Billy Graham, R.I.P.

An ecumenical reflection from a Catholic perspective on the celebrated evangelist’s life and ministry on the occasion of his death at age 99

(photo: Register Files)

Although I never saw Billy Graham, he had a profound influence on my life. Both of my parents saw him a number of times in 1957, at Madison Square Garden and other venues, and went forward for his altar calls. My father calls that experience a spiritual turning point in his life. My mother has called Graham her spiritual father. (Both of my parents are now Catholic.)

Graham was one of a very few Christian leaders, along with Fulton Sheen and Pope John Paul II, who could be said to belong not just to one communion, but to Christians of many stripes — who could speak to Christians past sectarian lines, and to the larger world in some measure on behalf of the Christian world.

Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing were among his close friends. He met then-Father Sheen on a train in 1944 when the celebrity priest knocked on the door of his compartment as he was going to sleep, and the two chatted and prayed together. He met Cardinal Cushing in 1950 after the words “Bravo Billy” appeared on the cover of the Boston Pilot in support of one of Graham’s campaigns; Graham later said Cushing’s support changed the way he saw Catholics.

Though originally fearful of Catholics, Graham began building bridges with Catholics in the 1950s at a time when this was a hazardous move for a Southern Baptist, despite all that had been done by Sheen (the only other person besides Graham who could be called “America’s pastor”) to tamp down American anti-Catholicism (aided by Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley, among other popular Golden-Age Catholic-themed icons).

Still, there was still a very strong sense among many devout Fundamentalists and Evangelicals that Catholics were less than fully Christian, if not worse. (Even today anti-Catholic fundamentalists excoriate Graham for allowing Romish influence to compromise the purity of his gospel.)

Whenever he traveled, Graham worked with local churches; in fact, he wouldn’t hold a crusade in a given area unless he was invited by a majority of area churches, including, eventually, Catholic churches. Those who responded to his altar calls he put in touch with local pastors, including Catholic priests, to continue their discipleship. His mission was to promote Jesus Christ, not a particular Christian sect or even Protestantism over Catholicism.

In Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham, Graham describes how one of his team members would

call on the local Catholic bishop or other clerics to acquaint them with Crusade plans and invite them to the meetings; they would usually appoint a priest to attend and report back. This was years before Vatican II’s openness to Protestants, but we were concerned to let the Catholic bishops see that my goal was not to get people to leave their church; rather, I wanted them to commit their lives to Christ. (p. 163)

Graham met John Paul II a number of times and held him in great esteem; when the pope died, Graham called him “unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years.”

Working with Catholics was not Graham’s only courageous act of bridge-building. As early as 1952, Graham felt compelled to take a stance against racism in the church.

That year he had a crusade scheduled in Jackson, Mississippi, and when he arrived he saw that ropes had been set up to separate whites and blacks. Graham took down the ropes with his own hands and refused to let them be put back up, saying, “Look, we’re all equal before God, we’re all one together.”

Graham said later, “That was among my first act of conscience on the race question. I determined from then on I would never preach to another segregated audience.”

Graham was an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. once attested:

Had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my work in the Civil Rights Movement would not have been as successful as it has been.

Throughout his career Graham largely managed to transcend political partisanship, acting as a spiritual advisor to both Democratic and Republican presidents from Harry Truman to George W. Bush. (Although he met with President Obama, he declined to act as an advisor to him due to Obama’s extreme pro-abortion stance.)

As the parenthesis in the last paragraph indicates, he opposed abortion, though with exceptions including rape and incest, and affirmed the traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality and marriage. But he was wary of overemphasizing these doctrines, which he considered overly divisive in the way that they were leveraged for partisan purposes.

“I don’t get involved in the abortion thing,” he said in a 1994 interview in TV Guide, apparently meaning the political partisanship around the issue. He went on:

I agree with [Pope John Paul II], whom I know well, on abortion. But I just don’t take extreme positions. I preach to unite people. There is a great division in the religious community today. God loves the homosexual as much as anyone else. I think homosexuality is a sin, but no greater than idolatry and adultery. In my judgment, it’s not that big.

I recently ran across a waggish tribute to Graham from Bob Dylan that took a provocative angle:

When I was growing up, Billy Graham was very popular. He was the greatest preacher and evangelist of my time — that guy could save souls and did. I went to two or three of his rallies in the ’50s or ’60s. This guy was like rock ’n’ roll personified — volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution — when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30– or 40,000 of them. If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. There’s never been a preacher like him. He could fill football stadiums before anybody. He could fill Giants Stadium more than even the Giants football team. Seems like a long time ago. Long before Mick Jagger sang his first note or Bruce strapped on his first guitar — that’s some of the part of rock ’n’ roll that I retained. I had to. I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear.

Graham was a fallible and sinful man, as are we all. He made mistakes, and is not above criticism. But the world is a better place today because of his life and work, and a poorer one today for his departure.

Requiem Aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetuae luceat ei. Requiescat in pace.

P.S. A brief musical tribute to Graham from the Swirling Eddies: