One of the most famous evangelists of the 20th century has died. Billy Graham passed away early Feb. 21 at his home in Montreat, N.C., according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He was 99.
The Southern Baptist minister became known for his crusades — revival meetings, often held in large stadiums — that took him to more than 185 countries to preach the message of Jesus Christ and invite people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. In 1957, he filled New York’s Madison Square Garden for 16 consecutive weeks.
The outreach of his preaching ministry rivalled that of Pope John Paul II. Graham reached at least 210 million people through his personal appearances and through his radio and television ministries. In 1950, he launched his weekly “Hour of Decision” radio program that became a staple of Christian broadcasting for 60 years.
He reached many more through his films, more than two dozen books, an internationally syndicated newspaper column, “My Answer,” and a monthly magazine, Decision, which comes out in six languages and has more than two million subscribers.
His 1975 book, “Angels: God’s Secret Agents,” sold more than a million copies in three months. He wrote more than 30 books, starting in 1947 with “Calling Youth to Christ” and ending in 2015 with “Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity and Our Life Beyond.”
Respect was shown him both during his lifetime and when he died. He appeared on the Gallup list of world’s most admired men 60 times in his life — every year the polling company asked the question.
Graham was “a preacher of God’s word not only in his sermons, but also in the very life he lived,” said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “His faith and integrity invited countless thousands around the world into a closer relationship with our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God for the ministry of Billy Graham.”
Bishop Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte, where Graham was born, commented: “Through his ministry, Graham taught the world that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. May the Father of mercies now receive Dr. Graham into his loving embrace. The condolences and prayers of the Catholic Church are with the Graham family at this time.”
Graham’s ecumenical approach in ministry “helped to forge bonds of friendship and understanding between Catholics and Protestants,” said Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton, Pa. “He reminded us that what we had in common in Christ was greater than what divided us.”
It is worth noting that it was a Benedictine Abbey in North Carolina that initiated Graham into his relationship with Catholics — a relationship that led to several visits with Pope John Paul II. As reported in this week’s issue, Belmont Abbey invited Graham to its college in 1967 to give a talk and to present him with an honorary degree.
This was the era after the Second Vatican Council, when other Benedictine abbeys were also promoting the ecumenical initiatives of the council. St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, for example, built a centre for ecumenical scholars that has an international reputation today.
The late Benedictine Father John Oetgen, a past president of Belmont College, had a groundbreaking idea. He wanted to put the small, unimposing college on the map by inviting the extremely popular evangelist to his school. Graham accepted, and drew a huge crowd. The Baptist preacher said he had never before been invited to speak at a Catholic institution. He commented at the time that 10 years earlier Protestants and Catholics could not “meet together and greet each other as brothers.”
Graham welcomed representatives of other denominations, including Catholics, to attend his crusades. In many places local Catholic authorities welcomed him and formed pastoral follow-up programs to welcome lapsed Catholics who were prompted by the preacher to return to the church.
In 1964, Cardinal Richard J. Cushing of Boston said that no Catholic who heard Graham preach “can do anything but become a better Catholic.”
Besides his openness to the ecumenical movement, Graham also crossed the racial divide in America. He was a friend of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., held integrated rallies beginning in 1953 and was considered a major influence in the civil rights movement.
Among the awards Graham received in his lifetime were numerous honorary doctorates and a wide range of religious, humanitarian and broadcasting honours. They include the prestigious Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
In the 2000 Jubilee Year celebrations, Pope John Paul II asked churches to remember witnesses of the Christian faith, especially martyrs from all denominations: Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant. He broadened the appeal to include teachers of the faith. In his apostolic letter “Tertio Millennio Adveniente” he wrote, “Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of the saints and martyrs” (37).
In an age of televangelism, Graham has left a legacy of teaching the faith, living the faith and inviting believers and non-believers alike to fullness of life in Jesus Christ. — PWN