[Paper given at Billings Ovulation Method National Conference "Carrying the Torch", April 2000]

A Story of God's Providence

Dr. John J. Billings
Printed with Permission

When taking a long look into the future it is appropriate to begin by reviewing the past. That is what I propose to do, to move quickly through the development, validation and promotion of the Billings Ovulation Method. Many events within this history will be well known to you but none of you will know them all. In any event a view in chronological order gives a particular perspective, part of which is a confrontation with the working of Providence, which is the essence, the distillate which is there to be recognized and acknowledged with the deepest gratitude of which the human heart is capable.

In his excellent book, "The Art of Praying", Romano Guardini1 devotes a chapter to Divine Providence which he tells us, "Embraces the whole of existence and at the same time concerns each person individually. According to this anything that happens in the world is directed by the love, wisdom and might of the Father for the benefit of the faithful". When an individual wishes that God's Kingdom and holy justice should come into the world, then out of this understanding, Christ tells us, "The course of events will fall into place around the faithful". The course of events is not predetermined but is "full of potentialities, and ready to submit to the will which is able to govern it".

God's Providence works through the decisions of individuals in the variable situations in which they find themselves. God demands something of us which belongs to his Kingdom and governance of human destiny, so that the human heart that shares with him a holy care of his Kingdom remembers that as St Paul wrote, "To them that love God, all things work together unto good". (Rom. 8:28) One can observe from time to time situations in which personal intervention may promote the good and oppose evil and it then becomes a question as to whether there is now present a request from God that is personal to oneself. At that point it is important to explore the motivation of the decision that may be made, the grace to see what is God's will, and not to make a decision based on any other consideration. Guardini says, "It is an infinite grace to see 'what is not yet"', that is, the result which can come into being only by our own doing. Sometimes it is only in retrospect that such a grace guided us through our own blindness.

This particular history really began in medical school at the University of Melbourne. I was in third year and Lyn in second year of the medical course and at that time the two years were grouped together in the dissecting room of the anatomy department. It happened one day that looking across the dissecting room over a row of cadavers I saw this beautiful girl at work, and immediately fell in love with her. It was the nearest one could come to what is perhaps an unreality at the human level, "love at first sight". Lyn subsequently responded to my suggestion that I had succumbed to love at first sight by saying that from where I was standing looking across to her, she really did not have much competition. However, as Shakespeare has told us, "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind".1

Having engineered an introduction to her we quickly became good friends and this friendship continued to deepen over the following years of the medical course. All university students in those days were more dependent financially on their parents than they are today; we decided that we would marry after graduation. It had not occurred to me at that time that both of us being doctors would prove to be so important.

The medical courses were shortened by a few months during the war so that we graduated in about August instead of November of the final year. Lyn in 1942 and myself in 1941. The shortening of the course had been to accelerate the supply of doctors for the armed services. Six months after Lyn's graduation we were married in 1943. I had already enlisted in the Australian Infantry Forces in expectation of concluding my hospital residency training within a few months and in August I was sent to Papua New Guinea as a member of the Medical Corps and was there until October 1944, being finally discharged from the Army in 1946. We then went to England for post-graduate studies returning early in 1948 to enter consultant medical practice, Lyn in paediatrics and myself in neurology.

We had always been anxious for a large family and gradually our family size increased. Lyn discovered that she could not continue in private paediatric practice faced with the demands of domestic paediatric care so she reduced her medical involvement to one half-day each week in a hospital environment to give her continuing paediatric experience. It was only after all the children had reached school age that she increased her medical career to half-time each week and undertook further studies in a University appointment, teaching histology and embryology in the Department of Anatomy of the University of Melbourne.

It was in 1953 that I was drawn reluctantly into spending one night a week as a medical consultant to Fr Maurice Catarinich who had been appointed by Archbishop Daniel Mannix as a Marriage Consultant for the Archdiocese of Melbourne. After declining the invitation at first I had agreed later to undertake this task for three months, until a permanent appointment of another doctor could be arranged. The three months has by now become 47 years.

