“If I had to do it over again, I would also avoid any semblance of involvement in partisan politics. An evangelist is called to do one thing and one thing only: to proclaim the Gospel. Becoming involved in strictly political issues or partisan politics dilutes the evangelist’s impact and compromises his message.”
The Preacher and the Popes
Billy Graham admired the moral leadership and evangelistic passion he saw in Catholics like John Paul II.
RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS
Opening his Southern crusades to blacks and cooperating with Roman Catholics, both measures vigorously criticized by many of his supporters, required courage of the kind conventionally lauded as liberal or progressive. It is true that challenging racial segregation and anti-Catholic prejudice were both deemed progressive stances, but I am rather sure that carried little weight with Billy Graham. His singular passion was to preach the saving gospel of Jesus Christ to absolutely everyone.
Many Catholic leaders warmly welcomed his ministry; others were more ambivalent. In New York, the late John Cardinal O’Connor embraced him and urged archdiocese priests to encourage people to come out to hear him. Innumerable Catholics were doubtlessly renewed and strengthened in faith as a consequence of Graham’s ministry.
He met with popes from John XXIII to John Paul II, and his friendship with the latter seemed especially warm and deep. After an extraordinary personal meeting of two hours in 1989, Graham reported, “There was a pause in the conversation; suddenly the pope’s arm shot out and he grabbed the lapels of my coat, he pulled me forward within inches of his own face. He fixed his eyes on me and said, ‘Listen Graham, we are brothers.'”
Already in 1966, only a year after the Second Vatican Council, Graham said, “I find myself closer to Catholics than the radical Protestants. I think the Roman Catholic Church today is going through a second Reformation.” On The Phil Donahue Show in 1979, he said, “I think the American people are looking for a leader, a moral and spiritual leader that believes something. And the pope does. … Thank God, I’ve got somebody to quote now with some real authority.” On John Paul’s visit to America in 1980: “[He] has emerged as the greatest religious leader of the modern world, and one of the greatest moral and spiritual leaders of this century. … The pope came [to America] as a statesman and a pastor, but I believe he also sees himself coming as an evangelist. … The pope sought to speak to the spiritual hunger of our age in the same way Christians throughout the centuries have spoken to the spiritual yearnings of every age—by pointing people to Christ.” And later, on the pope’s message in Vancouver, where Graham preached a month later: “I’ll tell you, that was just about as straight an evangelical address as I’ve ever heard. … He gives moral guidance in a world that seems to have lost its way.”
In his statements about John Paul II, as well as about Mother Teresa and the Catholic church more generally, many evangelicals thought Graham had gone overboard or landed in gross heresy. But I am confident that he was driven by a passion for sharing the saving gospel of Christ. In the great encyclical of 2000, Redemptoris Missio(“Mission of the Redeemer”), John Paul envisioned the third millennium as “a springtime of world evangelization.” Graham surrendered his entire life to playing a not insignificant part in precipitating that springtime.
In a world Christian movement of more than 2 billion people, more than half of them Roman Catholic, he understood that such a springtime would require ecumenical cooperation. He declined to sign the first Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) statement, issued in 1994. The reason, as explained to me, was twofold: First, he generally refrained from signing group statements, and second, he feared his signing could be divisive, given the harsh criticism some evangelicals were aiming at ECT. Of the several statements this partnership produced over the years, the most important affirmation was contained in the first: “Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ.” I have no doubt that Billy Graham joined in that affirmation, from which everything else follows.
Many things might be said about Graham’s impact on American Catholicism. In the larger historical perspective, perhaps the most interesting is his part in reconfiguring the location of Catholicism in the American experience. America has been and still is a predominantly Protestant country, not only in numbers but in a spiritual tradition that runs from Jonathan Edwards through the several awakenings and crusading evangelists of whom, it might be argued, Billy Graham was the greatest.
Over three centuries, Catholic leaders generally assumed that Catholics would secure their place in the American experience by cooperation with the Protestant liberal mainline that is now in such sad theological, moral, and institutional disarray. By its very nature, Catholicism must try to remain in constructive conversation with everyone, but it seems increasingly evident that the future really is one of evangelicals and Catholics together. Scholars who attempt to explain how this came about will have to pay major attention to the person and ministry of Billy Graham. As we Catholics say, Requiescat in pace, and may choirs of angels greet him on the far side of Jordan.
Credit – Christianity Today
Richard John Neuhaus (1936–2009) was the founding editor of First Things and co-author, with Charles Colson, of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.”