Billy Graham, the famous Protestant evangelist, died yesterday at the age of 99. Graham, of course, is one of the best-known and beloved Americans of the 20th century. He met with every President since Truman, and his evangelistic crusades led millions of people to commit their lives to Christ. By all accounts, he was a sincere Christian and a devoted family man.
After Rev. Graham’s passing, the deserved accolades began to pour in. On social media, thousands spoke highly of him and the influence he had on their lives. Those who are Protestant naturally assumed that he went directly to heaven. But I also noted that many Catholics were doing the same. By doing so, they were essentially canonizing him as St. Billy Graham. For example, Fox News commentator and Catholic priest Fr. Jonathan Morris tweeted:
From Jerusalem, I mourn the death of Billy Graham. From this earthly city of human brokenness, I can imagine more easily the New Jerusalem, where Our Lord has now welcomed his faithful son, #billygraham
— Fr. Jonathan Morris (@fatherjonathan) February 21, 2018
I found this tweet problematic for a Catholic, especially a Catholic priest. If you are Catholic, then you believe (or should believe) what the Church teaches. And the Church teaches that the sacraments are the best instruments of grace we have, and that the Church is necessary for salvation.
Now Rev. Graham was a baptized Christian, so he was a member of the Church, albeit imperfectly. And his Protestantism was not a choice he made against the Catholic Church, but instead something he was simply born into. So I’m not saying that Rev. Graham is going to hell. However, as a Protestant who never was Confirmed, never received the Eucharist, and never went to Confession, he missed out on immeasurable graces that would have brought him closer to Christ in this life. Because of this, it’s far more likely that Rev. Graham will spend at least some time in purgatory, contrary to what Fr. Morris implied in his tweet.
If a Protestant can go immediately to heaven—even a Protestant as commendable as Rev. Graham—then what is the purpose of being Catholic? For it would appear that simply being a “good Christian” is good enough to bypass purgatory. To me, this seems like a works-based religion. For it means that if someone works hard enough at being a Christian, then the graces found in the sacraments are unnecessary.
Billy Graham was a great man, and a commendable Christian. We have reason to hope that he will one day be welcomed into the New Jerusalem by Our Lord. However, for his sake, please pray for him instead of canonizing him, for, like most of us, he likely will need to spend time in purgatory before entering his heavenly reward. I’m sure that our prayers, rather than our praises, is what he most wants right now.