Bob Billings (1915-1999): outstanding Catholic layman

Bob Billings (1915-1999): outstanding Catholic layman

Peter Westmore

Robert (Bob) Billings, whose sudden death on 15 January followed a series of complications after a serious motor car accident in Melbourne last year, was a tower of strength for 'AD2000' and a familiar voice on the phone for the many priests throughout Australia who sold quantities of the journal in their parishes. A distinguished Catholic layman, with many years of service to the Church and Australian community, Mr Billings was a brother of Dr John Billings, famous around the world, along with his wife, Dr Evelyn, for the Billings Method of Natural Family Planning, and a close friend and associate of the late Bob Santamaria.

The following is an edited text of the tribute by the President of the National Civic Council, Peter Westmore, on the occasion of the Requiem Mass for Mr Billings at the Immaculate Conception parish, Hawthorn, Victoria, on 19 January.

Bob Billings was not only a devoted family man. He was also a true patriot and a deeply committed Catholic. Educated by the Jesuits, it was logical that during the 1930s, he should have been attracted to the Campion Society, a fellowship of young Catholic laymen, who with the encouragement of the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Mannix, were committed to the great goal of embedding Christian values in all walks of life in Australia.

He saw clearly that unless Christians were actively involved in public life, decisions would be made by those who were indifferent or even hostile to Christian values. He saw that involvement in the Church's parish life was just the beginning, not the end, of his religious commitment.

A qualified pharmacist, he could have enjoyed the comforts of city life, and it was a measure of the man that he established a pharmacy in Koroit, a country town in south-western Victoria.

In Koroit, he carried his principles through by joining the local branch of the ALP, whose Secretary he became. He also fought for the Catholic hospital in Koroit, against bitter Masonic opposition; and was involved in a range of civic activities, including the re-vegetation of Tower Hill - site of the spectacular volcanic eruption - which had been abandoned to rabbits and bracken. Those who have visited this magnificent site in recent years can see the fulfilment of his vision. Long before it became fashionable, he was a genuine conservationist,. with a deep knowledge of the history, geography and geology of the Western District of Victoria.

In the 1950s, he was caught up in the great Labor Split. A direct man of strong convictions, like most Labor members at the time, Bob took the courageous step of resigning from the ALP to become Secretary of the Koroit branch of the Democratic Labor Party. It was only after this that he met, for the first time, the great Bob Santamaria, with whom he formed a life-long friendship, based on shared commitment to common goals.

After moving to Melbourne in the 1960s, Bob Billings continued to work as a pharmacist, and at the same time, was engaged in the political struggles which characterised that period. He was for a time a delegate to the Victorian Trades Hall Council, where the democratic forces for many years held the forces of the revolutionary left in check.

Dedication

At a time when many others would have been contemplating an easy retirement, Bob was asked by Mr Santamaria to join the full-time staff of the National Civic Council. Again Bob Billings accepted. It was at this time, in the early 1970s, that I first came to know his wonderful smile, sharp mind, tenacity and impish sense of humour.

Through his loyalty and dedication, he became Victorian President of the National Civic Council in 1980, and led the organisation through a particularly challenging period, with distinction - at a time when many other organisations founded on similar religious inspiration, were collapsing in on themselves.

In 1987, less than 12 years ago, Bob relinquished that position to devote more time to care for his beloved wife, Eileen, whose health was failing. But again, Mr Santamaria asked Bob to do just one more thing, and again, Bob did not refuse. He became circulation manager of the new religious publication, AD2000, contacting hundreds of priests and thousands of potential subscribers throughout Australia. Due in no small part to his efforts, the foundations were established for the success of this unique and influential publication, which now has a readership throughout Australia, across the Tasman, and indeed, around the world. He carried on this work until the first half of last year, when he was incapacitated by a terrible motor car accident and, later, a stroke.

Yet even in the midst of shattering illness, in the extremity of pain and suffering which were to us unimaginable, his spirit was unbroken. I cannot recall an angry word or gesture. He maintained a passionate interest in everything that was going on outside the hospital ward - whether it was football, politics or religion. His illness made him more patient and, I would say, more holy. Visiting him in hospital, I often interrupted him at prayer. We thought we were helping him; in fact, he was an inspiration to us.

Bob Billings was a great Australian. We mourn his loss; but he has now gone to a better place, to join those whom he loved and served on earth. He loved his country. He loved his family. He loved his faith. May he rest in peace.

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