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The death of an Evangelical titan

When I started my own evangelical ministry, Word on Fire, some twenty years ago, I drew some very practical inspiration from Billy Graham.

The Rev. Billy Graham, famed preacher who was best known for his televised evangelism broadcasts, died Feb. 21 at his home in North Carolina at age 99. He is pictured in a 2005 photo in New York. (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)

I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Billy Graham preach about twenty years ago in Cincinnati. At the time, Dr. Graham was around eighty years old and clearly in frail health. He came to the podium and commenced to speak, but the crowd of young people, stirred up by the Christian rock bands who had performed earlier, was restive and inattentive. Graham paused, folded his hands, and quietly said, “Let us pray.” With that, a stadium of fifty thousand people fell silent. Once a spirit of reverence held sway, the preacher resumed. I remember thinking, “What an old pro!”

That old pro, arguably the greatest Christian evangelist of the past hundred years, died this week at ninety-nine, and it’s difficult to overstate his impact and importance. It is said that he directly addressed 215 million people in 185 countries in the course of his ministry. No other preacher, in the entire history of Christianity, has had such a range. At the height of his powers, he filled arenas and stadiums, for weeks at at time, in some of the most jaded, materialistic, and skeptical cities in the world. And when preachers and other religious celebrities all around him were falling into scandal and corruption, Billy Graham stood tall, a man of integrity. His moral heroism was on particularly clear display in the early years of the civil rights movement. Especially in his native South, it was the unquestioned practice to seat black people in segregated sections of churches and arenas. Though it cost him quite a few of his traditional supporters, Graham insisted that his crusades should be racially integrated. Impressed by this show of courage, Martin Luther King Jr. became a friend and appeared with Graham at a crusade in 1957.

What was it about his preaching that was so compelling? I suppose in his early years, he demonstrated a fair amount of “flash,” prowling the stage, waving his arms, and moving dramatically from whispering to shouting. But as he matured, a fair amount of that theatricality faded away. What remained was a gentle sense of humor (usually self-deprecating), an obvious sincerity, a keen intelligence, and above all, a clarity in regard to the essentials of the Gospel. Practically every Billy Graham sermon had the same basic structure: you have sought happiness in wealth, pleasure, material things, fame, etc., and you’ve never been satisfied; I want to tell you about what will make you happy. At this point, he would speak of Christ crucified and risen from the dead.

Now please don’t get me wrong—and don’t write me letters! As a Catholic, I affirm that there is more to salvation than accepting Jesus Christ in faith; there is the full integration into the life of Christ that happens through the instrumentality of the Church and her sacraments. Nevertheless, Catholics and Protestants come together in asserting—as Billy Graham consistently did—that we are sinners who stand in need of Christ’s saving grace. In point of fact, a generous ecumenism was one of the marks of Billy Graham’s approach. It didn’t bother him in the least if someone whose religious journey commenced at one of his crusades continued and came to fulfillment in the Catholic Church.

The Rev. Billy Graham and St. John Paul II are seen at the Vatican in 1990. Graham, best known for his televised evangelism broadcasts, died Feb. 21 at his home in North Carolina at age 99. (CNS files)

Much has been made of his relationship with presidents, monarchs, and prime ministers. He did indeed minister personally to twelve US presidents, and the wonderful Netflix series The Crown shows something of the impact he had on Queen Elizabeth II. But I’ve never been particularly taken with this dimension of Graham’s life, which seemed, to me anyway, more sizzle than steak. In fact, one of the low points of his career had to have been his meek acquiescence to Richard Nixon’s anti-Semitic musings, captured on White House tapes. To his credit, Dr. Graham repeatedly apologized for that lapse. He was far more powerful and spiritually efficacious when he prayed over the thousands of ordinary people who had responded to an altar call at the close of a crusade.

When I started my own evangelical ministry, Word on Fire, some twenty years ago, I drew some very practical inspiration from Billy Graham. In his autobiography, Just As I Am, Graham stated that, as he was getting hisministry underway, he told his colleagues that three things tend to undermine an evangelist’s work: trouble with sex, trouble with alcohol, or trouble with money. They were all to endeavor, he said, to avoid these three traps. When I met with the Word on Fire board for the first time, I relayed this story, and I commented, “I’ll take care of the sex and the alcohol, you take care of the money!”

I love the story of Billy Graham’s first encounter with my evangelical hero, Fulton J. Sheen. These two titans of preaching were on the same train from Washington to New York. Sheen found out about Graham’s presence, and he knocked on the door of the Protestant’s berth and said, “Billy, I wonder whether we might have a chat and a prayer?” Though he was preparing for bed, Billy Graham acquiesced and the two of them spent several hours in spiritual conversation—the beginning of a friendship that endured until Sheen’s death. I’ve always taken great pleasure in that image of brotherhood across denominational lines.

I believe that anyone who reverences the Christian Gospel owes Billy Graham a debt of gratitude. Requiescat in pace.

About Bishop Robert Barron 142 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

9 Comments

  1. It occurs to me that Billy Graham is exactly what the church is looking for for the new evangelization. Someone who does the “God is cool” thing, but leaves out the “God is Catholic” thing.

  2. Of all the very rich evangelical preachers (Mr. Graham was estimated at about 25 million) Billy Graham was the most poised and dignified. Yet, one cannot help wonder how many Catholics left the sacraments because he was more exciting to them than their own priest. Did Graham send them back to the Blessed Sacrament once he emboldened them in the Christian faith or did he just keep accepting their checks? Further, the mold of Graham formed the mega-church and the likes of others like Kenneth Copeland (760 million). Did Billy ever have a “spiritual conversation” with Kenny about their great unhappiness over their wealth? This being said, I will of course pray for his soul, which is what we Catholics do, even if Graham’s followers will not pray for us.

    • Responding to Inigo: Oh, good grief!!!! I am a Protestant and I pray for my Catholic brothers and sisters constantly. I dearly loved Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Francis confuses me a lot but I pray for him as well. Three of my Protestant grandchildren have attended or do currently attend a wonderful Catholic high school. I don’t know why you would make such a statement about worldly riches among some Protestant preachers when for goodness sake, the wealth of the Catholic Church is phenomenal. Are you expressing a bit of envy perhaps. Anyhow, I would hope you might reconsider how you are expressing your views toward Protestants. I love you, as my brother/sister in Christ. Thank you.

      • Truly? Because you don’t sound very loving. You completely skirted over what I wrote especially since my reference was to praying for the souls of the dead which as so many of my Protestant friends tell me they do not do (one friend who told me he would not pray for the soul of his own mother!) And “Good Grief” is not an argument but a dismissive statement unworthy of a serious discussion. I think that most people who read this got my drift about personal and individual wealth which Jesus himself proposed as an impediment to true discipleship to the rich young man. The wealth of the church is phenomenal! Have you looked at the books of most parishes and dioceses today? Yes we are rich in treasures known as sacred places and sacred images – gifts made to God for the purpose of holy worship. To compare this with the personal wealth of a preacher seems to willfully misunderstand the Church (Yes – capital “C”). And pray tell, why would I be “envious” if my church’s wealth was so “phenomenal”? If you wanted to be fair you could have pointed out the charitable arm of Billy Graham’s work which I acknowledge – also in the millions – (but which does not negate his apparent attachment to personal wealth). Instead you opted to challenge my virtue by taunting me with being envious. You also missed the part about the Holy Eucharist. As to your last comment – I have reconsidered – and I stand by my first comment.

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