making machinery.

So who need saints, anyway? That’s a question I take personally. A long-lapsed Catholic, I was, for most of my life, ignorant of how and why the church names saints. But a few years ago, I learned of a blood relative, Padre Gaetano Catanoso, my grandfather’s cousin, whom John Paul II had put on a path to sainthood in 1980. Padre Gaetano was canonized in 2005.


A Catanoso saint? Was this a joke? Intrigued, I decided to look into it further. I met with Vatican priests and interviewed relatives in the south of Italy for whom my distant cousin remains a powerful spiritual touchstone. In the process of finding out about my relative, I learned plenty about why John Paul was so intent on making saints.

The canonization process, John Paul believed, had become too bogged down in bureaucracy, too exacting, too detached from ordinary worshipers. So he encouraged archbishops to suggest candidates for sainthood from parishes around the world. He wanted local heroes in modern times, people whose real-life stories would serve to uplift the faithful, inspire the skeptical and lure back the drifters.

In 1983, John Paul eliminated the “office of the devil’s advocate,” which often held things up for decades, if not centuries. And he reduced the number of miracles needed for canonization from four to two. These changes expedited the process for many, including Padre Gaetano, a simple parish priest.

When my grandfather’s cousin was ordained in 1903, southern Italy was like a Third World country. People were beyond poor. They were illiterate, jobless, steeped in suffering. Millions fled to America, including my grandfather. But Padre Gaetano remained, running a desolate mountain parish in Calabria, then hiking to more remote villages to preach the Gospel. Later, he founded an order of nuns and opened schools and orphanages crammed with the collateral damage of two world wars. He even stood up to the Mafia, demonstrating a courage that put his life at risk.

Padre Gaetano’s modest life of heroic virtue was precisely what John Paul II wanted to recognize. Not just in Calabria but wherever people were oppressed, wherever the church was under siege, wherever Catholics were in need of rejuvenation.

For nearly a century, Padre Gaetano has been a role model for Calabrians. And with his canonization, he became one for me as well: Without the saint-making machinery of the Vatican, I might never have heard of my extraordinary relative. Today, I may still be a mediocre Catholic, as a priest friend enjoys pointing out, but I am not quite so lapsed as before. What I learned of my relative reignited my own spirituality.

So as the Vatican’s new lead saint-maker, Archbishop Amato, seeks to carry out the wishes of the new pope, he should not lose sight of John Paul II’s vision. It’s not the number of saints that matters, but the message they carry to the people, a message that resonates in the places where these saints served and beyond, places where hope and courage are always in demand.

Who needs saints? Maybe we all do.