On a cool, fall day in 1978, in the coal-mining town of Katowice, Poland, Billy Graham preached the Gospel to more than 10,000 packed shoulder-to-shoulder inside Christ the King cathedral.
In Mr. Graham’s autobiography Just As I Am, he described pointing to a cross over the altar as he told the multi-denominational gathering “why the death of Christ on the Cross and the resurrection were central for Christians of all backgrounds.”
As the service came to a close, he recalled hearing a familiar song ring out in what was, at the time, a Soviet nation standing firmly against the public declaration of God’s sovereignty.
“A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Mr. Graham wrote, “Martin Luther’s Reformation hymn, sounded forth from the magnificent organ in the loft at the rear of the cathedral.”
On Thursday, nearly 36 years after that powerful moment in time, Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, will continue the legacy of preaching the Gospel at Christ the King cathedral in Katowice.
Standing where his father once stood, Franklin Graham will look out at a sea of faces representing a multitude of backgrounds and denominations. Many of the faces looking back at him will have ties to the ’78 event in the same place. Even if they weren’t there the first time, they’ve heard about it; their parents have passed down their stories and faith to their children.
Rev. Jerzy Rogaczewski and his sister Anna, for example, are the children of one of the pastors who invited Billy Graham to Poland three decades ago.
Their father, Rev. Stefan Rogaczewski, now in his 80s, said it took years of prayer and effort to get Billy Graham to preach in Poland. The Polish Baptist Union started trying in 1966, but the communist government rejected Mr. Graham’s visa application. It wasn’t until 12 years later that he was finally able to make it to the country and was granted permission to preach within church walls.
“Great joy fills my heart when I am passing on a piece of what I remember from Dr. Billy Graham’s visit to Poland in 1978,” Rev. Stefan said.
He recalled the eager anticipation and prayer that preceded the historic visit.
“I was praying that Polish people who suffered so much throughout their history would have the possibility to hear the Good News about Jesus Christ,” he said. “It was about spirituality but also social, economic and political life.”
He prayed for unity among the Christians in Poland, believing a unified Church was the only way to “show to the Polish land the purest essence of the Gospel through mutual respect and cooperation.”
And that’s exactly what was on display when Billy Graham stepped up to the pulpit in Katowice in October of 1978.
“It was an unusual event because a Catholic bishop was leading the gathering, and it took place in one of the biggest Catholic sanctuaries in Poland,” Rev. Stefan said.
After Bishop Herbert Bednorz welcomed Mr. Graham, Rev. Stefan greeted the people, calling them “all brothers in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Then the crowds, standing shoulder to shoulder, were invited to shake hands, “so that mutual respect and faith in Christ would be a strong testimony of Christians in communist Poland,” Rev. Stefan explained. “It was a sign that followers of Christ are together.”
As the service went on, Billy Graham preached the Gospel in his characteristically clear, straightforward way. And the Holy Spirit moved.
“I can admit that visit exceeded my expectations,” Rev. Stefan said. “It became an unforgettable time which stayed in the hearts of the Polish people throughout the years. Most importantly, people of different ages, among them many students, accepted Jesus and decided to follow Him.”
With the memories of that day still fresh in his mind, it’s not surprising that Rev. Stefan is eagerly anticipating Franklin Graham’s visit to the very same cathedral. His son, Rev. Jerzy, as well as the Archbishop of Katowice, a Lutheran bishop, a Methodist bishop and the Katowice mayor will all welcome Franklin Graham to the city to preach the Gospel.
“Personally,” Rev. Stefan said, “I am thankful to God that the son of Billy Graham continues the work of his father, whom I personally met and greatly respect.”
Thursday’s evangelistic event, which is open to the entire community, will precede the June 14-15 Festival of Hope in Warsaw.
The majority of Poland’s evangelistic community is working together to invite friends from across the country to the Festival, which will feature Michael W. Smith, Newsboys and a Gospel message from Franklin Graham. It’s all scheduled to take place at the Pepsi Arena in Warsaw.
But first, the stop in Katowice—about 180 miles south of the capital city, near the borders of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Nearly four decades after Billy Graham’s voice echoed across the cathedral walls, believers are hoping to see another historic moment in time, as Christians of many backgrounds come together to share the one thing they have in common: hope and faith in Jesus Christ.