World-famous evangelist Billy Graham died this morning at age 99.
While he is most known for his work in the world of evangelical Christianity, Graham had significant contact with Pope John Paul II. And by an odd turn of events, Graham was preaching at the cathedral in Cracow, Poland the very day that Karol Wojtyla was elected pope in Rome in 1978.
In 1981, Billy Graham met the pope at his papal apartment in Rome. At the end of meeting John Paull reached over, grabbed Graham’s thumb, and told him, “We are brothers.”
Then in 1991, Graham met with John Paul II and Vatican officials to speak about Eastern Europe and relations between Catholics and evangelicals around the world. An official from the Vatican’s Peace and Justice Commission met with Graham, and there was discussion of relations between Protestants and Catholics in Latin America.
When the pope died in 2005 Billy Graham said in a statement,
“Pope John Paul II was unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years. His extraordinary gifts, his strong Catholic faith, and his experience of human tyranny and suffering in his native Poland all shaped him.
“In his own way, he saw himself as an evangelist, traveling far more than any other Pope to rally the faithful and call non-believers to commitment. He was convinced that the complex problems of our world are ultimately moral and spiritual in nature, and only Christ can set us free from the shackles of sin and greed and violence. His courage and perseverance in the face of advancing age and illness were an inspiration to millions — including me.”
Speaking to Larry King after the pope’s death, Graham said,
“I have a very strange feeling of loss. I almost feel as though one of my family members has gone.”
Graham had no doubts that the pope was with God.
“I think he’s with the Lord, because he believed. He believed in the Cross. That was his focus throughout his ministry, the Cross.”
Graham did not feel he had the physical strength to attend the funeral of John Paul II in Rome, though he had been asked already six or seven months earlier if he could attend. He told King,
“I asked if I could send my daughter. They wanted a woman to come representing me. So I’m asking my daughter, Anne Lotz, to go. And she’s going with an associate of mine. And then my son, Franklin, will be going to the enthronement of the new Pope.”
Graham prayed with President Kennedy in 1961. Immediately after Vatican II, he met with Cardinal Cushing of Boston, who said that his message was good for Catholics. Among Graham’s friends, along with John Paul II, was longtime Notre Dame president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, Bishop Fulton Sheen and Francis Cardinal Spellman.
A reporter once asked Billy Graham what he would do if invited to preach at St. Peter’s in Rome. His response?
“I would gladly and humbly accept…[and] study for about a year in preparing.”