The Reverend Billy Graham is undeniably a great man. Born in North Carolina in 1918, the son of a farmer, Graham became a pastor while in college. He was told as a youth that he had a voice that God could use mightily, and that is one modern-day prophecy that certainly came to pass.
Dr. Graham became a radio preacher, then president of a Bible college, but he found his real calling as an itinerant evangelist in the late 1940s. He had little theological background, and he kept his message simple. As media coverage increased, the crowds grew. Billy Graham became a household name, and his “crusades,” as he called them, began to attract thousands. He became known as the “friend of presidents,” garnered a slew of awards, and has for decades been on lists of the “most admired” people in the world. There has been criticism, of course: Graham was heard expressing anti-Semitic views on the Nixon tapes, and his missions trip to the Soviet Union in the early 1980’s was widely viewed as a propaganda bonanza for the USSR. He sadly was not a leader in the rethinking of Southern Baptist morality on the subject of abortion, as that denomination’s position evolved in the 1970s from support of abortion in cases of fetal deformity and potential harm to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother to its present-day recognition of abortion as gravely evil. But as a historical figure, his influence cannot be denied. Hundreds of thousands have gone forward at Billy Graham crusades to pray the “sinner’s prayer,” get saved, and be advised to begin “attending the Bible-believing church of your choice.”
As Evangelicals we often spoke of all of history being “His-Story,” and men like Dr. Graham figured large in the telling of that story, along with the Reformers and 19th– and 20th-century Protestant missionaries like Hudson Taylor and Jim Elliott. What was remarkable, though, was how readily we overlooked certain other His-storical figures, like John Paul II. John Paul was Pope for 27 years of my life, and he merited barely a blip on my Protestant radar. I lived in Europe in the 1980s when he was shot by a would-be assassin – I do not recall even praying for his recovery. Those were the years of Solidarność and of the pope’s multiple trips to his homeland, to which I paid minimal attention. John Paul II traveled the world, drawing some of the biggest crowds in human history. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev claimed that “The collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.” For me, as an Evangelical Protestant, it all might as well have happened on another planet.
Imagine, though, IMAGINE if Billy Graham had done any one of those things – it would have been proof – PROOF! – that God is working through His servants in this world today. As Evangelicals, we were strangely indifferent to all this evidence of God’s hand on the Holy Roman Pontiff. When John Paul died in 2005, Evangelicals in my area turned a blind eye to the His-storical significance of his life; the conversation centered on whether the poor old guy was in Heaven or in hell. Since he hadn’t, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, repudiated Catholic teaching before his death, consensus leaned towards the second option.
It was all, to a certain extent, part of our Protestant policy of “downplaying, denigrating, distorting and denying” the argument for Catholicism. Had Mikhail Gorbachev told us that Billy Graham had been instrumental in bringing down the Soviet system, we would have recognized God at work immediately. But, the Pope? How could God work through someone who embodies the system that the Reformers sought to disassemble? So what if the man prayed, “Let Thy Spirit descend and renew the face of the land, this land!” when he visited his homeland in 1979, and 10 years later saw the fall of communism in Poland? Sheer coincidence! Who gives a rip if God used him to miraculously heal the sick? Catholic “miracles” are a dime a dozen. Why should I care if God protected him through three assassination attempts? Let’s not blow things out of proportion!
We had our list of Christians through whom we believed God had worked since the Apostles died. It was a very selective list that began with the Reformers and then encompassed certain 19th– and 20th-century Protestant missionaries and evangelists – the vast majority of those being speakers of the English language. It was an odd, lop-sided, limited list, one which most of us knew by heart and never tired of enthusing over. And while many of the people on that list were deserving of the reverence in which we held them, the sad thing was that the list was so pinched. One had to wear big, thick blinders to avoid seeing what God had been and was currently doing through the Catholic Church.
For God, you see, has had His hand on Catholic individuals for 2,000 years now. From the earliest Christian martyrs (all CATHOLIC – read their writings!) whose blood was the seed of the Church, to the Christian bishops at the First Council of Nicaea (all CATHOLIC – look up the proceedings of the Council!) who declared Christ “God from God,” to the Christian bishops at the Councils of Hippo and Carthage (all CATHOLIC – check out the canon they produced!) who discerned which books belong in our Bible, we have example after example of God continuing His work in His-story – His-story which we Protestants roundly ignored. It was through Catholic clergy and monastics that God preserved not just the cultural heritage of Greece and Rome, but the Bible itself, copying manuscripts and teaching literacy in Latin – one historian calls the Benedictines “the Fathers of European civilization.” Catholic missionaries traveled to the ends of the known earth, proclaiming the Gospel of our Lord, Christianizing the nations, educating them, stamping out their barbaric practices, fostering charitable works, and encouraging their spiritual, moral and cultural development. Medieval Catholics developed the university system. A multitude of the scientists participating in the 16th-century Scientific Revolution were Catholic, and many of those were priests. The Father of International Law was a priest (Francisco de Vitoria). Pope Saint Leo turning back Attila’s forces, Pope Saint Pius V and the Holy League fighting for Christian civilization at Lepanto… had Billy Graham, or his medieval counterparts, been involved in any of this, we never would have heard the end of it. All of these His-storically significant events took place during the 1500 years between the death of the Apostle John and the emergence of Reformation theology – an incredibly noteworthy period of time considering how mightily God worked through faithful Catholics – a period of time concerning which I as an Evangelical had no real education or interest. It was all “the Dark Ages” as far as I was concerned, a dim historical twilight which caught the Almighty in an uncharacteristic snooze….
This amounted to willful blindness on my part. Canadian Southern Baptist pastor Henry Blackaby, in his popular course book “Experiencing God” makes the following claims: “To experience God personally, remember God has been at work in our world from the very beginning, and He still is at work…. As God’s obedient child, you are in a love relationship with Him. Because He loves you and wants to involve you in His work, He will show you where He is working so you can join Him…. Is it possible for God to be working around you and you not see it? Yes. …Unless God allows you to see where He is working, you will not see it.” Pastor Blackaby (who mentions only Biblical characters, Reformers, and 19th– and 20th-century English-speaking missionaries as examples of God at work) could also mention that if you have a favorite pair of leather flaps attached to your bridle and are taught to keep your head down, even if God points to what He’s doing with a flashing neon “COLLAPSE OF THE SOVIET UNION!” sign, you’re likely to miss it. The signs are everywhere, but if you refuse to look, you won’t see.
The 20th century was a challenging time, and that is exactly when men and women of God step up to the plate. With the barbarians at civilization’s gates, a second Pope Leo the Great was to be expected, someone commissioned by God to repulse rampaging 20th-century Huns. When he came, he caught Protestants unawares. I’m Catholic now, and I’m keeping my head up and my eyes open. God willing, I’ve got a lot of good years ahead of me, and I’m still hoping to be a witness to His-Story in the making.
On the memorial of St. Juan Diego
Deo omnis gloria!