March 2, 2018

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

Rev. Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II were ‘kindred souls’

Sean GallagherPeople of the nation and the world lost a great spiritual leader on Feb. 21 when the Rev. Billy Graham died at the age of 99.

As a Catholic Christian, I appreciated and valued his public witness to the Gospel and his efforts to share it around the world. In some ways, he also reminds me of Pope John Paul II.

Born two years apart (John Paul in 1920, Graham in 1918), the two became great evangelists who tirelessly traveled the world to carry out Christ’s final commission to his Apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).

They shared a great mutual respect and viewed each other as brothers in Christ. Indeed, when Pope John Paul died in 2005, Graham said that he felt like a member of his own family had died, and said that the pontiff was “the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world in the last 100 years.”

They didn’t meet as often as they might have wished, though, because their first priority was to be faithful to their God‑given mission. In 1978, Pope John Paul (then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla) invited Graham to preach in Krakow, Poland, where he served as archbishop.

Even though Krakow and all of Poland was then and is now almost entirely Catholic, the future pontiff made the invitation as a gesture of his desire to promote better relations among all Christians.

When the day came for Graham to preach, though, Cardinal Wojtyla was in Rome being elected the first non-Italian pope in hundreds of years. Later, in 1987, Pope John Paul had plans to meet with Graham in South Carolina where the pontiff was scheduled to preach during an ecumenical prayer service—a place where evangelical Christians far outnumber Catholics.

Graham, however, later cancelled the visit when he was given the rare chance to preach in China, although this trip was called off when Graham suffered an injury. He wanted to attend the pontiff’s historic funeral in 2005 at the Vatican, but his poor health at the time made that impossible. Graham’s daughter was there in his place.

They did meet on other occasions at the Vatican to discuss various problems facing the world. Their hearts converged in these discussions in their shared conviction, as stated by Graham at the time of Pope John Paul’s death, “that the complex problems of our world are ultimately moral and spiritual in nature, and only Christ can set us free from the shackles of sin and greed and violence.”

Many people in our celebrity-dominated culture might view great religious leaders like Graham and Pope John Paul II (and Pope Francis today) through that lens. They might see them primarily as great personalities who amaze and entertain, but, in the end, don’t have a lasting impact.

That certainly wasn’t the case with Graham, who brought millions around the world to faith in Christ and promoted great charitable ministries to help people in need everywhere. Pope John Paul did the same, and also was a determined advocate for peace, including his spurring the peaceful transition in Eastern Europe from communism to democracy.

Although both men attracted tremendous crowds wherever they went, they did not seek to glorify themselves. Instead, they gave the glory to God and called all men and women to do the same.

The best way we can pay tribute to Rev Graham and Pope John Paul, surely two kindred souls, is to seek with the help of God to be evangelists in our own corner of the world, sharing Christ with loving deeds and the beautiful truth of the Gospel.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter and columnist for The Criterion.)

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