The Formative Effect of the Billings Ovulation Method on my Priestly/Pastoral Ministry

Joseph Hattie
By Fr. Joseph Hattie, OMI
Bulletin of OMR & RCA
Volume: 38 - No: 2 - July 2011
Reproduced with Permission
Bulletin of OMR & RCA

After dinner oration at International Conference of OMR&RCA, 30 April 2011


Thank you for the privilege of speaking with you here this evening. From the outset, let me tell you that the Drs. John and Lyn Billings have had a real impact on my life and priestly ministry. As a religious I have a Vow of Obedience and a Vow of Poverty. The Vow of Obedience often requires that one not only obey what one has been asked to do, but also to obey when one does not understand the reason. The Vow of Poverty requires one to rely on God to provide the means needed to accomplish one's mission, since one has no personal wealth that could be used to do so.

My desire to trust God in both of these areas was greatly strengthened by how Drs. John and Lyn responded to Pope Paul VI's request to "devote the rest of your lives to teaching this good news." It was a profound act of obedience they made that day in 1976. For Pope Paul VI did not say, "I will give you a million dollars a year so you will be free to do what I ask." They did not know where the resources would come from in order for them to carry out this mission and its tasks. But their obedience brought with it the resources they needed to accomplish what was asked and to do so in God's time. This is a lesson that has strongly influenced me, and which holds true for all of us who work in the apostolate to families.

Initial Years of Working with BOM:

I have been asked to speak to you this evening about why I have felt called to make the Billing Ovulation Method a part of my life work.

I first heard about the BOM of natural family planning in the early 1970's while working as priest-high-school teacher in Ottawa, Ontario. I was originally impressed with its simplicity, especially compared with the Sympto-Thermal Method I was familiar with.

The Lord granted me the opportunity to learn and promote BOM by way of an unexpected Obedience from my Oblate religious superior. At a time when religious superiors were making it a policy to consult their subjects before giving a new assignment, I was not consulted, but told, that my new obedience was to be the Catholic Chaplain at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. From a human perspective, the new assignment did not make sense immediately, as I was doing well in my high school teaching and pastoral work. But, in hindsight, without that obedience I would not be here with you this evening.

The Catholic Chaplaincy at Dalhousie University provided a very good opportunity to promote the Method. I was convinced that it was the pastoral response called for in relation to the students' future marriage, family and spiritual needs. My ministry there permitted the gathering of a small group of married couples and a single nurse. They were interested in the Billings Ovulation Method and we were able to have them trained as teachers of the Method by a Billings couple from Mississauga, Ontario, Peter and June McCabe.

Some of the students became users of the Method, and from there, took the knowledge back to their hometowns. They were the early missionaries of the Method in our area and some would later become good teachers. Consequently, to help better respond to this pastoral need of the students and others who were inquiring from outside the university community, we formed an association called the NFP Association of Nova Scotia. Some years later it would become WOOMB NS.

My life-long involvement with BOM had begun.

The Importance of the Method for Family Life:

My conviction of the importance of the Method for marriage and families, and of the simplicity of the Method, continued to grow with experience. I realized BOM was a particularly helpful tool for families to withstand the barrage of antilife and anti-family sentiment from the culture they lived in and from their own formation within it.

At Dalhousie University in 1979, a number of the Catholic medical students I worked with were interested in the Method and arranged to invite Drs. John and Lyn Billings to speak at one of the medical faculty's Friday at Four Lectures. The Billings came and were able to spend some time upgrading our teachers and doing chart consultations before proceeding to speak at the medical school. The lecture hall that day was full to over-flowing. The Billings' talk was a huge success, and the medical students offered a sustained standing ovation.

On Monday, when the students returned to class praising the Drs. Billings and asking why this method was not incorporated within the faculty studies, we began to see the effects of an intellectual pride: many of the professors at the medical school turned on the Drs. Billings and tried to discredit the Method and their work. The Billings were never invited back, nor has the Method been taught in the medical school since. It was a sad reflection on those intellects because in the end, the best argument they could put forth was that NFP "would not work" because "you cannot expect men to abstain." It made me realize the reality of the devil's opposition against marriages and against life, and this made it even more urgent to continue to spread the good news of BOM.

This opposition has not been limited to the university setting. I had often been able to help in various pastoral situations throughout the Maritime Provinces, where families experienced direct opposition to their life-giving vocation. One couple was being pressured by a local social worker to have a tubal ligation: The family was poor, with four small children, and the father had some health issues that limited his ability to work at that time. Because of what I had been given through the BOM, I was able to respond, and to arrange for a teacher to teach them - a woman doctor who made a two-hour drive, each way, to do so. They learned the Method and used it successfully. Their family size would later expand to six children, and today, two of their sons are young active priests.

