THE BLOG
11/04/2014 09:53 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Billy Graham and the Catholics

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Is it conceivable that Pope Francis would send Billy Graham, who turns 96 on November 7, a birthday card? It is. But one also imagines that Billy's son, Franklin, who manages his father's affairs in these final days, would be unimpressed.

Over the last decade, Franklin has retrenched Billy's reputation, away from the great strides his dad took toward an embracing of all expressions of Christian faith. Only two months ago, Franklin wrote on the website of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association that the Ebola outbreak may be instrumental to God's plan for the end of the world. Beware and foreboding are the tools of a Christian fundamentalist; they were never Billy's. For all his faults - and he had plenty - Billy never used the Gospel to threaten.

Sixty years ago last spring, Billy was invited by the British Evangelical Alliance to "revive" Christianity in post-war England. Harringay Arena filled every night from March to May to hear the American Southern Baptist preach. Graham met the queen, preached at Wembley Stadium to 120,000, and was the most written-about and photographed man in the realm that spring.

The 1954 London crusades would make the handsome young North Carolinian evangelist's reputation as a player on the world stage. By October that year, his face adorned the cover of Time magazine. For the better part of a half-century, until he faded from public attention a decade ago, Billy Graham was consistently named one of the world's most respected people in surveys and opinion polls, along with the likes of Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. Today he sits quietly at home in the mountains of North Carolina.

American church historian Grant Wacker has just published America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, a timely cultural biography. One of the world authorities on the subject of American evangelicalism, Wacker makes a strong claim for Graham's historical importance when he writes: "Graham ranks with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope John Paul II as one of the most creatively influential Christians of the twentieth century. One could make a case for others, too, such as Professor Reinhold Niebuhr, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Mother Teresa, but all of them spoke for a more limited constituency and for a briefer stretch of time."

Wacker frequently returns to the subject of Graham's complicated relationship with Catholics and Catholicism. Graham's own 1998 autobiography, Just As I Am (after Charlotte Elliott's hymn, slowly intoned during the "altar call" of every Graham crusade), told us much we already knew: he opposed Communism, was a friend to Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as to President Richard Nixon (remember their taped conversations in the Oval Office?), opposed abortion, and enjoyed the media attention he received. There was also a moment in the USSR in 1988 when Graham remembered, "sitting on the floor talking with Cardinal John O'Connor of New York about the way Protestant-Roman Catholic relations had changed."

As Wacker notes, "In 1950 evangelicals and Catholics eyes each other with deep suspicion. Most evangelicals felt that Catholicism was sub-Christian at best, and many believed that it was not Christian at all." Graham risked a great deal with his core constituency when he began building bridges between evangelicals and Catholics. This began in earnest soon after his 1957 crusade in New York City, at Madison Square Garden, the first time he preached on national television, when local priests warned parishioners against attending. Soon, Graham was reaching out to prominent Catholics in every city as he prepared a crusade, to stand with him as representatives of the Christian faith.

By 1961, Graham and President Kennedy prayed side-by-side at a Washington prayer breakfast (despite Graham's voiced preference for the Quaker Nixon during the campaign). And a few years later, Cardinal Cushing of Boston (who, as Archbishop, had even endorsed a Graham crusade in Boston in 1950) met with Billy, upon returning from Vatican II, declaring before a national television audience that Graham's message was good for Catholics.
Billy's friendships with Father Theodore Hesburgh, the legendary president of the University of Notre Dame, Bishop Fulton Sheen, Francis Cardinal Spellman, and Pope John Paul II ran deep. For example, Billy and Pope John Paul II met together on three occasions, and Graham once proudly repeated the Pope's private words to him: "We are brothers."

In Just As I Am, Billy remembered speaking to Rose Kennedy a year after JFK's assassination, saying, "The only hope for finding common ground among Christians of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints" was "to focus on the Word of God, the ultimate authority for our faith." That's the trouble. Protestant tent polls such as sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers are the fuel of evangelicalism that made Billy famous - and they depict a world in which what's true is ultimately determined by each person alone with a Bible. Such tenets make it easy for Christians like Franklin Graham to forget that Billy - whom Wacker says has never been much for introspection - also once said to a reporter, when asked what he'd do if invited by the pope to preach at St. Peter's: "I would gladly and humbly accept...[and] study for about a year in preparing."

-Jon M. Sweeney is a critic and author. His new book is When Saint Francis Saved the Church.

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