Billy Graham, who passed away Feb. 21 at age 99, was one of the great American evangelical preachers of the last century. Ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, his service to the Gospel benefitted Christians of all denominations.
Through the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which he founded in 1950, and the many evangelical crusades around the world that it sponsored, and through a variety of other means of communication including books and syndicated newspaper columns, he preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ for decades to untold millions in 185 countries and territories, on six continents.
He was a spiritual adviser to numerous American presidents, a great service to the leaders of the American people. Because of this, and the many far-reaching aspects of his work in the United States and around the world, for his decades of dedicated Christian service, it is not surprising that his body was to lie in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol from Feb. 28-March 1, allowing many people to pay their respects before his burial in North Carolina.
Catholics benefitted from Graham’s crusades. The method he used in his crusades was the key to his success. One of the areas of tension between separated Christians, even in recent times, has been clashes over issues of evangelization. When evangelicals, or Christians of one tradition, have undertaken missions in countries where other Christians have been long established, conflicts often have taken place, leading to charges of proselytism and/or violations of religious freedom aimed at each other. The method that Graham employed in his evangelical campaigns helped to avoid such clashes. Graham insisted on working through and with local ministers of different churches, and on not entering their areas unless invited. Besides his evangelical base, he enlisted mainline Protestants and expanded cooperative evangelism by including willing Catholics and Orthodox. For these steps, leading fundamentalists began to oppose him.
Graham’s evangelistic services were designed so that those who came to personal faith during the festival were directed for discipleship to the church to which they belonged. When asked how he, as a Southern Baptist minister, could work successfully in evangelism with other Christians, he could say, “I only preach the Gospel,” which is the basis for all Christians. His was an approach to evangelism that showed respect for the various churches and traditions.
A pope’s friend
Billy Graham and Pope St. John Paul II had great respect for each other. Starting in 1977, Graham held crusades in all the countries of the former Soviet bloc. This included preaching in 1978 in the Catholic cathedral of Krakow, Poland, invited to do so by its archbishop, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. As Graham recalled in an interview with Larry King Live, the day he preached there, the cardinal could not be present, because he was in Rome at the conclave that elected him pope.
Graham visited John Paul in Rome in 1981. They developed a personal friendship, such that the pope could say that they were brothers. Graham visited the pope again in 1990 when, reportedly, they discussed developments in Eastern Europe and relations between Catholics and evangelicals around the world.
They were both influential voices on the world scene, albeit in different ways. When John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, Billy Graham released a statement recalling his meetings with the pope, who, he said, expressed “his personal warmth to me and his deep interest in our ministry.” In strong words Graham said that “Pope John Paul II was unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the last 100 years. His extraordinary gifts, his strong Catholic faith and his experience of human tyranny and suffering in his native Poland all shaped him, and yet he was respected by men and women from every conceivable background across the world. He was truly one of those rare individuals whose legacy will endure long after he has gone.”
In that statement, Graham also described the driving motivation behind the ministry of John Paul, in words that can now, at his passing, be said of him as well: “He was convinced that the complex problems of our world are ultimately moral and spiritual in nature, and only Christ can set us free from the shackles of sin and greed and violence.”
Billy Graham dedicated his life to bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people all over the world. As people reflect now on the life and legacy of Billy Graham, we can all be grateful for his profound witness to Jesus Christ. May it continue to inspire us.
Msgr. John A. Radano is an adjunct professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and a member of the National Catholic-Reformed Dialogue.
|U.S. Bishops on Billy Graham
“His faith and integrity invited countless thousands around the world into a closer relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God for the ministry of Billy Graham.”
— Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)
“As anyone growing up in the 1950s and 1960s can tell you, it was hard not to notice and be impressed by the Reverend Billy Graham. There was no question that the Dolans were a Catholic family, firm in our faith, but in our household there was always respect and admiration for Billy Graham and the work he was doing to bring people to God.”
— Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York
“We give thanks for the Christian witness of the Rev. Billy Graham, a man who put his trust in God, and who is now called home.”
— Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago
“He reminded us that what we had in common in Christ was greater than what divided us.”
— Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton, Pa., chairman of the USCCB Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
“His example is one from which we can learn. Let our Church have the same missionary zeal which was his and now may he rest in the mercy and saving peace of Christ.”
— Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wis.