In addition to these external pressures on families, BOM helped me address the pressures on families from the inside - from the many ways in which spouses themselves have been led to succumb to our culture of use, thus to use the other for sexual pleasure, not the total gift of self, to each other and to God. Through the BOM, I have been able to offer them a means to live a culture of life and love.

I have counseled many families who had sterilized themselves, usually by tubal ligation, thinking it was morally OK. When they came to realize that they'd been misled and sought moral guidance, the Method provided the knowledge needed to help them to understand the gift of fertility and what good stewardship of that gift involved. They could see that they had taken something very important from their marriage and from God, which often led them to consider restoring it. This thinking and the availability of the BOM encouraged a number of couples to explore the possibility of reversals, and when it was possible, they had them. They then used the Method, in harmony with their discernment of God's creative intention for them. A number of them went on to later have at least one more child.

Additionally, for those who did not have reversals, their practice of BOM has enabled them to live within the moral norms of the Church, by, in effect, 'disarming' sterilization, and living the Method as one would if fertility were possible. I found this a particularly satisfying way for me to offer real solutions to couples in moral dilemmas.

In relation to this, I was also convinced that the Billings Method had to be at the very core of pro-life work. This was later confirmed by the 2004 China Study that noted the radical impact of BOM in a comparative study between two districts similar in economic and social factors. In one district the Method was being used, and in the other, it had not yet been taught. Where it was being used, there was a 7-fold decrease in the number of medical abortions.

BOM Supported by Humanae vitae:

The conviction of the importance of BOM to families was added to by a growing awareness of the importance of the prophetic encyclical, Humanae vitae and a strong desire to uphold and teach it in my priestly and pastoral ministry. The Method, in its simplicity, would help couples to live the teaching contain in the Encyclical: Respect for the dignity of women, as feminine persons, and how a husband and wife should and can live their conjugal love in truth and goodness. It was also evident how the method could help parents to better carry out their responsibility of being the first educators of their children regarding the gift of fertility, masculinity and femininity, and to help them to teach the importance of good stewardship of this great gift of fertility and human sexuality.

When I first began to work with BOM, Canada was a country living in the spiritual and moral darkness created the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishop's famous 1968, Winnipeg Statement, which did not support Church teaching as expressed in Humanae Vitae. As a result, many bishops and pastors saw no need to provide the pastoral service of natural family planning for their people. (Please let me note that were some Canadian Bishops in 1968 who went against the Canadian tide and supported the Church's ordinary infallible teaching in these matters. These few also supported and promoted NFP in their respective dioceses, one such was the Archdiocese of Vancouver where I would eventually work.)

Subsequently, because of this spiritual illness in Canada, one could not organize a large public BOM promotion program. It had to be accomplished on a personto- person, on a one-on-one level. Looking back, I would say that the Lord made me a talent scout for the Holy Spirit and the Method. For example, when I was called back to Ottawa from the university Chaplaincy position to become the acting superior of our Oblate Scholasticate for that academic year, the Lord introduced me to an Australian woman who was married to a Canadian. Some of you would know this woman: Mary Dewar. I was able to speak with Mary and to give her a Billings Book. She went on to become a teacher and later an excellent Teacher Trainer. Over the years the Lord provided a good number of such opportunities - to speak to people one-on-one and to hand out a Billings book.

The Melbourne Conference:

The Lord unexpectedly gave me an opportunity and the means to attend the February 1978 Conference organized by the Billings Family in Melbourne, to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the publication of the encyclical, Humanae vitae. Of the many blessings I experienced at that conference, at the top of the list was the opportunity to meet, see and benefit from the love that Drs. John and Lyn had for each other, which was so evident.

But while I listened to the speakers, I was struck by the understanding that through BOM, God truly wants to help married couples live their conjugal love according to his plan: To strengthen the bonding of the couple and for the transmission and education of new life.

I recall the conference speaker - Fr. Maurice Catarinich - about his outreach to married couples struggling to live the natural law in their conjugal relations by means of the problematic Rhythm Method. He began to look for a doctor who could help these people. That led him to ask Dr. John Billings for help, because he recognized in him a good doctor and a man of faith and reason.

