Today the Nation, and indeed the world, mourns the loss of the Reverend Billy Graham, “America’s Pastor”, and arguably the voice of American Christianity.
Born in November 1918, a few days before the end of the First World War, the young Graham gave his life to Christ as a teenager, an encounter which set him on the path of discipleship, and eventually of ministry.
For a largely Protestant nation, he was universally respected as an integral spokesman for Christianity by the vast majority of Americans, commanding even the respect and friendship of Presidents and Pontiffs: most notably, St. Pope John Paul II.
He embodied some of the best in American Christianity, which has often been referred to as her ‘civil religion’: a confessional and ethical mixture of High Church Episcopalianism, the Southern Baptist Convention, Pentecostalism, and what has been colloquially been called “Evangelicalism”. Famously however, even the Great Billy Graham could not define “Evangelical” as a group when asked for a definition. This is because, if you ask me, the adjective evangelical is far more important than its noun. It has meant a lot over the centuries, from Confessional Debates after the Reformation to the current day, yet he transcended all those labels.
A Church of many hearts
Billy Graham was one of those great pioneers of 20th century Christianity who also was typically American: modern, interested in new technologies and ways to reach lost souls in the most far-flung places of the world. He had an infectious warmth and a great talent for friendship. He spoke to the hearts of men and women, and not just to the head. He was also possessed of that unassuming, gentle courage which made him (as far as we can tell) equally at ease in the Oval Office as under the Iron Curtain. Many could call him friend, but yet he was always pastor.
Catholics as a whole should feel indebted to him for his rapprochement with America’s then largest religious minority, the Roman Catholic Church. This was typical of Graham’s style: personal, relational, kindly. To reach people in the name of Jesus Christ, he knew it was essential to embody Christ’s charity.
His love of spreading the message of Jesus Christ to all people, and the way with which he could appeal to individuals in the midst of the crowd, was a remarkable spiritual gift, whose passing impoverishes the body politic of Christendom.
A life that will continue to inspire
Reverend Graham calls to mind for me the great 16th century Bishop St. Francis de Sales. Bishop of the deeply Calvinistic and hostile city of Geneva, he nevertheless was a model of pastoral gentleness in an era of religious warfare, and zeal in communicating the Gospel. He was deeply respected because of this by Protestants and Catholics alike in his day. His personal motto, “Cor cordi loquitur”, or “Heart speaks to Heart”, was as much a motto as it was a lifestyle.
Graham had that same knack for understanding that the primary organ through which the Gospel passes, after the ear (for “faith comes by hearing”), is the human heart. It is so necessary to form relationships of love with one’s neighbor to communicate the truth of Christ’s life, love and power in our lives. Programs, seminars and tent meetings can only do so much. Nothing can replace the power of the individual believer, empowered by the Holy Spirit, appealing to others with unfeigned love.
Although we all may not have his sonorous voice or media ministry dedicated to reaching all sorts of people, we all can take very seriously the call to proclaim the Gospel of Christ to every man, woman and child.
At the end of the day, every Christian who takes Christ and his Gospel seriously, whatever their denomination, is an evangelical. I would be proud if I could be numbered among them.
Rest in peace, Billy Graham. May you rest from your labors, for your good works go with you (Revelation 14:13).