Kathleen Kennedy Townsend writes about religion and politics and is the author of “Failing America’s Faithful.” She is the director of retirement security at the Economic Policy Institute.

In “A Pilgrimage to Eternity,” Timothy Egan makes the journey from Canterbury to Rome along the Via Francigena, eager to find the Catholic God of his youth. He is seeking the answer to a terrifying drama: Can God be resurrected in a sinful church? From England, through France, to Italy, he walks, trains and sometimes, when his feet are a bloody mess, he rents a car.

Egan is on a tear about the church’s selling of indulgences, killing of heretics, choice of horrendous popes — in the Middle Ages, popes had plenty of mistresses, and one Renaissance pontiff slept with his own daughter. He condemns Pope Pius XI, who praised Mussolini to get his own state, Vatican City: “His kingdom for a piece of paper.”

Egan is at his best sharing history. For those who want a refresher on the church in Europe, this is the book for you, with so many fascinating nuggets I had either forgotten or never knew.

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We learn that King Henry II had to make amends for the death of Thomas Becket. Martin Luther was a rabid anti-Semite and approved the death of 80,000 peasants who were his own followers: “Let whoever can, stab, strike, strangle,” he wrote. “If you die doing it, good for you!” Saint Francis met with Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt to end the Crusades and made a point of finding something admirable in Islam. Diderot believed in life after death so he could be with his beloved Sophie, writing to her: “Oh, my Sophie, I could touch you, feel you, love you, look for you, unite myself with you . . . when we are no longer here.”

We are at Egan’s side as he asks himself if he can “maintain [his] wonder of what could be, while never forgetting what was.” That is the central question of “A Pilgrimage to Eternity.” Egan is an erudite author with a flair for catching the magic in his 10-week journey. His writing is thoughtful, expressive and visceral. He draws us in, making us feel frozen in the snow-covered Alps, joyful in valleys of trees with low-hanging fruit, skeptical of the relics of embalmed saints and hopeful for the healing of his encrusted toes, so worn and weathered from their walk.

As a onetime Jesuit school student, along with each of my seven brothers, I felt a deep kinship with Egan. He knows church teachings and church failings. He mulls history, theology and philosophy when walking alone. He is joined periodically by his Jewish wife and their skeptical son and daughter, who did not live his childhood, when the Catholic Church was a place of wonder and hope.

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Luckily Egan has the imagination to evoke the magic he once felt. I particularly appreciated his recognition that Jesus could easily be seen as the first feminist; it was the institutional church that feared women. In Jesus’ era, women preached. He argues with the woman at the well at a time when women weren’t considered educated. It is women who take Jesus down from the cross, and the same women who discover him missing from the tomb, rising as the living God. Mary Magdalene, according to the Gnostic Gospel, was Jesus’ girlfriend, whom he kissed on the lips and who some scholars argue wrote her own book and testament to Jesus, as rich and full as any by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. But these gospels are not included in the official biblical canon. In fact, as Egan writes, Pope Gregory the Great called Mary Magdalene a whore, a made-up story. The result was to weaken women’s role in the church, not to see them as Jesus had, the group whom he trusted and who were most loyal to him throughout his life.

Some of the worst teachings, according to Egan, came from Saint Augustine, who had led a raucous youth and decided to “reform.” Reformation meant no sex. He viewed women as temptation, the devil’s gateway. I imagine how different the church would be if Augustine had seen his youth as a time of joy, when women were equal and sex was a gift from God, a delight to be shared. Instead, his teachings have brought us a vice president who won’t sit alone with a woman, in contrast to Jesus, who was happy to be in our company.

Egan writes that his family has been affected by the pedophilia scandal. A priest who had often visited his parents’ home turned out to have tried to sexually assault his brother and succeeded in abusing one of his brother’s best friends. When years later the priest was publicly identified, his brother’s pal, a father of three, threw himself in front of a train. Two more of the priest’s victims committed suicide. The priest had been transferred from one parish to another, continuing to prey on young boys.

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Egan describes his mother’s struggle with this horror and shame. She had loved the church. She had welcomed the predatory priest into her home on countless occasions. Her faith had given her strength during the tough times in her marriage. And she was grateful that her marriage eventually grew stronger. Yet this Catholic priest betrayed his vows, his parishioners, his God — and the church protected him. She never found peace, nor did his brother.

Egan’s questions and sensibility come from a Jesuit education. He is thoughtful, analytical, skeptical, appreciative of beauty and joy. He wants life to be clear. Continued skepticism is not for him.

So just as he has found the horrors of the church, he has also found its wonders. He lovingly describes the beauty of illustrated manuscripts, churches, stained-glass windows. But most compelling are the actions of kindness and love.

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He recalls Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s admonition, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” And so in the midst of all the horrendous behavior of church leaders, Egan searches for joy. He is enchanted by Saint Francis, who wanted to reform the church through song, not judgment. Toward the journey’s end, Egan decides to forgive the church all its sins, mostly on the grounds that forgiveness lifts one’s burden.

He acknowledges that the modern popes have done many things that needed to be done. Pope John Paul II apologized to the Jewish people for the silence and inaction of many Catholics during the Holocaust, and to Islam for the Crusades. Pope Francis has been powerful in his support for science in the battle against climate change and forceful on behalf of immigrants. He has been stronger than previous popes in support of female victims but could go further. But Egan sees the empty pews and the fact that there are fewer priests than there were in 1970, and wonders if the church has a future. He worries what the next pope might do.

I think the declining number of priests spells great opportunity for the church. It means more lay leaders. It means more room for women. In fact, women are already running parishes. There are more and more women claiming to be priests. And who’s to say they are not? Egan’s book is filled with stories of the church acknowledging error. That time will come.

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I was fascinated by the history and philosophy that Egan presents, and I appreciated him sharing his family’s personal history and the struggle they feel with the contemporary church. But Egan withholds from the reader his own inner workings, his own path to forgiveness. He simply says, “On impulse I offer up my absolution to the faith.” This is minutes after hearing the pope say, “Never yield to negativity . . . you must always forgive.” Perhaps 10 weeks of walking gives Egan the right to an epiphany after listening to words that could be found on almost any list of inspirational quotes. Maybe it makes a difference that they come from the pope. But I felt myself wanting something more.

The greatest insight we receive is that forgiveness comes. But for those of us not gifted with epiphanies, the explanation is unsatisfying. Egan devotes much of the book to the church’s sins and his turmoil in wrestling with the implications for the faith he loves. How can one moment change it all? And how does it feel to not have the burden of anger and shame now? I enjoyed reading about the yummy Italian dishes with mushrooms and the wobbly cobblestones traversed at crisp and colorful sunrises, but on a pilgrimage to eternity I want guidance about the process of forgiveness — if that was the main outcome of his walk.

Still, this book was a joy to read. Every page had a delightful turn of phrase, a scintillating description of a tempting dish, a town to visit, a church to see, a saint or sinner to read more about. Egan delved deep into history, theology and philosophy. His only reticence was about his own soul.

A Pilgrimage to Eternity

From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith

By Timothy Egan

Viking. 367 pp. $28

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