The longtime preacher had a genuine ability to connect with everyone, overcome the dubious, listen to the critics and win over the wicked.
I met Billy Graham when I was a theology student at Oxford. The Christian Union — an evangelical student group — invited the famous evangelist to preach a university mission, and all clergy, theologians and theology students were invited to a special meeting to hear the great man speak and take questions.
The atmosphere among the theologians and students was, as you might expect, a mixture of snobbish anti-Americanism, rakish disregard, snide liberalism and giggling excitement. “Do we really need to be preached at by a backwoods American fundamentalist?” or “I’m trying very hard to be open minded.”
I was therefore nervous and fascinated to hear how Graham would handle his audience of sophisticated and stuck-up sinners. He mounted the platform, took a long silent look — the kind Clint Eastwood takes when weighing up the bad guy — then smiled his handsome smile and began.
After thanking everyone for the kind invitation he said, “This is my first time to your beautiful and ancient city and I must admit I feel a bit like Paul preaching in Athens. He was just an ordinary tent maker, but there he was preaching the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to the greatest philosophers and thinkers of his day.”
It was a charm offensive and it worked. It showed one of the most amazing qualities of the man. Channeling St. Paul who said, “I am all things to all men so that I might win some,” Graham was equally winsome. He had a genuine ability to connect with everyone, overcome the dubious, listen to the critic and win over the wicked.
Being nostalgic, I watched a video last evening of Graham preaching in Chicago in 1971. At the altar call he said, “If you’re Protestant, if you’re Catholic, if you’re Jewish, you still need to meet Jesus. I want you to get up out of your seat and come forward.”
And they did. Hundreds of them were drawn to Jesus through the magnetism and gifts of the preacher boy from North Carolina.
The remarkable thing is that Graham, who died Feb. 21 at the age of 99, was able to speak across all denominational and faith lines, but without the wishy-washy compromise we have come to accept with mainstream ecumenism. This is because he unashamedly and powerfully kept to his main message: the cross of Christ.
Again like St. Paul, Graham could claim, “We preach Christ and him crucified.” What struck me about his sermon in Chicago was that he focused on sin and the saving crucifixion. The message was plain, direct and powerful: “Jesus died to save you from your sin. Come and accept his love and turn your life around and head toward heaven.”
While this simple message connected naturally with his evangelical home team, how could it connect with sacramentally based Catholics?
Terry Mattingly of Get Religion records how Graham strove to reconcile this Protestant call to conversion to Catholic theology. Mattingly recalled an interview he had with Graham at which he asked about his outreach to Catholics:
“Graham said he was preparing for his 1986 Mission France Crusade and, well, he was concerned about how — in a culture rich in Catholic history — to deliver his altar calls. Thus, he brought the subject up while meeting with John Paul II.
“How did that go? Graham shared language close to the following, and I heard him use variations on this in the 1987 crusade in Denver's Mile High Stadium. As part of his call for people to come forward to make a public profession of Christian faith, he said: ‘Maybe you were baptized as an infant, but you feel like you've lost touch with those vows that were made long ago. Come forward and claim those baptism vows as your own.’
“The Graham team had Catholics, including a few priests, trained to help talk to Catholics who came forward. Dozens were referred to evangelism-friendly local Catholic parishes for follow-up classes and Bible studies.
“The Pope endorsed that language, Graham said. He appreciated the Graham team's desire to be sensitive to Catholic seekers.”
This is in perfect keeping with Catholic theology, and yet Graham never pretended to be a great theologian or a world-class ecumenist. He was a preacher of the gospel who sought to be all things to all men whereby he might win some.
He was castigated for this by fellow preachers. While I was a student at Bob Jones University, I remember Dr. Bob Jr. tossing Billy Graham on the scrap heap as “an apostate neo-evangelical who compromises with Catholics and liberals.” We should remember that St. Paul was likewise condemned for taking the gospel to the Gentiles.
The final quality that Graham maintained was absolute personal integrity. He was never in a room with a woman alone. All earnings were stashed in his charity — the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and overseen by his trustees. He took a salary from the foundation and lived in the comfortable but modest family home, and eschewed all the usual trappings of fame and fortune so beloved by television preachers.
Pendulums swing back, and I would not be surprised if, in our divided, cynical and heretical age, that God might raise up a new Billy Graham — a man who would be empowered to preach the simple, timeless faith of a sinful humanity, a loving God and a Son who was faithful even to a sacrificial death.
Given the state of decay and disbelief it might seem improbable — impossible even.
But those who would hope for such a revival should not despair. With God all things are possible.
Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.