Timothy Egan’s travelogue is exuberant, enjoyable and infuriating

A Pilgrimage to Eternity
By Timothy Egan
Viking, 384pp, £21.99/$28

Timothy Egan may have given sociologists of religion a new sub-group to ponder: the “lapsed but listening”.

This is how Egan, an Irish-American Catholic and Pulitzer-winning journalist, characterises himself at the outset of A Pilgrimage to Eternity. Crucially, though, Egan feels the time has come “to face the issue, to decide what I believe and admit what I don’t”. In order to do so, he heads out on the Via Francigena, the ancient route from Canterbury to Rome, looking for “a stiff shot of no-b——- spirituality”.

The author’s style, you may have guessed, is pugnacious. Early on, he takes a dig at “sad-faced” Justin Welby: “so self-effacing you want to slap him”. A few pages later, however, he concludes that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s personal story, in its grief and complexity, and his leadership of a Church that confesses to not having all the answers, represent progress. Before departing Dover, Egan throws some lazy jabs at a small-minded, Empire-haunted, modern Britain.

Egan doesn’t often lack confidence in his own judgments. But confidence is not a guarantee of veracity. He is big on “the biblical Jesus who never lifted a hand in violence”. Hold on. Did Jesus not then overturn the tables of the money changers? Did he not make a whip of cords and drive them from the temple? Egan then commences his assault on the Church’s teaching on sexuality by reducing Christ’s words on the subject to “a condemnation of adulterous behaviour” and no more.

Visiting the Somme region, he poses the problem of pain with great acuity and force, but cannot resist puffing himself up with declarations such as, “Christian Europe showed that it could be at its most creative when fashioning new ways to kill.”

Needless to say, you won’t find Egan lauding Christian Europe’s creativity in fashioning new ways to grow things, to build, to travel, to heal the sick, to make just laws or to understand the universe. Pius XII gets an early kicking (naturally), and Pius XI later on. But when Egan writes about the First World War there is not a single mention of Benedict XV, his Herculean efforts to end the conflict or his provision of humanitarian aid.

Egan certainly knows the charge sheet against the Church. Who would deny there is good cause for righteous anger? But whenever he got to a subject I knew a little bit about, I found infuriating gaps and distortions, some of them enormous. How much time, I wondered, had Egan devoted to truly understanding the Church before setting out? Had he really studied the Catechism in order to comprehend Catholic teaching in its fullness? Had he read any rebuttals of some of the black legends circulated about the Church, many of which he seems to have swallowed whole?

Revealingly, the subtitle of the book tells us Egan is going “in search of a faith”, not the faith. Quite rightly, he wants a Church on the side of the poor and downtrodden. But he has no time for an ecclesia that would assert its universal authority and make specific, difficult and binding demands of its members. Equally, Egan revels in the message of love contained in the Gospels, but he rarely engages with the harder sayings of Christ.

The reader becomes witness to an odd, uncomfortable journey: a man trying to reconnect with a religion he in large part deplores, when there are other brands of Christianity freely available that he would surely find less compromised. In Geneva, for instance, he meets a gentle, thoughtful Lutheran pastor who proffers a form of Christianity that Egan finds far more congenial.

When it comes to the part of the author’s lapsed self that is still listening to the Church, it is very much Pope Francis he is listening to. There is a will-he-won’t-he subplot about attempting to secure an audience with the Holy Father, whom Egan has fallen for hard, delighting in “that goofy smile, the lightness of being, a surprise a day”. Here is the slate-cleaner the Church has been crying out for; over centuries, it would appear.

Bewilderingly, he seems to believe that no pope before Francis had any time for science. Egan’s fervour places Francis alone on a very high pedestal, mainly built, I fear, of soundbites and media moments.

Whatever my misgivings, A Pilgrimage to Eternity has sizeable pockets of exuberant travel writing to enjoy, and when Egan is joined by his children and wife at different stages of his trek, the results are tender and moving. There are also heart-rending personal trials stitched into the emotional backcloth of Egan’s journey. Moreover, his family knows the dark shadows of clerical abuse and cover-up. Egan, you feel, set out on the pilgrim trail not just to find a faith, but also to finish, as an adult, an argument with the Church that had begun when he was a child.

Still, though often in a rush to judgment, Egan is a genuine seeker. The “stiff shot” never comes, but he thinks he may have actually witnessed a miracle in Montefiascone, 60 miles north of Rome. And he leaves the Eternal City believing in the Resurrection.