When the Rev. Billy Graham died last month, my first thought was, “Now, there was a guy who devoted his whole life to preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ.” Well, to be honest, my actual first thought was, “Billy Graham was still alive? Huh, I thought he died a long time ago.”
But there’s no doubt Billy Graham’s life mission was to encourage people to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus. And boy, did he ever succeed. The news reports about his death included a glowing tribute from Cardinal Dolan of New York, and mentioned Graham’s close friendship with St. Pope John Paul the Great.
Way back in the 1950s, long before the Second Vatican Council’s more ecumenical approach toward other faith traditions, Billy Graham was actively reaching out to Catholics. This was quite bold and risky behavior, and many of Graham’s fellow Southern Baptists were outraged.
Even today, some anti-Catholic fundamentalists criticize Graham for allowing, as they put it, “Romish influence to compromise the purity of the real Gospel.”
However, the animosity is not just one-way. Many Catholics have been wary of Billy Graham for years. I can remember as a kid hearing adults in the parish grumbling about his televised crusades. “Bible thumping phony,” is the phrase I remember hearing often. Upon his death last month, certain corners of the Catholic blogosphere dismissed Graham and his ministry for the unpardonable sin of being a Protestant and therefore a heretic.
Wow, when will it ever end?
I’m pretty sure I discussed this last year, but let’s review what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about our separated brethren. There are four key points the Catechism makes about people in Protestant denominations:
First, the Catechism notes that they “possess the Word of God.” Protestant Bibles have the same divinely-inspired message as Catholic Bibles. We believe these sacred texts contain the truth God wished to share with us, and therefore, Protestants are in possession of God’s Holy Word.
Next, the Catholic Catechism explains that Protestants have valid baptism. Have you ever noticed at the Easter Vigil that some people converting into the Catholic Church receive three sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation; while others receive only two: Eucharist and Confirmation? This is because they’ve already been baptized in a Protestant community, and whether it was Congregational, Baptist, Methodist, etc., it was a valid baptism that forgave Original Sin and imparted divine grace. There’s no need for them to get baptized again.
Third, the Catholic Catechism says Protestants have the right to be called Christians. If the focus of their faith is Jesus Christ and His teachings, then how could we possibly say they are not Christians?
Finally, and most importantly, the Catechism says our separated brethren in the Protestant communities have the “means of salvation.” The reason sincere and faithful Protestants can go to Heaven is simple: if you have even a little Jesus, you have a LOT of Jesus. The Lord’s mercy and grace and supernatural Spirit are so powerful, even a little bit of Him is more than enough to forgive sins and conquer death once and for all.
When Billy Graham died, many news outlets printed one of his famous quotes: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
This is the heart of the Gospel, whether preached in Catholic or Protestant churches. This is the promise of Jesus Himself, who declared, “Whoever believes in [me] shall not perish but shall have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Billy Graham did more than just about anyone in modern history to spread this wonderful message around the world. And I’m sure last month he heard the Lord say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”