I was there especially to help couples who had a need for a rest from pregnancy, and all we had to offer them was the Calendar Rhythm Method. The work also involved participation in weekend Cana Conferences for married people and an opportunity was taken at those Conferences to invite any couples who had failed to achieve success with the Rhythm method for an interview. It soon became obvious that many of them had failed to postpone pregnancy because they had been taught the method incorrectly, a lesson which has never been forgotten. The second impact of this experience was the extraordinary goodness of so many of these couples. Many of them would tell me of really serious problems they were facing, especially medical problems. They would then say, "My doctor has told us that we must use contraception or that one of us must become sterilized, but we are Catholics and we know that that is wrong, so we will not follow that advice. Now, can you help us?" As I had been sitting with them, listening to the story of their difficulties I often wondered why I had never encountered the like. So all I could do was to answer the question by saying, "I will try".

There were a number of these couples, a minority, whom I saw again a few months later, to learn that they had decided not to use the Rhythm method but to use contraception. What had happened was that within those few months after beginning contraceptive practices, one or both of them had been unfaithful, so that the marriage was now in much deeper trouble than it had been at the previous interview. This was the beginning of insight into the fact that there is a very sign)ficant difference in the effect on the marriage between natural family planning and techniques which withdraw or reject the gift of fertility.

So it was that many years before Pope Paul VI published his Encyclical Humanae Vitae we had become quite sure that contraception would never be approved by the Catholic Church. We also decided that if Pope Paul did approve the use of contraception we would accept that decision and devote ourselves in prayer to help us understand why he did so.

We were fortunate that living in Australia we were to some extent protected from the dissent against the teaching of the Church which soon became evident around the world. More than that, it did not take any time at all to discover that the gentle Fr Catarinich proved to be made of steel when any of ficial teaching of the Church came under attack. As I began to look for a better method of regulating birth he often said, "You must continue this work, God will not leave his people without help".

For many years we used the temperature method in conjunction with the rhythm method, but again found that it too had a number of inescapable weaknesses and indeed in some common circumstances, such as breast-feeding, it could offer no information at all, perhaps for several months. So it was then that I began to search the medical literature in the University library. The more I read the more I found myself becoming convinced that it was the activity of the cervix during the cycle that was the most constant and positive indication of fertility and the time of ovulation, and that there we might find a solution.

Knowing then that the cervix was producing a special secretion around the time of ovulation I began to question the women coming for help. I was surprised to find that they all answered positively when I questioned them about the occurrence of a discharge during the cycle separate from menstruation. When they charted it, menstruation followed about two weeks later. The researches of Ogino and Knaus had demonstrated that ovulation occurs about two weeks before the following menstruation. So now I knew that under Providence I had stumbled on an element of God's creation which is of great sign)ficance, precisely because the women are aware of it. l remember very well the day I informed Fr Catarinich about the information I had culled from medical texts, with key references going back more than 100 years and that, despite individual variations, there was a definite consistency in the description given by the women of their observations. Then I added, "The women know all about this, so we are 'on to something', which we must now study closely."

Fr Catarinich was of tremendous help over the next several years, talking to the women, helping to design charts and spending time with me to discuss all the information that the women gave us so generously. Coming from a strongly medical family, his father, two brothers and a sister all being medically qualified, he had grown up with a scientific attitude, such that he was ready to search for truth. He had asked me to help him in the first instance because he knew that I was happily married and that we now had some happy children; he did not want for an associate in his work a doctor who had marital problems of his own. Neither did he want a gynaecologist because many of these women had had serious medical problems often associated with pregnancy or childbirth, and he realized that an ethical problem could arise if he arranged for another gynaecologist to be involved in discussing the woman's medical history with her.

In 1962 I had begun writing a book about the progress of our work and it was then that James Brown came to Melbourne. A brilliant endocrine chemist, he had been working in a research unit in Edinburgh and had been assigned the task of developing a method for measuring oestrogens in blood and urine and had been successful. Brown's Method became used all overthe world subsequently. It was just atthis time that the contraceptive pill was being marketed and he was next directed in the research unit to study the hormonal patterns of women taking the contraceptive pill. He was able to demonstrate that the levels of all the hormones involved in the mechanism of ovulation, coming from the pituitary or the ovary, were suppressed by the medication, and he was seriously disturbed by what he was able to recognize as a gross disruption of an important biological mechanism, and immediately formed the opinion that this would be sure to cause harm.

