Billy Graham had never met a pope until John Paul II invited him to Rome in 1981. Ushered into the papal apartments by the Vatican’s famous Swiss Guard, Graham marveled at the pomp. He and the pope chatted like long-lost friends for half an hour, swapping photos, gifts, and travel stories. Before Graham left, John Paul II reached over, clutched Graham’s thumb, and told him, “We are brothers.”
Graham revealed nothing of the pope’s message in 1981. At the time of their meeting, John Paul II had been pope less than three years. An assertion of spiritual kinship would have been ill received by the bulk of both their constituencies. But by 1990, when Graham related this story to Time journalist David Aikman, the climate had changed considerably. Key to the thaw were John Paul II’s efforts to beat back communism worldwide.
Fifteen years later, the late Pope John Paul II has been lionized in evangelical eulogies and lauded by President Bush as a “humble, wise, and fearless priest who became one of history’s great moral leaders” and a “hero for the ages.”
Why the sudden change? John Paul II offered a winsome face of Christianity to the world and leaves behind a Roman Catholic Church firmly opposed to moral relativism. He reinforced the Second Vatican Council’s commitment to seek renewal in the sources of classic Christianity—Scripture and the church fathers. And while significant differences remain—examples include ecclesiastical authority, the means of grace, and the relationship of justification to sanctification—evangelicals can confidently engage a Catholic Church committed to fundamental Christian truths.
While we may not discount the singular importance of John Paul II, change has been in order since the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council opened the door for discussion with “separated brethren.” But even when Catholicism showed surprising signs of changing, there was no guarantee Protestantism would reciprocate. . . .
In 1964, Richard Cardinal Cushing, the renowned archbishop of Boston, shook up the Catholic Church by praising Billy Graham. Encouraging Catholics to hear the evangelist, Cushing remarked that he would stop worrying about the Catholic Church’s future in America if they had half a dozen men like Graham.
Catholic and evangelical efforts toward fellowship have largely followed the Cushing-Graham model: unofficial, individual, and sporadic meetings. For this reason, John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) is so important. Released in 1995, this teaching fueled the ecumenical momentum started at the Second Vatican Council by inviting debate about Catholic doctrine.