Like many, I wondered why the Holy Spirit inspired this priest to ask the help of a neurologist? Upon thought, I later realized that it made sense. A neurologist is a person who is highly trained in how to observe the behaviour of his patients - from these external observations he can determine what is revealed about the health or illness of the person's internal nervous system and brain. The external indicates the internal. This was excellent training for one who would discover the relationship between the external behaviour of the cervical mucus and what it was saying about the internal working of a women's fertility. God knows what he is doing.

I found my faith was strengthened by Father Catarinich's famous statement of faith which encouraged the discovery of the Method: "God will not deprive the poor of a simple way to understand and regulate their fertility." I understood BOM as a testament to God's Providence for married couples.

A further insight I gained at that conference was how the Lord works though human instruments to help marriages and families. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta spoke about her young nuns teaching the BOM to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. She noted that, in Calcutta alone, the sisters had taught over 12,000 couples. Later, during a terrible time in India when sterilization was enforced,. Mother Teresa went to the Government and proved that on a natural basis alone, with the help of BOM and her sisters, they could assist the government in having 30,000 less babies in three years. She showed the evidence from the past few years. The Government issued a formal recognition of her work, and all the families who practiced BOM received an identity card and were not forced into sterilization. Later, a large group of families came to Mother Teresa to thank her for giving them back their dignity, when others had wanted to treat them as animals by spaying and neutering them. "You taught us NFP and our families are united and we can have a child whenever we want," they said. This showed me how the Lord literally enables couples to live the dignity of their conjugal love by the instrumentality of the BOM teachers and the simplicity of the Method.

The Melbourne conference and all the goodness I experienced there strongly confirmed my conviction of the goodness of BOM and of its importance for marriages, families and for the future of the world.

WOOMB Canada:

On my return to Canada, work began on forming a national Billings Organization and WOOMB Canada became a reality in 1981. I continued to be a talent scout for the Holy Spirit and the Method and was asked to become the spiritual director for WOOMB Canada. In the following year, I was asked to be a member of the Board of WOOMB International. It was in that capacity that I was asked by Dr. John to address the 'moral dimension' of the use of cervical palpation in NFP methods. The conclusion that it was unnecessary, and possibly a cause of physical and moral risk, made sense to the WOOMB Board, but when it was published, it caused a strong reaction from some moral theologians who had been supporting other methods of NFP which use the technique..

Insights Gleaned from BOM:

In the fall of 1979 I began reading the Wednesday Audience Talks given by Pope John Paul II, which later became known as his Theology of the Body. In doing so, it struck me that the BOM, in its own simple way, was teaching these truths about the dignity of the person, respect for the truth of that dignity, and the truth about the gift. I'd like to briefly share with you some of the insights gleaned from BOM that further strengthened my commitment to the Method.

A deeper understanding of the complementarity of man and woman came from a study of the BOM and the science that backs it up. Let me explain.

A study of the fertile type of cervical mucus in its relationship to the male sperm shows a remarkable complementarity that makes it possible for both to accomplish their tasks, such as the fertile-type cervical mucus's ability to nourish the sperm, and to provide a super highway for it to travel on, while simultaneously filtering out deformed sperm. Given that the fertile-type of cervical mucus and the sperm are so different, and because of those differences they can assist each other in accomplishing their respective tasks, made me realize the need to better understand the differences at other levels of men and women's relationships, so as to better understand their complementarity and better foster mutual help in fulfilling their respective tasks.

God has created woman with a natural capacity for receptivity to life and to nourishing life. This is most evident, as John Paul II said, in her capacity for biological motherhood. To achieve this level of biological motherhood she must first be receptive biologically to the presence and life of her husband in that part of her body designed for such receptivity. The husband is present in her space and place for life so as to bring a part of his masculine goodness to her, so that she can do further good with it. They complement one another in this way.

We see the same pattern of male presence and feminine receptivity and hospitality when the sperm enters that place for life known as the ovum. The male goodness combining with the female goodness creates a special receptivity to God's creative word and a new human being can come into existence.

From this, one becomes aware that the mother also has the ability to create space and place in her heart for human beings, which is a free act of love… All women have this capacity and with it the "feminine genius" identified by John Paul II - it is a genius for relationships with persons, a genius for entering into personal relationships and for nourishing these relationships. The Method thus helped me to realize that a woman can not only create physical space and place for human persons within her own body, but also, she can create a spiritual space and place for persons, outside and around herself, as an extension of her heart, firstly for her family and then for others. As the body is the reflection of the spirit, this spiritual motherhood is alluded to in physical motherhood.

For men what God shows us, and the Method confirms it in its own way, is that masculinity has its own particular kind of goodness: one that complements the receptive goodness of the woman. This is the first goodness he is meant to bring into the personal space and place of the woman, one that enables her to do further good. This reflects part of the male mission - to bring other types of good into the female presence to allow her to do further good: for example, his kindness, patience, a salary for the benefit of his family, etc.

