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Billy Graham's Walk With Catholics

Billy Graham's Walk With Catholics
Posing outside the Kennedy ocean front home just before this foursome head for golf course in Palm Beach, Florida, Jan. 16, 1961. Left to right are: President-elect John F. Kennedy, Evangelist Billy Graham, Senator George Smathers and William Reynolds. (AP)

Wednesday, 21 February 2018 06:03 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Following the news Wednesday morning that Billy Graham was dead at age 99, the whole world seem to recall the career of the man who was by far the most famous evangelist of the 20th Century.

In the coming days, we will hear a great deal about Graham as "America's pastor" and "ambassador of God" to the world. We will also hear volumes about his much-publicized reputation as a "friend of Presidents," and his record of preaching to 215 million listeners in 85 countries — more than any person in history, according to biographer Grant Wacker.

But there is a side of Billy Graham that is little known: his relationship with Catholics and their Church.

As a Southern Baptist preacher coming up in the 1940's and '50's, Graham matured at a time when leaders of his faith looked upon Catholicism with a mixture of fear and suspicion. Whether it was their spiritual leader living in Rome or their reverence for the Virgin Mary, Catholics were not by any means viewed as colleagues or allies by most Southern Baptists.

So it was no surprise to anyone in 1960 that Graham favored friend and frequent golfing buddy Richard Nixon over Democrat John Kennedy, the second Catholic ever to be nominated for President by a major party.

But Graham —a registered Democrat — kept his doubts about Kennedy relatively quiet. He shared his mailing list with the Nixon campaign and, in August 1960, he helped convene a strategy session of evangelical leaders in Montreaux, Switzerland to discuss how to best oppose Kennedy. This led to a Washington D.C. conference Sept. 7 in which more than 150 Protestant pastors led by Rev. Norman Vincent Peale discussed "the nature and character of the Roman Catholic Church."

The event, which was meant to raise doubts about Kennedy, proved a disaster. Reporters asked hostile questions such as why no Catholics or Jews were included or why Peale and his colleagues expressed no questions about Nixon's Quaker faith.

"I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling," former Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson icily observed.

Graham, however, was nowhere near the conference, The New York Times later reported, because of "advisers who did not want him to endanger his crusades in Catholic countries."

Three day before he was sworn in as president in 1961, Kennedy followed his father's advice and invited Graham to play golf with him in Palm Beach, Florida. The elder Kennedy felt that Graham's presence would be a big step toward easing doubts about a Catholic president.

He was right, as Graham told reporters that JFK's election "probably had reduced forever the importance of the religious issue in American elections."

In the 1960's, Graham began moving closer to Catholics. To the consternation of some of his fans in the Southern Baptist community, he invited prominent Catholics to sit on stage at several of his crusades. He also praised the Second Vatican Council, calling it "a second Reformation" and proclaiming "I find myself closer to Catholics than the radical Protestants."

He befriended well-known Catholic leaders. Among them was Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who had also become a "celebrity preacher" through his Emmy-winning television show "Life is Worth Living."

"Billy Graham, viewed from a Catholic perspective, was an admirer of Fulton J. Sheen," George Marlin, author of several books on Catholicism in America, told Newsmax, "Like Sheen, Graham was a voice of religious reason in an age of unreason."

In 1981, he had a private audience with Pope John Paul II and the two chatted, Graham recalled, "like long-lost friends." At one point, during a pause in the conversation, Graham said, "[The Pope} grabbed the lapels of my coat [and] pulled me forward within inches of his own face. He fixed his eyes on me and said 'Listen, Graham, we are brothers."

Many Catholics worldwide felt that way about Graham when he died. As George Marlin noted, "When Bishop Sheen died in 1979, Billy Graham said 'I hope to meet up with him when I'm in heaven." I hope he does."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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Following the news Wednesday morning that Billy Graham was dead at age 99, the whole world seem to recall the career of the man who was by far the most famous evangelist of the 20th Century.In the coming days, we will hear a great deal about Graham as "America's pastor" and...
billy graham, friendships, catholics, kennedy, sheen
Wednesday, 21 February 2018 06:03 PM
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