A little time later he observed an advertisement for a person with qualifications similar to his own to work in the laboratory at the Royal Women's Hospital in the University of Melbourne; he applied for the job and was appointed to it. Soon after arrival in Melbourne I visited him, told him what we had done and asked him to subject our conclusions to the evaluation that his laboratory techniques could provide. I remember that he looked slightly stunned when I put this information before him and he told me that he had had in the back of his mind, ever since studying the women on contraceptive medication, that one day his laboratory techniques could be useful in helping to develop and validate a natural method of regulating fertility. He has maintained this most valuable collaboration with us ever since, and has made about 750,000 measurements of the ovarian hormones in menstrual cycles and other situations where ovarian activity may be involved. As a result of his brilliant work he was awarded a personal Chair, that is a personal appointment as a Professor within the University of Melbourne. He also has been awarded the prestigious Doctor of Science degree. Professor Brown is a true scientist and by that I mean that he searches for the truth and accepts it; he would never be obstructed from accepting the truth even if it contradicted a theory that he had formulated before conducting a study necessary to evaluate it.

On the morning when the news about Humanae Vitae was published the headlines in the newspapers featured Pope Paul VI's decision that the contraceptive pill was morally unacceptable. On that morning Professor Brown came to our house pleased and excited. He reminded us that there is only one Truth, and he recognized that his perception of the Pill as being wrong according to scientific principles had been confirmed by Pope Paul's recognition of its immorality.

Fr Catarinich counselled that the publication of a book should be delayed to include some of Professor Brown's collaborative studies and this was decided upon. During 1963 I proceeded with writing the book and it was at this time that Lyn was acquainted with the nature of this work and the progress that had been made, by proofreading the book before its publication in 1964. This marked another leap forward in the work because it soon became obvious to the men that the teaching of the intimate detail of the mucus pattern is best communicated in a woman-to-woman instruction. The men moved backwards, inviting Lyn to train as many women teachers as possible to conduct the teaching service. Another important contribution that Lyn made was a special study of the long cycles in which ovulation was delayed for weeks or months. She worked out in detail the nature of a discharge which could indicate infertility during the time before ovulation so that it was not only the dry days which are available for intercourse at this time, without fear of pregnancy. The essential nature of such a discharge, as you all know, is that it does not change from one day to another on which it is observed.

Amongst the many Beatitudes we have been privileged to receive, and so often inadequately described as coincidence, is the story of how Kevin Hume decided to work with us. It happened in the 1 960s that at his Family Medicine practice in Sydney Kevin had a wealthy patient suffering from a distressing neurological disorder for which no complete cure was available. This man decided to donate money to the PostGraduate Medical Foundation of the University of Sydney and the Australian PostGraduate Federation in Medicine to establish a Fellowship to stimulate study in Australia of organic diseases of the nervous system and also to promote closer relationships with the United States within the field of medicine. A special Fellowship Committee was established to which Kevin was appointed at the donor's request and to which I was nominated by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. The Committee had the responsibility of recommending Fellowships for Australians to visit the United States of America or for an American to visit Australia, for periods of three or four months, in order to exchange the latest information of developments in the field of neurology. I met Kevin at these meetings and a strong friendship developed, particularly as it soon became clear that we shared an allegiance to the Catholic Church and the teaching of its Magisterium. Soon after my book was published I gave Kevin a copy and after reading it he decided to establish a working relationship in the promotion of this new method of natural family planning to which I had given the name "The Ovulation Method".

Except for some talks I gave in India in 1965 when on an overseas post-graduate study tour in Neurology, the first teaching of the method overseas occurred when Lyn and I were invited to New Zealand in 1968. After we had accepted this invitation to speak at a Catholic Medical Guild Conference, Humanae Vitoe was published and it had provoked a considerable emotional reaction before we arrived. The doctors involved in general medical practice were afraid that their vocation to the sick could not survive if they did not continue to prescribe the contraceptive pill; it was not long before the contrary proved to be the case, their practices thrived.

