Witness for the Faith: What Catholics Can Learn from Billy Graham

The name of Billy Graham is virtually synonymous in the minds of most people with the word evangelization. Here is a man—a Protestant, to be sure—who circles the globe, decade after decade. Literally millions upon millions of men and women, in every continent now, have heard the Christian message as Graham casts it, namely, Jesus Christ is the Son of God, His death on the Cross was the sacrifice for the sins of the world, and His rising from the dead the victory over sin and death. Come to Him—believe in Him— commit yourself in total obedience to Him—accept Him as your Savior—and you will have eternal life. You will be a Christian.

I can think of three responses to Billy Graham which might be put forward by Catholics. On the one hand we might find many who would be reluctant to endorse him at all since, on their view, his is an attenuated message. He says nothing of the Church, nothing of the sacraments, and nothing of baptism. The stress is all on the individual’s conscious acceptance of Jesus Christ. In other words, sola fides. These Catholics would nevertheless applaud the clarity and courtesy and vigor with which Graham speaks.

A second Catholic view might be that this sort of boiling-down of the Gospel is inappropriate to our epoch. These people might wish to stress the enormous ambiguity of modern life and ask just what it is after all that constitutes religious conversion, and, further, to raise the question as to whether, in fact, Christians have any warrant to insist that theirs alone is the salvific word. Shouldn’t we leave Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and the nonreligious to pursue their own lives according to their lights? Surely we cannot, at this late date, still be insisting, like St. Peter, that “there is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby ye must be saved.” And furthermore, isn’t Graham’s stress on heaven grotesque in an epoch like ours, with its gigantic problems of poverty, racism, oppression, and injustice in a thousand forms? To whistle people away to Paradise when they scarcely have rags to cover their nakedness—isn’t this cynicism?

Third, some Catholics might say simply, “Right on!” After all, he is preaching what the Apostles preached, and anyone who thus converts to genuine faith in Christ may certainly be shepherded further along by the Catholic Church. I was interested recently to see on television the Roman Catholic primate of Hungary on the platform at an immense Billy Graham meeting in a stadium near Budapest: surely here was a loud message to Hungarians — “The Catholic Church, far from distancing itself from this preaching of the Gospel, is here in open support of the enterprise.”

As you know, Billy Graham appears at the hither end of a lineage which reaches back through Billy Sunday to D.L. Moody, Charles G. Finney, and thence to John Wesley and beyond. A question arises here: is this kind of evangelism a strictly Reformation phenomenon? Is it a vitiated Gospel? What, exactly, was the message which, say, Martin of Tours preached among the Gauls? Or Augustine to Ethelbert and his Kentish subjects in 597 A.D.? What did Cyril and Methodius preach on the banks of the Danube? Or St. Philip among the Ethiopians, or Thomas on the banks of the Ganges?

Here is where, frankly, I find myself stumped. I spend hours and hours turning over this question of Catholic evangelization, for this reason: my own nurture was among the evangelicals, and I know two things about them. First, they love the Gospel in all of its thrilling clarity; and second, their conversions are genuine. Of course, any of us can trot out flash-in-the-pan statistics—someone we knew who “went forward” at an evangelistic rally and eventually threw in the sponge on the Faith. But too many of us know too many people—and the statistics here may be multiplied literally by millions worldwide—who have done a 180-degree turn in their commitment to Christ, as He was being preached, say, by Billy Graham, and whose lives have been completely changed from that hour. Their own way of phrasing it would be something like this: “I went from darkness to light.” Or, “I was born again” (and remember, that phrase was not invented by Jimmy Carter: you can find it in the third chapter of St. John’s Gospel). Or, “My life was completely changed from that day.” We all know people like this.

These converts can by no means be located in a handy socioeconomic group, or any Appalachian locale. There are poor and rich, white and black, Western and Asian, Oxford graduates and peasants—everyone, cutting across all possible groupings. And what shall we say of the tidings that we hear now from places like Brazil and the Philippines? This was turf that was safely Catholic for 400 years. But now we find hundreds of thousands of converts to evangelicalism from Catholicism. We may lament a merely cultural or nominal Catholicism in Latin America, for example, but that only highlights the news: masses of people accepting Christ as their Savior, as far as they themselves will tell you, for the first time in their life.

Former Catholics

Which brings me to a phenomenon much closer to home than Brazil or the Philippines. It is local news. For 15 years I was on the faculty at Gordon College, an evangelical liberal arts college not far from Boston. Because the students knew of my “high-church” proclivities, those with ecclesiological questions used to find their way to my office. It is the stark, unvarnished truth that many years ago I found that I had lost count of the students who arrived in my office with the following: “I was a Catholic until I was 16, then I met Jesus Christ.” Or, “I was a Catholic until I was 18, then I became a Christian.”

