As Robbie George explains it, from one THE-ROCK star:
I grew up in West Virginia as a Catholic in a Protestant culture, the kind we would today describe as evangelical. We Catholics had the pope — but he was a distant and, to be blunt, foreign figure. Our Protestant neighbors had Billy Graham, the friend of presidents, business magnates and celebrities, who through the magic of television was a frequent, familiar guest in the homes of ordinary people; and he was as American as apple pie.
We didn’t admit it in those days, but we Appalachian Catholics — like, I suspect, many of our coreligionists throughout the land — envied those Protestants. We figured that Billy Graham made being a Protestant in America something like what it was to be a Catholic in Italy. And while we weren’t quite sure it wasn’t a little bit disloyal to watch, listen to and even like and admire a Protestant preacher, watch and listen many of us did — sometimes against the warnings of our parish priests or the nuns who taught us in parochial schools.
It was hard not to watch and listen to Graham. He was mesmerizing: movie star looks; a strong, compelling voice; a charmingly soft Southern accent; stage presence. His message was as simple as it was powerful: Our lives on earth are short. Soon enough each of us will die. Do you want to go to heaven? Then you must give your life to Christ. You must accept him as your Lord and Savior and enter into a personal relationship with him. He is even now lovingly extending his hand to you. Will you not take it? Quoting Scripture, he would say, “ ‘Now is the accepted time; today is the day of salvation.’ This is the hour of decision.”
Then would come the altar call: As Graham’s superb musical team played and sang the moving old hymn “Just as I Am,” the acclaimed evangelist would invite — encourage — those attending his “crusades,” or listening to his “Hour of Decision” program, first on radio, then television, to stand up and give their lives to Christ. Watching from home, even we Catholics felt the impulse to get out of our seats, though we believed that we already belonged to Christ sacramentally, through baptism.
I suspect that Graham’s only real competitor for the title of most influential Christian evangelist of the 20th century is Pope John Paul II. And the comparison is apt. A John Paul II event, whether in Paris, New York, Los Angeles or Manila, resembled nothing so much as one of Graham’s crusades — a vast crowd in an allegedly postreligious age, and often in an allegedly post-Christian city, drawn to a larger-than-life figure preaching a demanding message of repentance and reform, but doing it with the accent on God’s mercy and the liberating joy of the Christian life.
Wacker reports that Graham and John Paul II met three times, and that Graham’s admiration for John Paul was “manifest.” Did the pope reciprocate that admiration? At one of their meetings, he grasped the Protestant preacher by the thumb — yes, the thumb — and said, “We are brothers.” John Paul II was not a glad-hander or a flatterer. He didn’t say what he didn’t mean. In Graham he clearly saw a fellow Christian, a fellow evangelist and, no doubt, a fellow pioneer in the effort to heal the divisions that had fractured Christianity. Graham, who earlier in his life had been suspicious of Catholics, took great satisfaction in the pope’s regard for him.
All of which confirms my hunch: without a celebrity pope, Roman Catholicism would not have picked up the Protestant following that it has. The irony of course is that after Vatican 2 Protestants didn’t need to convert. Even the pope recognized Protestants as saved.