In 1969 we made a working tour together to Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. In Hong Kong we had the good fortune to meet a late vocation priest, Fr Jake Kelly who had undertaken studies at the Beda College in Rome after his discharge from the American Navy where he had been a high ranking officer involved in legal and financial affairs. I remember he told us that he was able to sign cheques up to $1 million dollars without having to ask permission. He was a delightful character and told us that he would shortly be returning to work in Los Angeles in the United States, inviting us to inform him ahead of any visit we might make to the United States, so that he could put us in contact with an individual who might be able to promote our work there.

It was in the following year that we went to work in all the countries of Central America and the journey necessitated movement through Los Angeles. We arranged therefore, to meet Fr Kelly and he introduced us to another wonderful priest, Monsignor Robert Deegan who was the parish priest of the Church of the American Martyrs in Los Angeles and also the Director of the Department of Health and Hospitals. Los Angeles is a very large Catholic Diocese, second only in size only to Chicago in the United States. Msgr Deegan ran a succession of International Institutes on the Ovulation Method over the next several years, attracting many visitors, not only from the United States but also from Latin America and Europe. Many of you will remember him contributing to our Humanae Vitue Conference in Melbourne in 1978.

When we went on to Central America one of our first assignments was a big public meeting in the city hall in Guatemala City, Guatemala. At the end of our presentation we were treated to a considerable amount of hostile criticism, particularly from a number of doctors present, whose comments revealed almost total ignorance of what we had been telling them. Their questions were therefore not particularly difficult but they did not really want to be persuaded to change their attitudes. After the long session was over a middle-aged doctor came down the steps from the elevated section of the audience and spoke to us. He said, "Just keep on with your work and always teach about the science". Lyn still has a tendency to believe that he was really St Michael in disguise.

We learned of the work of another great scientist, Professor Erik Odeblad, of the Department of Medical Biophysics in the University of Umea in Sweden in the early 1 970s and he too was guided to know the Ovulation Method in a remarkable way. He had begun his university studies in Stockholm in the Science Department, with physics as his major subject. After graduating in science he undertook study for a medical degree and followed on his graduation from medical school by specializing in obstetrics and gynaecology, after which he was appointed to the University in Stockholm. However, he was informed that acceptance of the appointment would mean that he would be called upon to do his share of abortions in the University Hospital, which he refused to do. It then became clear that he could not expect advancement within the University Department. He relinquished the appointment and decided to undertake further studies in physics. He fortunately, providentially, obtained a research Fellowship in the Department of those scientists who very soon after Professor Odeblad arrived, were awarded the Nobel Prize for their development of what we now call nuclear magnetic resonance.

After his years in the United States he returned to Sweden and then decided to combine his expert knowledge of both physics and gynaecology by concentrating on the secretions produced by the cervix of the uterus during the menstrual cycle, using the very modern physical instrumentation about which he had learned so much. At first, his work was largely ignored by his University colleagues but it then happened that he was invited to Sydney to give a lecture to a group of veterinarians.

Our attention had been directed to this work during a conference we attended in Colombia, South America, in 1976 and were given a book produced by the World Health Organization containing an article by Erik Odeblad about two types of cervical mucus secretion, the estrogenic (E) mucus and the gestogenic (G) mucus. We obtained other copies of this book from the World Health Organization and passed one on to Kevin Hume.

It was a tew years after our first knowledge of Erik Odeblad's work that Kevin Hume saw the notice in Sydney to the effect that Erik was coming to Sydney and telephoned us to pass on this information. We strongly supported Kevin's plan to meet with Professor Odeblad and to present him with some of our published resource materials on the Ovulation Method. With his exemplary caution, again a manifestation of the true scientist, Professor Odeblad studied these materials and the information that Kevin Hume had given him after the lecture, correlating it with the discoveries he had made over several years of research in Sweden. We did not hear of him until about two years after his visit to Sydney when he announced that there was a total correlation between his work and the work that had been carried out in Australia. He proclaimed publicly then, and on many subsequent occasions that all the guidelines of the Billings Ovulation Method (BOM) are correct.

It was then arranged that he would be invited to participate in an International Congress on natural family planning in Mexico where his presentation received an outstanding ovation and launched his excellent research upon the world scene. If he had not refused to do abortions, this saga would never have existed. We have often said to him that no doubt he could have been a useful gynaecologist in private practice in Sweden but instead of that his work has been of benefit to women all over the world.

