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The preacher and the pope

The preacher and the pope

Issue: "John Paul II: In memoriam," Oct. 25, 2003

It was Oct. 16, 1978, in Warsaw, Poland. Communists were still in charge. But tottering on the edge of economic collapse, they were struggling to keep the lid on. People of faith and their churches remained under heavy restrictions. Yet defiant Catholic Poland had the highest church attendance in the entire world, with the possible exception of Ireland. For many, going to church was at once a religious and political statement.

Two events that day etched it in my memory. It was the final day of evangelist Billy Graham's historic 10-day preaching tour across the country. He had met with Catholic leaders, lectured at a seminary, and preached in four cathedrals as well as in Protestant venues. In Krakow in southern Poland, he'd been scheduled to have lunch with Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. But the luncheon had to be called off when Cardinal Wojtyla suddenly was called back to Rome. As a cardinal, he had to help elect a new pope following the shockingly short reign of John Paul I. The pope had died just 34 days after succeeding Paul VI. Cardinal Wojtyla relayed regrets to Rev. Graham and expressed hope they could meet sometime later on.

Robert Reed of the Associated Press bureau in Warsaw and I had struck up a friendship while covering the Graham tour. We went out to the airport in the late afternoon to see the sendoff for Rev. Graham. We planned to have dinner together afterward to "talk shop." I had scheduled interviews with Polish bishops and other Catholic leaders in the week ahead, and I wanted to pick Mr. Reed's mind for background. Mr. Reed suggested that we first stop by the AP office to see the latest news on the World Series back home.

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At the AP office, we were greeted by near-pandemonium among the Polish staff. The first reports were just arriving from Rome: Cardinal Wojtyla had been elected pope! One reporter joked about the embarrassing dilemma now facing the Communist bosses: "What will they do-tell him he can't come home?"

Mr. Reed and I canceled our dinner plans and retreated to our respective keyboards instead. The same elation and pride I witnessed in the AP office also prevailed on the streets and among the bishops and Catholic officials I interviewed over the next few days.

Not until January 1981 did the postponed meeting between Rev. Graham and Pope John Paul II take place, the first time the evangelist had met a pope. That bitterly cold month, I had accompanied Rev. Graham and several of his aides to Poland and Hungary, where he received honorary academic degrees. In Poland, Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement was in full force-a people's movement whose foundations John Paul laid in his first visit home as pope in June 1979 (see main story).

In Rome, our third stop, several of us tagged along with Rev. Graham to his appointment with the pope. At the Vatican, a papal aide ushered us into an elevator and up to Pope John Paul II's apartment. We waited in an elegant art-adorned reception hall. The visitor ahead of us was Archbishop Pio Laghi, the new papal nuncio to Washington. After emerging from the pope's quarters, he stopped and chatted briefly with the evangelist.

The pope and the preacher met privately in the pope's library. They shook hands, exchanged greetings and small gifts, and reflected together on the words of Jesus in the "good shepherd" passage in John 10. They also discussed Rev. Graham's ministry in Poland and the pope's upcoming visit to Japan, where the evangelist had preached recently.

The meeting lasted only 30 minutes or so but Rev. Graham said the pope had been so warm toward him, "I felt as if we had known each other for years." Several of the evangelist's advisers back home had counseled him against visiting the pope, because some supporters "might not understand." Likewise, some in the Vatican were wary about their pope giving visibility to the internationally famous American preacher, whose brand of Christianity was siphoning many from Catholicism, especially in Latin America. But both men survived the encounter with their reputations largely intact, and with cordial respect toward each other. It was the first of three visits between the two men.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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