Reflections on the passing of John Billings, a gentle giant

By  Donald Demarco, Catholic Register Special
  • April 24, 2007
The passing of Dr. John J. Billings on April 1 at 89 years of age will elicit, throughout the world, two kinds of responses. The first will concern his illustrious career as a medical doctor, researcher, founder and teacher of the Billings Ovulation Method. His work in developing and promulgating this method of natural family planning was recognized by Pope Paul VI in 1969 with a papal knighthood and earned an additional star by Pope John Paul II in 2003 for his 50 years of work in this field.
{mosimage}Dr. Billings became president in 1977 of the World Organization Ovulation Method Billings (WOOMB). He was the recipient, in 1983, of the Royal Australian College of Physician medal for distinguished and outstanding service, named to the Order of Australia and awarded the distinction of being the International Catholic Physician of the Year by the International Foundation of Catholic Medical Association (2002). He received multiple honorary doctorates from various universities.

Together with his wife, Dr. Lyn, they brought their teaching of the Billings Method to more than 100 countries throughout North and South America, Asia, the Pacific Islands, Europe and Africa. The Billings Method is now incorporated into the Chinese Government Family Planning Program in most provinces of China. That country has also honoured Dr. Billings by granting him the Distinctive Contribution Award of the Ministry of Health.

The second response will be of a more personal nature. Those who knew him personally saw a man, despite the impressive accolades that were heaped upon him, of disarming gentleness. I first met him in Vancouver, and then in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia. This “giant” in the field, and his wife, were pleased to entertain me in a variety of most gracious ways, including escorting me through a wildlife sanctuary. “That sound,” he alerted me as we entered this peaceable kingdom for Australia’s extraordinary fauna, “That’s the song of the Lyre Bird.” Lyn took pictures of me petting a kangaroo. She knew quite a bit about Australia’s signature marsupial because she had one as a pet. She explained to me that when a mother kangaroo, who is carrying her “joey” in her pouch, is being chased by a dingo, she will hurl her young offspring away from her pursuing predator to give it a chance for survival. The mother kangaroo knows that she cannot outrun the dingo and, as her death becomes imminent, thinks of her child’s safety. And this, Lyn elucidated, is how little kangaroos become available as pets.

Dr. Billings shared memorable stories with me about his experiences with Mother Teresa. He also invited me to a banquet and gave me the opportunity to speak to some of his natural family planning teachers. He had both a keen interest in and natural affinity for philosophy.

I cherish the memory of watching some of the Billings’ extended family (they had 37 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren by 1996) playing Australian Rules Football on a rain-soaked field somewhere in the outskirts of Melbourne. My considerate hosts supplied me with meat pies and coffee (de riguer for the occasion). My enjoyment of the game, however, was punctuated by helping to free automobiles from the soft and soggy ground. It was his nine children and legion of grandchildren that were, as he wanted people to know, his “greatest achievement.”

When my book, New Perspectives on Contraception, was completed, my publisher sent Dr. Billings the manuscript. Not only did he write an insightful Introduction (with surgical precision, one might say) in which he captured the essence of my book, but also read the entire manuscript and noted several typos that were still in the text.

One quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas, in particular, caught his attention: “The greatest kindness one can render to any man is leading him to truth.” Dr. Billings and his wife spent the better part of their lives practising that dangerous and delicate form of kindness that leads people to the truth of marriage, love and human sexuality. Their manner is a model for all those who will walk in their footsteps.

May the light they discovered illuminate the path for all those who teach natural family planning, and all those who want to know the truth of those two paradoxical and yet inseparable ends of marriage, the unitive and the procreative.

(Dr. DeMarco is professor emeritus of St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary.)

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