Later on, in 1976, Lyn and I had been appointed to what were called "Expert Committees" of the World Health Organization and participated in meetings in Geneva, Switzerland. Returning home to Australia from Geneva after one meeting, we moved first to Rome and on arrival were informed that Pope Paul VI wanted to see us on the following day. This meant that we had a private audience with the Pope, the only other person present being a Monsignor Secretary who was ready to interpret if necessary.

Pope Paul told us that he was aware of the work that we had been doing and he wanted to give us his personal thanks for it. Then he added, "I thank you also in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ". He gave us copies of his Encyclicals Humanae Vitoe and Populorum Progressio. He also gave us each a Rosary, one of which we subsequently presented to Dr Thomas Hilgers, to whom we had taught the Ovulation Method early in the 1 970s. We gave him the Rosary several years ago, as a tribute to his courage in establishing the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Pope Paul exhorted us to continue this work for the rest of our lives. We told him that we had a wonderful international family helping us and that we believed all the members of this family would want us to thank him for his encyclical Humanae Vitoe, which had been an inspiration for us all. He then said, "I thought about it and I prayed about it. I consulted wise and holy men and now I am at peace". It was wonderful to hear those words because he had suffered so much following the publication of the encyclical, but knew that he was right. We also told him about the help that we had always received and still receive from Fr Maurice Catarinich. He questioned us closely about him; it was only at that time that he enlisted the help of the interpreter to be sure that he fully understood the detail of what we were saying. We were conscious of the fact that no one could know better than a Pope how much good a good priest can achieve. He gave us a medal issued to commemorate his Pontificate to bring home with his personal thanks to Fr Catarinich.

In 1980 we were members of a small group of Catholic laity participating in the Synod of Bishops in Rome considering "The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World". We were there for about a month working with more than 200 Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops from all over the world, much of the work being discussions in small language groups with additional plenary sessions during which we were invited to present details of our own work. It was Lyn who suggested that we should describe ourselves as resembling the boy with the basket containing a few loaves and fishes, adding that with the help of the prayers and encouragement of all those prelates, who knows how many may receive the nourishment.

During our time at the Synod we were able on one occasion to attend Pope John Paul's morning Mass and have breakfast with him afterwards. We met him many more times at various conferences, meetings of the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Pontifical Academy of Science, the Pontifical Academy for Life, and also at Natural Family Planning Conferences in Rome organized by Dr Sr Anna Cappella and her colleagues at the University of the Sacred Heart. He has always greeted us warmly and thanked us for our work, emphasizing the need for us to continue with it as long as possible.

We first met Mother Teresa of Calcutta when she came to Melbourne at the time of the Eucharistic Congress here in the 1970s. When we had an International Conference at the Melbourne University in 1978 to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of Humanae Vitoe she was one of our guest speakers. We met her again at the Synod of Bishops and afterwards she invited us on a number of occasions to go to Calcutta in order to conduct training of her sisters and novices in the BOM so that wherever they were working subsequently amongst the poorest of the poor, they would be able to help them to regulate their family size and avoid the harmful measures used in various Government programs.

We remember well the first visit we made to Calcutta at her request. After attending the morning Mass in the convent chapel we were given breakfast in the small reception room, during which Mother Teresa came in to greet us. She said, "Well, now that you have discovered this knowledge you must spend the rest of your life taking it to the people in need". At that time Lyn and I were very busy in our professional vocations in Australia, had a bank overdraft and still had the care of our family, temporarily relieved by the combined efforts of the two grandmothers. I said to her, "Mother Teresa, I don't know how I got into this". She dismissed my remark with a wave of her hand, saying, "That is a secret that will remain with God" - the simple, direct answer of a person who we are told will soon be canonized. One remembers always the support of so many bishops and priests all over the world and especially the eelfless devotion of so many hundreds and hundreds of BOM teachers without whose support, inspiration and prayers we could hardly have survived. We also acknowledge with gratitude more than 30 years of friendship, solidarity and assistance so generously given to us by Dr Kevin Hume and Dr Joseph Santamaria.