Thus, BOM helps us to see through the false anthropology that claims that men and women are the same except for their reproductive organs. BOM helps us to pass beyond the narrow definition of equality as 'sameness' in order to see that distinction and equality are compatible terms, thus assisting also in understanding the family as an icon of the Trinity, equality yet distinction in unity.

And so with respect to my pastoral practice, the science of BOM has provided me with a physical model for the spiritual capacities of the complementarity of men and woman. Thus I have been able to help couples to better understand the truth about their own masculinity and femininity, and to thus improve their relationships with God, their spouses, and with their children.

This has led to insights into the uniqueness of each of the feminine and masculine spiritualities, and has enabled me to foster this distinction with those I minister to. The biology of a woman and the way her fertility works points to the fact that the woman has a special receptivity and hospitality for each person. She creates a spiritual space and place around herself for human beings, receptive to their persons and extending a spiritual hospitality. Daily she is called to live this feminine spirituality by being ever more receptive to the presence of Christ in her heart, and to extending the hospitality of her love to him. He will guide her in welcoming those He wants her to welcome into her heart, and will strengthen her to provide for them according to the needs she can respond to. This is most evident when observing the mother who offers her womb and creates a loving home for her children, and when seeing the religious who is receptive and hospitable to all those Christ entrusts to her care, such as Blessed Mother Teresa.

Dr. Evelyn Billings is a woman who grew to excel in all these dimensions of motherhood: She made space and place in her heart for all her children, grandchildren and great-grand children. She has also done so for all of those of her world-wide Billings' Family.

We recognize that a man, though equal in humanity with a woman, is different in his masculinity. The man is an occupier of space and place for persons, and he brings his goodness to the female. He also brings with him the goodness of protection and provision. His masculine spirituality is built on these natural characteristics. With Christ in his heart and soul, he will be strengthened to live the masculinity of Christ, who having become man, was like us in all things but sin. Men need to examine this self-understanding and their daily actions with respect to others, especially in his relations with his wife and children.

Dr. John Billings was a man who grew to excel in all these dimensions of fatherhood. He brought the goodness of his masculine presence into the life of his wife, Evelyn and into the lives of all his children, grandchildren and greatgrand children. He also brought this goodness in to the lives of his extended Billing's Family - he protected us with truth and provided a means to live it.

John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and Family 1984-1986:

In 1983, two bishops in Canada were asking for help for their dioceses regarding marriage and family, which led my religious superiors to ask if I would be willing to take further training in marriage and family in order to prepare for full time work in this area of the Church's need. I was given the freedom to choose where to study, and the Lord had put in my mind and heart the idea to ask to go to the new John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and Family, which was a department at the Lateran University in Rome. The Lord worked quickly, and I left for Rome in August 1984.

The move from the secular university I was working at - a place where many professors used their God-given intellectual talents against God and against the students' faith - to an institution where I encountered truly gifted intellects being used in the service of God and his Church, was like coming upon an oasis in the desert. The time was so rich in intellectual and spiritual content. It was there that I had the privilege of meeting now Bishop Peter Elliott, and to benefit from his wisdom.

While I was in Rome the BOM involvement continued. This was possible through the kindness of Dr. Sr. Anna Cappella and her outstanding and dedicated team at The Study and Research Centre on Natural Family Planning of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, located at the large Catholic teaching hospital - the Gemelli Hospital - in Rome, known as "The Pope's Hospital." I spent a lot of time there, learning and doing the little things I could to help. Dr. Anna was a saint in the making, and I am sure she is a bright light amongst the members of the Billings family already in heaven. She organized BOM conferences and teacher formation sessions for Italy and North Africa. Drs John and Evelyn taught at these conferences and workshops. I was privileged to be able to attend these when I was in Rome and on a number of occasions afterwards.

Pope John Paul II was very supportive of Dr. Sr. Anna's work and that of the Drs. Billings. He helped her to establish the Research Centre, and for some years invited the participants at the conferences and formation workshops to a special audience at the Vatican. These audiences had become, in his own words, a "pleasant tradition" and that which enabled him to "express [his] satisfaction with this program which serves the family apostolate by helping couples live their vocation in harmony with God's law, as authentically interpreted by the Church's Magisterium." (L' Osser. P. 1, 22 Jan. 1992.) These special audiences and the wisdom imparted by the Pope nourished my motivation to be involved in this work.

