When Karol Wojtyla stepped out on the Vatican balcony on October 16, 1978, as the new Pope John Paul II, waving to the crowds in St. Peter's Square on the first day of his auspicious papacy, the person preaching for him in his home pulpit back in Krakow, Poland, was none other than Billy Graham. Behind that fact is a surprising story of the late pope's personal involvement with American evangelicals. With his passing, it is time to tell that story.
In the mid-1970s, American mission organizations like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association began taking the gospel behind the Iron Curtain to Eastern Europe. After Graham's first "communist" crusade in Hungary in 1977, he was invited to the predominately Catholic country of Poland by the tiny Protestant community there, which amounted to less than 1 percent of the population. Just as in his 1957 New York City crusade, Graham wanted to work with as many Catholics as possible.
Initially, the Polish Catholic church rebuffed him. Wojtyla was the exception, giving Graham the invitation he needed for his crusade in a country where evangelicalism was considered cultic. The two men made plans to meet for tea, but by the time Graham arrived, Wojtyla had been summoned to Rome.