Messages of encouragement were often given to us in the course of our teaching activities. One remembers an African lady who came up out of the darkness at the end of a lecture one night to say, "This method is love", and then she departed. After our two short presentations to introduce the method to this African audience, the woman had perceived the truth that in helping married people to live as God intended by His Creation, we were striving to promote a "kingdom of the heart", that is Christ's "kingdom of love".

There is our Torch, the light of Christ carrying a message of faith, truth and love, the communication of which being the privilege we shall continue to share as long as we strive and pray with all our might.

A couple in North America came down from near the back of the big auditorium in the university in which we had spoken for the man to say, "This method saved our marriage and brought me back to the faith", and his wife added, "That is true and it is not easy for him to say so".

Many of you have heard many times the story of Teresa, a wonderful woman living in povery in one of the Pacific Islands, struggling with problems of an alcoholic husband and the needs of their 12 children. One day a missionary nun taught her the Ovulation Method. Teresa then began to hide in the village each evening during the fertile time after putting the youngest children down to sleep before her husband returned home, drunk as usual; she returned each morning to tell him what she had done and why she had done it. When days of infertility returned she generously demonstrated her love for him in every possible way. We knew that family over many years. The husband became tee-total and secured a much higher level of employment, so that peace and happiness returned to the family.

There was a man in Kenya who said, "I used to beat my wife, but when we learned this method I came to understand that she is a wonderful creature and now I love her. And something wonderful is now happening to my country".

Dr Sr Leonie McSweeney in Nigeria is telling us how her active teaching program strongly implemented by repeated courses on the National television circuit have established large numbers of couples on the method. The resulting influence upon the conjugal relationship is demonstrably protecting this group of couples from the high rate of infection with the AIDS virus evident within the wider community.

The story in China has yet to unfold to the degree for which we continue to work, but it is clear that the method is warmly received by the Chinese couples, that it is protecting women from the harmful effects of the technological birth control methods and that it has been able to prevent many abortions. Shakespeare1 wrote:

"The poet's eye ...
Doth glance from Heaven to Earth, from Earth to Heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, ...
That, if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy. "

Within the limits of our human understanding we have seen glances from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven which are surely manifestations of God's love and the joyous response of human love.

Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has told us that the husband comes to find in his wife an element of God's nature that he himself does not possess. My heart overflows with gratitude when I.reflect upon the privileges that Lyn and I have enjoyed. My mind goes back to that time, now 62 years ago, when I saw a beautiful young woman smiling at her friends in the dissecting room of the Anatomy School at the University of Melbourne and thought immediately, "I would love to spend my life with that woman if she could come to love me". Now together we have reached the autumn of our lives. As Shakespeare wrote, "My way of life is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf". We can say to each other the words of Robert Browning (Rabbi teen Ezra, i)

"Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand/ Who saith, 'A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all nor be afraid!'

And I can repeat the words from John Donne's poem "The Autumnal":

"No spring, nor summer beauty hath such grace,/As I have seen in one Autumnal face".

Many of the Australians here tonight are familiar with the work of the great Australian poet James McAuley the communist who became a Catholic and later wrote several beautiful hymns which are often sung during the Mass. He became a great friend and admirer of Bob Santamaria, perhaps the greatest Australian we have ever known, who devoted his life to fight "Against the Tide" as he put it, working for God and the Church, for life and love and against communism and other atheistic ideologies. McAuley wrote and dedicated to him a poem, the last few lines of which I shall quote to you, to remind you of the truth which McAuley recognized, that when we undertake a task which is good it will accomplish good in God's Providence although perhaps not in the way we had hoped, but in a better way:

"The good we choose and mean to do
Prospers if He wills it to,
And if not, then it fails.
Yet failure is not our disgrace,
By ways we cannot know
He keeps the merit in His hand,
And suddenly, as no-one planned,
Behold the Kingdom grow!"


1 "The Art of Praying by Romano Guardini", Sophia Institute Press, Manchester, New Hampshire, USA. [Back]

2 Shakespeare W., A Midsummer-Night's Dream Act 1, Sc. 1. [Back]

3 Shakespeare W., A Midsummer-Night's Dream Act V, Sc. 1. [Back]