The Archdiocese of Vancouver:

After my studies in Rome I returned to Canada in 1986 and was given the opportunity to work in the Archdiocese of Vancouver. God's hand was certainly involved is creating this opportunity. I was asked to establish the Office of Marriage and Family Formation as part of a diocesan outreach to marriages and families. This again allowed me to promote the Method and support those who were teaching it in the archdiocese and beyond. The family conferences we implemented provided special opportunities to invite the Drs. John and Lyn Billings to Vancouver to speak, to work with teachers, and to receive financial contributions to their work. The city of Vancouver, being on the Pacific Rim, plus the circumstances of the early nineties, made it possible to give Drs. John and Lyn some help re the China Project. The years I worked in Vancouver were good years.

I must say that the Lord, in his wisdom, never provided me with an opportunity to work full time with the Billings Method. It was always in tandem with other things. For example, while I was in Vancouver, the Archbishop asked me to revive the Catholic Physician's Guild. I was able to do so and it became a great venue for promoting the Method. I realized that my work in other areas always permitted me to introduce the Method into new forums. I also realized that in this way, I was less of a target for people in Canada who did not support Humanae Vitae and the Billings work.

Archdiocese of Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2001:

In January of 2001, I returned to Nova Scotia at the invitation of Archbishop Prendergast, S.J., and the two other bishops in the province. I was now again a talent scout for the Holy Spirit and the Method in Nova Scotia and the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. One of the great talents the Lord provided for the Billings work there, who is known to some of you, is Dr. Karen MacDonald. She is a truly dedicated teacher and teacher trainer.

During my time in Halifax the Lord has provided the means for me to return to Melbourne after 25 years away. This gave me the privilege to share in the celebration of Dr. John's 50th anniversary of service in and with the Method. Since then, the Lord has provided the opportunity for me to return several more times. I consider it a new privilege each time I can return.

Spiritual Director:

Two years ago I was officially appointed to be the Spiritual Advisor for WOOMB International, while continuing to be the Spiritual Advisor for WOOMB Nova Scotia, and WOOMB Canada.) As Spiritual Advisor for WOOMB International I see my role as one of support, especially of the Board through prayer, to be available for spiritual advice when asked for, and to remind the Board, from time to time, that they will never get rich in this apostolate to marriage and the family! So walk in faith with the Lord. I also have the responsibility, in which I invite all of you to join me, in praying for those whom the Holy Spirit is preparing to take their places in the leadership of WOOMB International, just as He prepared them to take over the leadership from Drs. John and Lyn, Dr. Kevin Hume, etc. The Impact of BOM upon the Understanding of my Religious Voation:

As I begin to conclude this talk, I would like to share with you one of the most personal impacts BOM has had upon my priesthood and the particular charism of my religious order.

I am a member of the Missionary Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Three months before an Oblate would be ready for the priesthood, one is required to write a letter to our Superior General in Rome indicating three areas of Oblate missionary work, in order of priority, which he thinks that he would be best suited for.

Back in early 1964 when I wrote my letter, my first request was to work in our missions in Peru. My second request was to work in our missions in South Africa. My third and last choice was to teach in one of our High Schools.

Twenty years later, as I've recounted, I ended up with an Obedience to work full time in marriage and family work. This caused concern among some of my brother Oblates, for the charism of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate is expressed in the following quote from St. Luke's Gospel: "He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor." (Lk 4:18) They asked, "How does this obedience fit into our charism?"

My experience working with couples living the BOM as a way of life gradually taught me to formulate an answer.

Our Oblates who work in Laos, work with the people who are the most neglected by the powers that be in that country. The Oblates who work in the barricades outside of Lima, Peru, and those who work with the Eskimo communities of Northern Canada, do the same. Today, in Canada, it is marriage and family that make up the largest most neglected group in our society. They are not only the most neglected but also the most attacked. The family is bombarded with the attacks of contraception, abortion, no fault divorce - the list goes on. This is where I realized we, as a missionary congregation, should be - as specialists in difficult missions - a title in fact given to us by Blessed Pope John XXIII.

So surprisingly, my work with BOM has given me a deeper understanding and way of living the charism of my religious congregation in a new and unexpected fashion, as the Holy Spirit has willed it. For that, I am very grateful.

In Conclusion:

The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, is a model for all of us. She put the gift of her fertility, her receptivity and hospitality at the service of God's work of redeeming mankind. Let us never hesitate to ask her help in this work we do - to offer all couples the opportunity to put their gift of fertility at the service of the God of Life, for the future of the world, and the ongoing work of redemption. Amen.