R.I.P. Billy Graham

Rev. Billy Graham died today, February 21, at his home in North Carolina. He was 99.

This article in the National Catholic Register is testament to the strides in ecumenism that have been achieved in the last fifty plus years since the bishops of the Second Vatican Council announced a firm intention to reach out to Christians of other traditions, and also to non-Christians.

I recall in the mid-1990s reading a Memphis newspaper article about Pope St. John Paul II’s statement that evolution was “more than a hypothesis,” and making it clear that there was no real conflict between the scientific theory of evolution and Catholic faith. The article included a quote from a Church of God minister in Memphis who spoke of his disappointment that “a man of God” like Pope John Paul would take such a position on evolution. I wondered at the progress this statement reflected, not that the minister was disappointed in John Paul’s stance on evolution, but that a Church of Christ minister in Memphis, Tennessee would regard the pope in Rome as “a man of God”!

I think Billy Graham’s public friendship with John Paul II had a lot to do with that progress.

Already, articles are being written about Graham’s flaws. He is being accused of anti-Semitism, based on statements he made to Richard Nixon decades ago. He is being accused of failing to be a strong moral voice when he had the ear of every American president from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. He is being accused of being a celebrity minister, of failing to give a proper witness because he was willing to show up on their programs (he is the only minister with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!).

Be that as it may. We have all failed. We could all have done better. In my mind, there’s no question that Billy Graham grew in his appreciation for people who did not share his view of the gospel, or even share the Christian faith. I, for one, cannot imagine his making statements about Jews in later years that he made when Nixon was in the White House, and Graham refused to participate in a campaign led by his Southern Baptist denomination to target Jews for conversion.

His appreciation of Catholics certainly developed over the decades, and he came to judge Pope John Paul II, the first pope he ever met, as “the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years.” Graham’s only true desire was to bring the gospel message to the millions, and that he did, preaching directly before more people than any other figure in history. It should not be forgotten that Graham, even in the deep South, refused to have his rallies racially segregated. It should not be forgotten, either, that in a time when popular ministers, both Catholic and Protestant, have been justly accused of all sorts of financial and sexual crimes, Billy Graham lived a live of unmatched integrity.

Billy Graham never placed his faith for salvation in his being perfect. He placed it only in the grace of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In everything, he strove to do his utmost for His Highest, and I have firm faith that our Lord will greet him with the words we all long to hear at the moment we approach His throne: “Well done, my good and faithful servant!”

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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