I decided to read this book not because of its religious content but because I enjoy good travel memoirs. Egan has sound secular credentials: he writes for The New York Times, has won a Pulitzer Prize, and has published several other books on a variety of topics. In A Pilgrimage to Eternity, he decides to take the pilgrim’s trail known as the Via Francigena from Canterbury, England, to Rome, Italy. He stipulates that he will not fly on any leg of the journey; instead, he walks whenever possible, but also drives, takes trains, and crosses the English Channel by boat.
Egan’s background is Catholic; his ostensible purpose for the journey is a renewal of his faith. He explains that he has come to question his faith over the years. A large part of the reason is the abuse his brother and his brother’s friends suffered in the past at the hands of a predatory priest. He is seeking God now because his wife’s sister, still young, is dying a painful death by cancer. At every point along the way, Egan offers desperate prayers for her healing and recovery, all the while doubting whether his entreaties to the divine will do any good.
A major source of his skepticism is the history of the places he visits along the way. Christian persecutions and wars have shaped and guided the history of Europe, and at every important point on the Via Francigena, Egan finds horror stories of murders, tortures, and mutilations of Christians by Christians. Entire populations were wiped out over mere issues of doctrine. Egan does not spare the reader from these grim realities, but instead describes them in detail. He goes over the sordid stories of Catholic clergy preying on children, and in particular delves into what happened to his brother and the others – how a priest came into their parish under the guise of gentleness and assistance, all the while intending to prey upon underage boys. Egan also explores the issue of sexuality in the Catholic Church, delving into topics such as celibacy, extramarital sex, homosexuality, the place of women in the church hierarchy, and the intimate relationship Jesus might have had with Mary Magdalene.
Egan stops at all sorts of churches and other shrines along the way, and at each place he tells the story of the saint who is honored there or the battles, riots, or mass murders that occurred in those locations. The history of Europe is the history of the Catholic Church and its various spinoffs. Even in the modern era, for instance, the Lateran Treaty, which ceded the Vatican to the papacy as a sovereign state, was signed by Mussolini and Pope Pius XI with the understanding that the church would remain silent as Mussolini and Hitler united in aggression and mass genocide.
Egan concludes his travels in an audience with Pope Francis. It is a group audience so he doesn’t have an opportunity to ask the questions he has formulated along the way. He remains ambivalent about his faith. He is sure that the journey has changed him, but he is not sure about the details of the transformation.
The power of this book is in its depiction of church history in the shaping of Europe: the savagery and confusion offset by examples of selflessness and honor. Egan is a fine writer and has done his research well. He wisely tells his story without forcing any personal opinions or conclusions upon his readers. This is a worthwhile and important book, and I recommend it.