As I write this, my Twitter timeline is filling up with tributes to Billy Graham, who has died at the age of 99. Donald Trump describes him as ‘the GREAT Billy Graham’. Well said, Mr President; for once, those Trumpian capital letters are perfectly judged.
What’s interesting is that so many of those tweets come from Catholics. Graham started out as your standard-issue Protestant revivalist, not just a Bible-basher but also a Catholic-basher. But when Pope John Paul II died in 2005, he described him as ‘unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years’.
Today, Catholics and Evangelicals recognise that far more unites them than divides them. That rapprochement would not have been possible without Billy Graham, whose recognition of Catholics as fellow Christians was furiously denounced by some American fundamentalists.
It was a necessary falling-out. Not the least of Graham’s achievements was to carve out an Evangelical revivalist identity independent of fundamentalist doom-merchants. In doing so, he contributed more to Christian unity than generations of ecumenical waffle-merchants.
He preached to 215 million people in 185 countries. His achievement was different from John Paul II’s, but if we are talking about mighty witnesses to the Gospel then why not mention the two men in the same breath? After all, they have now reached the same destination.