We are all called to be saints. I’ll say that again, with help from St. Bernadette and a friend’s email signature, “I must become a saint. My Jesus demands it.” Most of us aren’t actively working on that, but some must be. In my never-ending quest for good Catholic YA, I picked up The Possibilities of Sainthood, by Donna Freitas. I was delighted. There may be hope for books about Catholic teenagers with problems yet.
Antonia Lucia Labella, the Rhode Island-dwelling daughter of Italian immigrants, uses a format to tell us her story that reminded me pleasantly of Mia in The Princess Diaries (and I did feel as though Lucia was speaking to me, not Freitas, which is always a good sign). Each chapter title teases what will come in that chapter:
- Chapter 1: I Pray to St. Sebastian about Gym Class and Thank God I’m Not Named after the Patron Saint of Snakebites
- Chapter 4: Sister Noella (Possibly a Secret Emissary from the Vatican) Teaches Biology while Maria and I Pass Notes
- Chapter 17: The Unthinkable Happens
It’s not just the voice and the unique location (what book is set in Rhode Island?) that drew me in. It was Antonia’s motivation throughout the novel: not just pursuing the man of her dreams, not just seeking independence as she grows into a young woman, but her mostly-secret quest to become the first canonized saint who is still alive. Every month, Antonia writes a letter to the “Vatican Committee on Sainthood” (which does exist, but not by that name) to propose herself as the patron of something: daughters, figs (which her family grows), and even first kisses and kissing. Clearly, this odd character quality is meant to make Antonia seem a little silly, but I thought it made her seem particularly endearing.
As a Catholic reader of a book about a Catholic, though, I kept my eyes peeled for what I’ve come to think of as “adjective” Catholicism. Call it liberal, traditional, progressive, cafeteria, radical traditionalist, modern—they’re all just adjectives. I try to be just Catholic, no adjectives. This is a small spoiler, but toward the last third of the book, the sitting fictional pope dies. His successor is described as being young and “progressive” rather than “another conservative—someone who would offer only more of the same old tired ways and old tired doctrine… someone more in touch with the ways of the world today.” Pushing the dichotomy between young and old as “good versus bad” or “out of touch versus in touch” was a low blow. Thankfully, it was the only one, and the papal death is a minor enough element that it didn’t ruin the book for me.
This is one of the few books about a young Catholic I actually felt I could identify with. I’m not a high school student, of course, and I wasn’t living like a Catholic for most of the years I was in high school, but I feel like Antonia is believable as a young adult Catholic. She’s bored at Mass, but she prays all day long. She longs for freedom, but she (mostly) listens to her parents. When she faces her first opportunity to really struggle with chastity, her response is absolutely perfect. Perhaps this is what a real Catholic teen looks like: trying to wear a halo, but perhaps getting a few smudges on it.
Next time: Brideshead Revisited, a Catholic fiction classic