This turns out to be at least two books in one. The first is the historical travelogue. Unlike the Camino de Santiago in Spain (which E.P. and I walked in 2017), the Via Francigena is not well-marked, richly documented, nor overrun with pilgrims. Egan did the research to explicate the many artifacts of a complex Christian history along the way; this is story at its most vivid: monasteries, massacres, mysticism, miracles and all.
But what gives the book its heart is its exploration of what a Roman Catholic faith formed in the United States might mean to him today. That's not an easy cultural or spiritual position to occupy -- but neither is his heritage something that any Irish-American can lightly slough off. One expression of the anguish that grips him and his fellows is exemplified by this April 28 lament from an editorial by the National Catholic Reporter:
Egan goes on pilgrimage to try to figure it all out, what he can retain and what he must lose. He writes:
Egan's pilgrimage was hard, materially, and physically, as well as spiritually. There were long days walked in nasty weather and uncertainty about whether he'd find somewhere to stay in the next town. He tore a tendon and limped on. There was a climb over snowy Alps that this very fit almost-elder found daunting. There were disabling blisters. And finally there was a gorgeous welcoming Italian landscape, where Egan speaks the language. To his own surprise, he begins to wonder whether there might be something miraculous locked away in a Catholic piety whose bloody history and abusive betrayals, he knows too well. And finally, he limps into Rome -- not snagging the papal interview his journalist self had hoped for, but carrying away his stamped pilgrim's passport proving he'd completed this long journey.
If the history of European Christianity, or the travails of American Roman Catholicism, or the possibilities of pilgrimage call you, they are all here and well worth wandering through.