How Billy Graham shaped American Catholicism

Billy Graham died Feb. 21, in Montreat, N.C., at the age of 99. Given his long life, it is easy to forget how young Mr. Graham was when he first emerged in the public eye. At an age that today marks a point when many adults are just feeling confident in a career and starting a family, Mr. Graham was, at 31, leading his first major crusade in downtown Los Angeles.

Feb 28, 2018

By Jon M. Sweeney
Billy Graham died Feb. 21, in Montreat, N.C., at the age of 99. Given his long life, it is easy to forget how young Mr. Graham was when he first emerged in the public eye. At an age that today marks a point when many adults are just feeling confident in a career and starting a family, Mr. Graham was, at 31, leading his first major crusade in downtown Los Angeles. “Crusade” was the somewhat unfortunate name given to nightly religious services highlighted by a long sermon that included an invitation to the crowd to make a public decision to convert to faith in Christ. By luck, providence or charisma, that first big crusade was a hit, and went on for eight straight weeks. It is nearly impossible to imagine the American public remaining focused on one thing for so long today.

In America’s Pastor, the latest biography of the evangelist, historian Grant Wacker makes a strong claim for Billy Graham’s historical importance. “Graham ranks with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope John Paul II as one of the most creatively influential Christians of the 20th century,” Mr Wacker writes. “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.”

Mr Graham had a complicated relationship with Catholics and Catholicism. His own 1998 autobiography, Just as I Am (named after the hymn, which was slowly intoned during the “altar call” of every Graham crusade), detailed how he opposed Communism and was a friend to Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as to President Richard Nixon. It spoke of his opposition to abortion and of how he enjoyed the media attention he often received. But then there were also moments such as this one in the USSR in 1988, when Mr. Graham remembered, “sitting on the floor talking with Cardinal John O’Connor of New York about the way Protestant-Roman Catholic relations had changed.”

Protestant-Catholic relations did change in those years, in part because of the work of Billy Graham.

He risked a great deal with his core evangelical constituency when he began building bridges with Catholics. This started after his 1957 crusade in New York City at Madison Square Garden, the first time Billy Graham preached on national television, when local Catholic priests warned parishioners against attending. Mr Graham responded by subsequently reaching out to prominent Catholics in every city as he prepared his next crusade, to stand with him as representatives of the Christian faith. The majority of evangelicals were unhappy with this. Some of a more fundamentalist persuasion began to disown Mr. Graham as a betrayer of the true faith.

But Mr. Graham was drawing crowds — thousands and tens of thousands of people each year — to faith in Jesus Christ. How could any evangelical argue with that?

Partners in Prayer

Mr. Graham’s early commitment to relationships with Catholics was muddled, at best. During the 1960 U.S. presidential election, for example, according to biographer William Martin, the evangelist made it clear to many that Richard Nixon was his man and that he was deeply concerned at the prospect of a Catholic president. Soon thereafter, however, Mr. Graham seems to have changed his perspective.

By 1961, Mr. Graham and President Kennedy prayed side by side at a Washington prayer breakfast. A few years later, in 1964, Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston (who, as archbishop, had even endorsed a Graham crusade in Boston in 1950) met with Mr. Graham upon returning from Rome and the Second Vatican Council, declaring before a national television audience that Mr. Graham’s message was good for Catholics.

Cardinal Cushing said, “God will bless [Graham’s] preaching and crusade.” Mr. Graham responded with gratitude, stating that he felt much closer to Catholics and Catholic tradition than he did to what was more alien to his message: liberal Protestantism.

Such an embrace of Catholic understandings of faith over liberal Protestant ones would give birth to the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative of Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson 30 years later. Their joint ecumenical document, published in 1994, used biblical and theological principles to rally around shared political issues such as the right to life. Catholic co-signers of the ecumenical document included George Weigel and Jesuit theologian, Avery Dulles, SJ.

Throughout the remaining four decades of his public preaching ministry, Mr Graham was known for warm friendships with other prominent Catholics, including the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., who even gave his permission for Mr. Graham to hold a crusade on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in its famous football stadium. Of course, Mr. Graham filled the stadium. Then there were notable and public friendships with Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Cardinal Francis Spellman, even Pope John Paul II.

Mr Graham sought out the pope in 1981, requesting a private audience at the Vatican, something his core audience surely found strange. A photo op with the pope was never something desired by an evangelical leader in the past. Later, Mr Graham proudly — and perhaps again somewhat indiscreetly — repeated John Paul II’s private words to him: “We are brothers.” The effect was powerful, and evangelicals and Catholics warmed to each other.

In 2000, John Paul II even sent official Catholic delegates to Amsterdam to participate in a large conference the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was sponsoring on the subject of worldwide evangelism. One of those Catholic bishops who attended is quoted in a book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. This bishop remarked afterwards: “I wish I could get more Catholics to have such enthusiasm for their faith in Christ!” -- America Magazine (used with permission)

Total Comments:0

Name
Email
Comments