Just days before Billy Graham died, I found myself at Mass at the tomb, in St. Peter’s Basilica, of Pope John XXIII. He’s famous — or infamous, depending on your point of view — for opening the Second Vatican Council in the middle of the 20th century. It ushered in changes that haven’t been fully realized or that have run amok — again, depending on what we’re talking about and your point of view.
Billy Graham, the Protestant preacher to presidents — as he is so popularly known — was grateful. He talked with William F. Buckley Jr., who died ten years ago this month, about it on Buckley’s Firing Line program in 1969: (Saint) Pope John XXIII opened doors for fellowship with Catholics like he had never seen, and it was good. (Graham would be considered an apostate by some for saying such things — and for directing people at his prayer rallies to Catholic priests and churches, if they so desired.)
John XXIII’s successor, Paul VI, would close the Second Vatican Council, and not with a sense of triumph. He knew there were miscues and miscommunications and divisions — at best — that had crept in to the Council and its interpretations. But Paul VI had faith (Pope Francis has indicated that he will be named an official saint before the end of the calendar year). He was prophetic about how the world was tearing men and women apart from each other and from their very natures. Fifty years ago this year, he wrote a document that saw ahead to everything that we have seen exposed in the #MeToo cultural avalanche of misery brought to light in recent months.
In one homily in particular, in 1970, Paul VI talked about the Christian’s need to proclaim Christ to the world:
All things, all history converges in Christ. A man of sorrow and hope, he knows us and loves us. As our friend, he stays by us throughout our lives; at the end of time, he will come to be our judge; but we also know that he will be the complete fulfillment of our lives and our great happiness for all eternity.
I can never cease to speak of Christ for he is our truth and our light; he is the way, the truth and the life. He is our bread, our source of living water who allays our hunger and satisfies our thirst. He is our shepherd, our leader, our ideal, our comforter and our brother.
Pope Francis has been on retreat this past week, and that has been the major theme: thirst. Arguably, that’s been the whole point of his pontificate — and the life of Billy Graham, too.
Paul VI continued:
He is like us but more perfectly human, simple, poor, humble, and yet, while burdened with work, he is more patient. He spoke on our behalf; he worked miracles; and he founded a new kingdom: in it the poor are happy; peace is the foundation of a life in common; where the pure of heart and those who mourn are uplifted and comforted; the hungry find justice; sinners are forgiven; and all discover that they are brothers. . . .
Jesus Christ is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, Lord of the new universe, the great hidden key to human history and the part we play in it. He is the mediator — the bridge, if you will — between heaven and earth. Above all he is the Son of man, more perfect than any man, being also the Son of God, eternal and infinite.
This is what Billy Graham was about — introducing people to the most important Person he ever encountered, the Divine Person, Jesus Christ. It was as simple as that. What would be the point of doing anything else?
This is what Billy Graham was about — introducing people to the most important Person he ever encountered, the Divine Person, Jesus Christ. It was as simple as that. What would be the point of doing anything else? That’s the common ground he saw with other Christians. And, frankly, any created being — which covers us all. (If you were Jewish and at his prayer rallies, he would respect this, too. He would trust God to do the work He wanted done.)
He may have been a counselor to presidents — and had his regrets along the way about getting too close to the politics during some of those years — but the most important part of the story of Billy Graham is that he knew what he was about. Being Christian brings with it the life-changing responsibility to live and share the Gospel. When he saw that in others — a truth-telling beyond this world — he would see a brother, as Pope John Paul II referred to him. He would want to link arms and open doors to God together because people need that light of hope he knew in Christ.
Neither Graham nor Bill Buckley had interview hours to discuss Pope Francis, elected five years ago now. But Bill did say that no matter how imperfect his own practice of his Catholic faith, he had confidence in the baby born in Bethlehem. However people might interpret or debate any of these Christian leaders, if this is the launching pad for common cause, we may just be able to get somewhere together. When we see the miseries of this world — you don’t have to look far in life or the headlines to find them – we can find some respite in living the words of the Sermon on the Mount. And so, thanks be to God for the likes of Billy Graham who saw that and tried to help others to as well.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.