I, like you, wanted to paw their arm with, “Well, wait a minute: wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that you were 18 when your faith, which had been nominal until then, sprang up into new vigor and articulateness?” I did not, of course, say this very often, since I knew their stories well enough and knew that they would insist that they really had not been Christians in any but the remotest and feeblest sense of the word until some encounter with Young Life or Campus Crusade or some local Baptist youth group.

There is some energetic communication and evangelization going on around us, and we would be whistling in the dark if we told ourselves that it is all ephemeral, or merely cultic. We cannot lump the evangelicals together with groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, or the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s outfit, since the evangelicals are as briskly Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Constantinopolitan as the Catholics. Their critique of the cults would be identical with the Catholic critique: you people have added new and unwarranted notions to the apostolic faith.

I spend a great deal of time asking myself just exactly what view I am to take of these ardent brethren of mine. The ecclesiological question matters to me: obviously I would never have bothered to splash across the Tiber if I had felt that it didn’t. So it bothers me that they aren’t Catholic. One somewhat whimsical notion has flicked across the screen of my imagination from time to time, and I wonder, actually, whether there might not be something to it. It is that, just as the Lord said that He was able to raise up children to Abraham from the stones on the ground, so perhaps what we have in this energetic, intelligent, highly bibliocentric and robust sector of Christendom (evangelicalism, that is) is a phenomenon like that: men and women of faith raised up quite outside of the apostolic lineage, if by that we mean the sacerdotal and episcopal and petrine succession which we believe to be of the esse of the Church. Whatever the nuances of our ultimate position on this, it is a phenomenon that no Catholic who proposes to talk seriously about communication and evangelization can quite ignore in our own day.

One question, it seems to me, which follows upon any consideration of the enormous success of Billy Graham and the evangelicals when it comes to attracting all ages and all sorts of people all over the world to the Gospel, is this: is evangelization in that sense an activity that the Catholic Church considers to be appropriate at all? There is no Catholic figure analogous to any of the mass evangelists that have sprung from the Reformation. In our own time, Bishop Sheen was probably the closest analogue. In the early centuries of the Church, of course, something like mass evangelism certainly took place with the preaching of figures like Martin of Tours or Augustine of Kent, when whole kingdoms converted. Do we, when we speak of evangelization, visualize some electrifying Catholic figure analogous to Billy Graham?

How, exactly, do we visualize Catholic evangelism? What is it, precisely, that we have to say to people, whether “people” means teenagers whose world is MTV; or Latin American workers and peasants; or fast-lane, disaffected Catholic yuppies in Italy bombing along the Autostrada in their Lamborghinis; or our own parishioners, perhaps, who if you asked them what is meant by “the Gospel” might mumble awkwardly about trying to be decent.

I have found myself, over the last 20 years or so, in my musings on this question of evangelism (I was thinking about it before I became a Catholic), wondering just what to make of a certain kind of phenomenon that, if it is not precisely germane to our topic here, at least presents us with intriguing data. I am speaking of various individuals, or groups, who have changed the face of the globe by their “evangel,” if we may use this word in some odd contexts. I would go so far as to say that they have changed history. Let me give you four examples of what I am talking about.

In the 1950s, when all was still calm, we began to become aware of a furious young man called Stokeley Carmichael. He had a message—an angry, uncompromising, strident message. He was not interested in civilized “dialogue,” or in sweet reason, still less in patience and prudence. He wanted a whole race of people out from under oppression, and he was not going to waste time in committees. I can remember being outraged by his rhetoric and wanting to muffle him. Well, 40 years later, we have, if not quite the world that Carmichael called for, at least a Himalayan shift in consciousness. Who speaks of “colored people” now, or even “Negroes”? Carmichael did not bring this about by himself, heaven knows, but he was an early, and a fiery, apostle, and the white world was obliged to listen to him. He got us by the jugular, so to speak. He had an evangel, and he communicated it, and we heard it, by golly.

