Author: Ian Morgan Cron
Title: Chasing Francis
Publisher: Zondervan

Could the answers to some of the church’s struggles to engage the spiritually-disengaged American culture be found in the life and teachings of a Catholic saint who lived nearly 1,000 years ago? Ian Morgan Cron – best-selling author, teacher, and Episcopal priest – believes so, and his new novel Chasing Francis sets out to chart a course to spiritual reconciliation.

The book is part story, part devotional, and part biography. But at its core is a serene, meditative soul that lingers long after the story ends. With a quiet, tactful purpose, it acutely diagnoses some of the western church’s failings, and proposes the cure might be found in Saint Francis of Assisi. Though the story is set in modern times, Francis becomes a major character, and the reader quickly gets a sense of the heart of his ministry, which sought to live out Christ’s teachings by ministering to the poor, protecting the natural world, and placing community at the forefront.

Of course, all this starts with a story. Mega-church pastor Chase Falson finds himself in a crisis of faith after a series of personal setbacks ending with the death of the daughter of his friend and church member Maggie Harmon. He aptly describes the crumbling of his shallow, neatly-constructed beliefs early in the book: “Something pushed me beyond a border I hadn’t known existed. From a room down deep in my soul I saw a hutch crammed full of antique china tip and begin to fall. I watched myself frantically running to stop it, but I couldn’t get there in time … Standing over the wreckage, a voice dripping with contempt whispered, Kiss everything good-bye.” Aftervoicing his questions publicly in Sunday’s sermon, Falson is immediately asked to take a leave of absence by the church board.

In his grief, Falson inexplicably reaches out to his “Uncle Kenny,” a Catholic spiritual director in Assisi, Italy. Kenny invites him to visit, and Falson accepts. Once in Italy, Falson embarks on a pilgrimage, equal parts physical and spiritual. Stops include Francis’ mountain cave retreat called the Carceri, the Chiesa Nuova, a church built over the home where Francis was born, a global conference on peacemaking, and a Catholic HIV/AIDS community home. At every step, Falson finds the profound, sincere expressions of Christianity chipping away at his doubt. The culmination of Falson’s epiphany occurs during a mass at Rome’s historic Saint John Lateran cathedral. He returns home with a fresh vision for 21st century Christianity, built on the principles of Francis’ ministry.

Cron makes the point that the world in which Saint Francis lived – poised on the cusp of modernity – is similar to the world of today, in which a post-modern relativism threatens to consume the identity of the American church. As Falson says in the novel’s closing pages, “The Middle Ages were different from the world we live in now, but Francis faced a lot of the same challenges we do. I think he can help guide us to our goal, because his goal was the same as ours – serving Jesus completely and unreservedly.”

Chasing Francis is a compelling narrative with delightful characters and memorable images of the sights, sounds, and smells of Italy. But under the surface lie profound spiritual truths, so finely woven into the fabric that the story becomes a parable. It gracefully walks the delicate balance between storytelling and didactic teaching. As such, it’s the kind of book with the power to prompt anyone who reads it to take a long, hard look at the foundations of their faith. What they encounter might lead them on pilgrimage of their own.

*This Review First Published 3/18/2013