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A tribute to natural family planning pioneer, Dr John Billings, RIP
This is the text of Msgr Peter J. Elliott's homily at the Mass of Christian Burial for Dr John Billings in St Patrick's Cathedral, Wednesday, 4 April 2007.
Msgr Elliott is the Episcopal Vicar for Religious Education in the Archdiocese of Melbourne and has been recently appointed an auxiliary bishop.
In our lives we occasionally experience moments that define other people. Something about them imprints itself on the memory; an instant that seems to sum up everything about that person.
Years ago, at a retreat house near the Yarra River in Melbourne, some families involved in the Billings Ovulation circle had gathered to pray, to learn, to celebrate. During a break, I walked out onto the lawn and there was Dr John Billings surrounded by little children. First they ran to him and soon they were running with him towards us, with all the gleeful freedom that only little ones know.
That instant bathed in Australian sunlight was for me a foretaste of God's great day when this man would be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven by multitudes of the Holy Innocents of our human race, those little ones to whom the Kingdom belongs.
Now, at least in terms of our earthly time, that day has come. In Melbourne's noble cathedral we offer the redeeming Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, this Holy Mass for a man so many of us know and love. I cannot put that in the past tense, 'a man we knew and loved', for John Billings has entered eternal life.
While we struggle forward here in 'shadowlands', he is now more alive than we are. He is in the refining mercy of God's eternal present moment. That is what we believe when we look to the risen Lord Jesus.
Therefore, mourning and celebrating him, we are honoured to join his devoted family, Dr Lyn and their children - and their children - and their children, to pray with Christian hope for the gentle soul of this unique man, whose love they knew best of all. Our condolences and prayers are with you all.
Of course, John Billings would immediately point out that each person is unique and unrepeatable, as the Servant of God Pope John Paul II so frequently proclaimed. Created in the image and likeness of God, each person is indeed unique in that basic sense.
Yet there are certain people in history who respond to the vocation of Baptism in a way that is distinctive, rare in its virtuous quality and fruitfulness. In one lifetime these people accomplish, with God's grace, what would take ten lifetimes for most other people. John was such a man.
In the Gospel of this Mass, Jesus Christ says, 'It is to the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit and then you will be my disciples ...;'. John was one of those true disciples of the Lord who bore much fruit.
Jesus Christ goes on to speak of God's love for us, our love for God, our need to keep the commandments he gives us and so remain in his love. Then he gave us his New Commandment, 'Love one another as I have loved you', echoing it at the end of his discourse about disciples no longer being servants but his friends, 'What I command you is to love one another É'. With self-effacing humility, John Billings lived the New Commandment of Jesus Christ.
It was not surprising therefore that when a motto was sought for the Billings Ovulation movement these Latin words were chosen: Credidimus in caritate - 'we have put our faith in love'. That is how John lived, as a husband, father, doctor and guide, helping many people to do what he and Lyn did, to put their faith in love.
Therefore it would be wrong to see him only as a world expert on the natural regulation of fertility, even as that is true. What John and Lyn perceived was that openness to God's great plan for the transmission of human life is a way of loving. Anticipating and then responding to the courageous and prophetic encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, they have helped many thousands to 'love one another' by maintaining the dynamic unity of the two dimensions of marriage - the gift of life and the gift of love.
However, we live in a world that would tear life and love apart; on the one hand imposing an artificial sexuality that suppresses fertility, on the other hand reducing fertility to manipulation in a laboratory. Yet it was in this confused and divisive world that John Billings offered hope to men and women.
With his beloved wife Lyn, he taught them respect for one another, a gracious reverence for human life, an interpersonal dialogue of love and trust, how to find true equality between man and woman, and especially the goodness of families where each child can be welcomed and cherished as a gift.
He reached out first within our Catholic community to help and guide many who had been misled or confused by dissent or disheartened by social pessimism. Then he reached out beyond our community to people of other faiths and no particular faith. He offered them all a way beyond and above the false ways of what is significantly called 'birth control'.
If I can picture John Billings being welcomed into eternity by the Holy Innocents, I invite you now to see in your mind's eye those countless women in China who could rise up on the Day of Judgement to say 'thank you, thank you, Dr John', and not only the women of China, but women and men all around this planet, especially the poorest of the poor.
Let us think of those to whom Blessed Teresa of Calcutta ministered. Let us never forget that one key element in the work of her sisters among women was made possible by her friend John Billings.
As he knew so well and as he and Lyn have often reminded us, what seems to be a scientific method is really a way of loving, of caring and serving. Many colleagues and co-workers and friends gathered here today can testify to this. With him we can say, 'we have put our faith in love.'
Nevertheless, massive chall- enges confront us. The culture of life still struggles with the culture of death. Certainly the last century saw remarkable scientific advances: cures for most diseases, the unlocking of the genetic code, human beings floating in space, walking on the moon. Yet in spite of all these achievements, unfortunately it would be true to say that the natural patterns of human fertility still remain hidden from so many women, perhaps most women. Because they do not know what God has written into their own bodies, they remain the docile customers of commercial interests and even fall prey to the destruction or exploitation of their fertility.
Dr John Billings and the men and women who came before him and those who have come after him, developing the natural spacing of childbirth, have offered women a truth that leads to freedom. Cardinal Lopez Trujillo calls it 'the authentic alternative'.
I hope that John's passing may be a moment when people ask about this truth, this authentic alternative he had to offer. Is it not every woman's right to know it? May all people seek to discover this gift of freedom, a freedom to give life, which is freedom to love. This is why so many here today, and so many more around this earth united with us in spirit, must make the commitment to continue his work, to make it more widely known, to promote it, and we know we can do this with God's help for 'we have put our faith in love'.
In his last years, John could well have uttered the familiar words of our first reading: 'I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith É'. St Paul was writing to Timothy, one of the first bishops of our Church. He knew that soon he would face a martyr's death in Nero's Rome, but he also knew that that others would take up his work, sharing in the redeeming work and mission of the Lord Jesus.
That is why it seems so appropriate that Dr John's passing has brought us together at the heart of Holy Week, when we are about to recall and celebrate the work of our Redemption.
Let me pause here for a moment to note that John Billings went home to our Father's house on Palm Sunday, which happened to be the eve of the second anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II, the great shepherd who was his friend and inspiration.
It was John who first introduced me to the Holy Father, and largely thanks to John I came to study and work in Rome. Subsequently, on various occasions organised through the Pontifical Council for the Family, I was present when Pope John Paul and Dr John Billings were together, as we pray they are now.
We offer this Requiem Mass as we approach the days when we celebrate the events that make us Christians. The Second Vatican Council called these events the Paschal Mystery of Christ, meaning the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the mystery and the historical miracle of Easter.
John has entered into the fullness of the mystery of the Death and Resurrection of the Lord, which we can experience here through sacrament and word. Across the long years of his earthly life, he was nourished by the Holy Eucharist. He was faithful to God's living word. He was close to Mary, the Queen of the Family and Mother of Fair Love. Lyn can testify to all this and much more.
For these reasons, I am bound to complete the words of St Paul to Timothy, words which we can rightly apply to Dr John: 'I have kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day; and not only to me but to all those who have longed for his Appearing.'
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 20 No 5 (June 2007), p. 6
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