My second example is Kate Millett (or you can fill in Germaine Greer or Gloria Steinem here if you want). Here was a lady, or rather a woman (we choose our words gingerly in this post-Millett era) who dropped a thermonuclear bomb in our laps, and she and her fellow apostles changed history. The English language walks on eggshells now, and all executives and academic deans who do hiring, and all legislators who must speak in public, and anyone who must write a business letter or a brochure, moves along with red lights winking and beeps beeping all around him. Him. There you have it. I said “him,” referring to any and all of the above categories of people, and by using that pronoun, I have betrayed myself as one who is not in touch with history. Kate Millett brought something big to pass in the history of human consciousness. She had an evangel, and she communicated it, and we heard it, by golly.

Another example: when I was living in England in 1961, there were four boys with guitars whose hair just touched their ears. Within a very few years these boys, with their hair getting longer and longer, and their clothes funkier and funkier, and their music farther and farther out—these boys had changed the look of the entire globe with a thoroughness to be envied by Alexander of Macedon, Tamurlaine, or Vasco da Gama. There is no street in any city on this planet, and certainly no classroom in any school or university, and scarcely a household, where we cannot see the effects on dress, demeanor, sensibility, imagination, manners, speech, and aspiration wrought by this tiny sodality of boys. They had an evangel, and they communicated it, and we heard it, by golly.

And my fourth example: I was a teenager in the 1940s before I ever even heard the word “homosexual.” Many centuries had cloaked the category under the hushed and horror-stricken rubric of “the sin against nature.” Dante had the men guilty of sodomy wandering about over burning sand with flakes of fire falling around them. Then when I lived in New York I discovered that there was something called “the gay world,” but it was a hermetically sealed world, with its own positively Byzantine complexities of manners, speech, protocol, and humor. “Straight” people did not know the vocabulary—words like camp and drag and queen and butch and even the word gay itself. But all of that changed. It was decided that the time had come. The straight world would jolly well sit up and take notice. Not only that: the straight world would change its entire way of thinking— about sex, about family life, about identity, and about morals. A crusade was launched. They had an evangel, and they communicated it, and we heard it, by golly.

My point, I think, is clear enough by this time. I have adduced four examples of people who broke upon modern consciousness, and who did not rest until radical and universal change had taken place. They did not apologize. They did not fawn. They asked and gave no quarter. They never asked us how we felt. They did not bother to find out if we resonated to what they were saying. They never rapped with us, and nodded, and affirmed us, and said, “What we hear you saying is. . . .” They obliged us to hear what they were saying. They did not ask us where we were coming from. They did not try to build bridges. They trumpeted their gospel at us. They were, ebulliently, furiously, joyously, unabashedly, even gloriously, themselves, and we danced to their tune before the tango was over.

I can think of one other example here. I am acutely aware of all of the questions raised by my adding this name. I am speaking, of course, of Jesus Christ. He said His piece. It hurt. It scandalized. It infuriated. It outraged. It challenged. But it also promised solace to anyone who labored and was heavy-laden and who would, as He put it, come to Him.

Making a Difference

We might object to this juxtaposition of Jesus Christ with Stokeley Carmichael, Kate Milieu, the Beatles, and the gay caucus. As with any such analogy, there is only a narrowly limited similarity, in this case the sense in which all of these people have tweaked humanity by the nose and made it pay attention. I leave to a different forum the question as to which of my examples may have been in any sense salvific, and which calamitous, for the human race.

And I would have to lodge here a demurral of my own which, I should think, any Christian would find himself reaching for, namely, that the Gospel, unlike these four “gospels,” has always gone forward, not in anger and stridence and harshness, but in weakness and fear and humility, to use St. Paul’s description of his own apostolate. There is a sense in which a Christian, unlike the people I have listed above, must always accept defeat if his hearers won’t hear. He may cry out in the streets, or be a vox clamantis in deserto, or appeal to men’s intelligence on the Areopagus, or speak boldly to Herod the Tetrarch or Caesar, or walk a Via Dolorosa to defeat, or be thrown to the lions. There is no guarantee that he will sweep all before him.

But surely the message to us, what with one thing and another in our own decade—the widespread slumping away of loyalty to the Magisterium on the part of the Catholic laity, and the plummet in vocations, and the sheer decibel-level and speed and razzle-dazzle of the messages drowning out the Christian Gospel, and the melancholy efforts at shoring up catechesis in our parishes by curricula that will undertake anything in heaven and earth except to hail kids abruptly with Christ Jesus the Savior—surely the message to us is, at least: Whatever else you are doing, tell your children, tell your parishioners, tell the yuppies and the paupers and the dying and the disfranchised and the complacent and the perplexed—tell them that God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.


  • Thomas Howard

    Thomas Howard is the author of Evangelical is not Enough and C.S. Lewis, Man of Letters: A Reading of His Fiction.

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