Deep-rooted Indulgences; Billings' Bliss

What the Pope Seems to Be Teaching

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, DEC. 8, 2005 ( Less than eight months into his pontificate, Benedict XVI has offered the faithful a third opportunity to receive a plenary indulgence.

The plenary indulgence, marking the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the 40th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, follows the indulgences offered for the Year of the Eucharist and World Youth Day.

Cardinal James Stafford, the Church’s major penitentiary, told me he believed that the decrees are indicative of the Pope’s deep roots in the great tradition of the first millennium of the Church and his seeking ways to bring ecclesiastical renewal through the sacrament of reconciliation.

«One of the best ways to do that is through a recovery of the true understanding of indulgences within the Church,» the cardinal said. «And that teaching is profoundly rooted in the teaching of the Church Fathers.»

The first millennium, he told me, «is very much taken up with an understanding of everyone’s need for the mercy of God through the redemptive washing of our sins through the blood of Christ.»

Cardinal Stafford, 73, said the Pope «is very aware that we need to return to a consciousness of the deep gratitude that we owe to Christ for the great price he has paid for us in our sinfulness. And one of the ways to do that is to recapture the original meaning of the exercise of the power of the keys of Peter.»

The early Church laid much emphasis on those words of Jesus to the first Pope — «I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.»

The cardinal said that they saw the «primary exercise of these keys as relieving persons of the terrible burden of their own sinfulness through forgiveness, and the guilt that is due to their sins.»

«So the Holy Father is perceiving that it’s important to recapture the experience of the first millennium and to some degree of the second also … as we see in the reform of the Catholic Church with the Council of Trent, especially in its Sixth Session dealing with justification, or how one is justified as a sinner before God,» Cardinal Stafford said.

The prelate described how, through these indulgences, the Pope helps us to reflect on our Church as a throne of grace and mercy, as well as the great community of God’s people which is the «mediation of God’s mercy and forgiveness here upon earth.»

Those interested in learning more could see Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution «Indulgentiarum Doctrina.»

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A Marriage of Science and Faith

Rome was home to the only married couple ever beatified together. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the wedding of Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini, the city conducted a week of commemorative activities for the couple who Pope John Paul II said «lived married love and service to life in the light of the Gospel and with great human intensity.»

Each activity promoted the call to marital sanctity and none more so than the international conference on «Science and Ethics for Responsible Procreation,» organized by four Roman universities in cooperation with the Italian ministries for health care and education.

Special guests at the event were Drs. John and Evelyn Billings. The Australian couple, who have been married for more than 60 years, received standing ovations from conference participants, fellow scientists and Roman Curia members alike, as the Tor Vergata University’s School of Medicine and Surgery awarded them a honorary doctorate for their lifetime of scientific achievement in reproductive health.

The president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, told me that the event «really paves the way for the future of responsible maternity and paternity … as their Billings Ovulation Method is internationally recognized by the secular world for a variety of qualities it presents.»

The Billings Method was the first scientifically based, natural fertility regulation technique. It has given rise to a multitude of naturally based, ethically driven techniques of avoiding and achieving a pregnancy.

The couple came to Rome to present their namesake method, its remarkable history and success rate — and its possible implications for society.

The scientific pioneers insisted that their method doesn’t just stop at promoting the culture of life. Rather, «its very nature also promotes a culture of love,» said John Billings.

As to the question «Doesn’t this method take the spice out of married life?» — these leading members of the Pontifical Academy for Life explained that the Billings Method empowers women to recognize the signs of their health and fertility, and it encourages them to share this information with their spouses so as to foster better communication.

By anyone’s standard, the Billings themselves are a personification of how it can work.

After a half-century of research as colleagues (and numerous children and grandchildren later) their tender gazes and delicate exchange of words testify to their deep love — a love that they say was gained through an increased understanding of each other’s fundamental physiology.

Evelyn Billings accepted her honorary degree saying: «Very mindful of the honor bestowed on me, even greater is the honor because I share it with John.»

In a speech, John Billings shared their secret: «When we teach the BOM — we teach truth and love — two of the fundamentals of marriage and the expression of natural law for all people. … It’s what the Popes themselves always reminded us to do. … It’s inevitable that if this technique is introduced into the marriage that it will influence it for good.»

His wife agreed: «For a good, successful marriage, the husband and the wife should pay attention to each other and it should not be a haphazard relationship — they should apply their intelligence to it. …

«Intellect is one of the gifts of providence to human beings and therefore they can accumulate this knowledge which is simple and easy to acquire and use it intelligently to choose whether a conception should take place or not.»

«This way a marriage is built up because it requires attention for each other and unselfish behavior towards each other,» she added. «And in this way all the qualities of marriage, which go towards having a successful marriage, are inherent in the method — a goodness which strengthens by discipline.»

At an age when most people are long retired, this couple spend, on average, half of each year globe-trotting through more than 100 countries presenting the results of their studies. And they always do so «hand in hand.»

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Humanizing Justice

A recent Rome conference focused on the human person and his dignity inside the legal systems of the world.

More than 700 international, faith-based lawyers gathered in Castel Gandolfo to discuss the theme «Relationships in Law: Is There a Place for Fraternity?» in the light of Catholic social teaching.

The three-day event, run by the group Communion and Law, gathered participants from 35 nations. Criminal attorneys from the Third World compared notes with the corporate litigators from developed nations, and vice versa.

At the conclusion of their exchanges, the conferees agreed that a renewed respect for the person has the «power to humanize justice.»

While most affirmed the real value of every human person, according to Church teachings, they spoke of the difficulty in obtaining it. This was why the chance to hear of others’ experiences was so vital.

Administrative lawyer Nino Gentile of Peru spoke of his country’s plight and told of the success in accelerating democracy after people were encouraged to dialogue more with governmental offices.

The dialogue th
at began in the town of Gela helped resolve a long history of conflict between farmers and mining companies throughout the whole nation.

From the United States came Douglas Ammar, a criminal lawyer who described the new paths being opened in the area of social rehabilitation, notably the Georgia Justice Project.

This unlikely mix of lawyers, social workers and a landscaping company described one of their guiding principles: «The only way to break the cycle of crime and poverty is to offer a holistic person- and faith-centered response to each client that comes their way.»

Ammar told me how satisfying it was to be able to share the success of their non-profit, rehabilitation justice program.

«Our approach to criminal defense is based on a relationship and community-oriented ethic,» he said. «We believe in working closely with each client to recapture their dignity … from their legal defense, sentencing and counseling, to guaranteeing them a job in our own landscaping company when they come out the other end of the system.»

Ammar insists that his group is not just trying to help its clients, their loved ones, and the community at large. «We are saving,» he says, «a small part of our profession from a pernicious condition of the heart … from the effects of isolation, greed, alienation, cynicism and hopelessness.»

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at

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