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Friday, 26 July 2019 16:10

Anna Cappella: Three yes of a mission

Here we publish a re-enactment of Anna Cappella (1924-2009),School Missionary, 
gynecologist specialized in the United States and active as hospital doctor in Pakistan,
collaborator of the Billings spouses in the diffusion of their natural method for responsible procreation,
first director of the Research and Studies Centre for the Regulation of fertility, at the University of Sacred Heart /Rome).
The testimony is written by a colleague of Anna Cappella, Dr. Paola Pellicanò, who carries out her studies and works.

It is the feast of St Anne and my thoughts go back to a few months (20-4-2019), to the tenth death anniversary of Anna Cappella’s return to Heaven. It was exactly Holy Saturday, the day of silence the day of silence filled of real hope, like that of the women who run to the tomb as soon as the lights of dawn allowthem; a day of contrasts, of ups and downs, of paradoxes… from which the wise Hand of God can draw a harmony. And, seen as a whole, Anna’s life reaches this harmony, almost in contrast between her usual silence and the many voices of her history.

Traveling, always, because she was the daughter of a soldier in career, and always attracted by that God who, calling her, had made her travel even more, as a doctor and a religious, combining United States’ universities facilities with the poorest hospital lanes in Pakistan.

Missionary, always, because every place is a mission for those who gather the daily call of God: no matter where, she herself said; the important thing is to open one’s arms, always in the form of a cross, always on the cross; the important thing is to know how to say one’s “Yes” and to know how to repeat it every day.

I knew her as a missionary and among the many “yes’’ she must have said, I could gather and share some fruits : three great “Yes’’ , precious witness and teaching also for my life as a doctor and consecrated person. America

The “Yes’’ unaware and charitable
After a brilliant career of medical and gynecological studies, carried out in Italy and America,Anna Cappella fulfilled among the poor and the sick her dream of being a School Missionary. She shared the crosses of the health and human suburbs of St. Dominic’s Hospital in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, when, not without reluctance, she was persuaded to listen to a lecture: two Australian doctors would tal
k to the seminarians about a method of natural regulation of fertility developed by them.

She had no interest on this subject, she had said it with determination to the priest who invited her, she had too much to do with so many medical emergencies and with her women who gave birth and often died in childbirth. But the Lord knew that, in order to convince her, it was necessary to play the charity card: she could not leave that priest alone for one night by train… that journey lasted so long, that it would provoke many more journeys of her life.

Anna coi Billings Congr. intern.UC 8 10.11.96She realized almost immediately how, contrary to her predictions, what she heard was not at all devoid of interest. John and Evelyn Billings, with scientific rigor, human wealth and inner wisdom, spoke of an extraordinary and simple discovery: The Billings ovulation method, aimed at offering knowledge and respect of the rhythms of fertility written by God in the female organism. A knowledge that every woman had the right to possess!

The explanations of the conference acquired an unexpected fascination, while the thought of her women left in the hospital still crowded her mind; the way was clear, bright, a solution to the problem of their health, often undermined by close pregnancies, damaging to their generally already malnourished physique, but there was also the possibility of a human promotion of the same women, which went far beyond the simple natural regulation of fertility. «Educating also means making known what is in nature»: this was what Anna sensed that day, sustained by the certainty that when a road responds to our concerns and exceeds expectations, it is God’s way.

And that was truly God’s way! It was a road of God the Billings Method: an extraordinary scientific discovery that combined effectiveness and simplicity, self-awareness and mutual respect between spouses, procreative responsibility and love for life; a lifestyle for couples of every language and culture, race and religion; a proposal that Anna immediately began to make to her patients, to poor women, deepening it with the passion of the scholar, congenial to her, and teaching it with her patience and dedication as consecrated.

While listening to the speakers, – she often said –, she felt a form of emotion, as in front of small things that reveal themselves later extraordinarily great. Yes, it was God’s way!

But the way of God was not only the Method in itself, even if accompanied by all the richness of values that are its own. Anna saw something special in John and Lyn Billings and they saw it in her: the gift of that collaboration was the gift of a wonderful friendship, destined for a new human, professional and spiritual fruitfulness.

“Yes” docile and obedient
So, also because of the specificity acquired through the Billings Method and, therefore, the work of education to responsible procreation that brings so many fruits of good to the family, Anna Cappella is called to Rome to direct the nascent Family Counsel at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. It is 1976, the centre of those 70’s that represent a dark time for Italy. The law on divorce is already in force and the law on abortion gives a glimpse of its terror: something concrete for the family must be done!

It is the Episcopal Conference that wants to empower the University of Italian Catholics in this sense; and the involvement of the Doctor Cappella is thought, in particular, Adriano Bompiani, Professor of gynecology and former Anna’s teacher, the Rector of the University Joseph Lazzati and the then Spiritual Assistant, the dear Cardinal Elio Sgreccia - recently expired -, who will always believe with tenacity in the importance of this mission, defending and promoting it on every occasion.

The call shakes her. She had by now imagined her life in mission among the poor and still had no perception of what type of poverty would soon invade the family, of what anthropological upheaval would lead to the loss of the meaning of conjugal love, the manipulation of life and the transmission of life, the debasement of human sexuality… Under no circumstances would Anna wish to leave the poor hospital lanes in Pakistan and go down that road, but she obeys.con Giovannni Paolo II

As a consecrated woman she knows that, in obedience to her superiors, she obeys the Church and God; and God will once again give her direct confirmation: «From today we have a missionary of the family!» said the Foundress of her Congregation, Luigia Tincani, presenting her to Paul VI during a private audience of the Pope to the School Missionaries. «This is a very important work: spread it», the Successor of Peter confirms! And though Anna does not know it yet, she will be particularly linked to the Successor of Peter, especially to John Paul II, Pope of life.

Meanwhile, her commitment in the University grows and gathers, around the Doctor Cappella, an ever more varied and nourished team: first of all young doctors, conquered by a subject of extraordinary scientific and little known value and by a service that perfectly embodies the primary aims of the Catholic University itself.

Soon the work became so intense and specific as to require a space of its own, distinct from the Family Counsel: thus was born, in 1980, the Center for Studies and Research for the Natural Regulation of fertility, that gradually develops its clinical and scientific research activity, academic training and teaching, dissemination and cultural promotion, maintaining a primary care for the qualification of teachers of the Billings Method throughout the country and in many foreign countries, especially in Africa and Eastern Europe.ANNA C. Convegno S.GP II0001 1

It was in those years the participation of Doctor Cappella in the foundation of John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, desired by the Pontiff himself at the Pontifical Lateran University, where Anna always remained teacher, and the establishment of collaborations with many university offices and with many operators of natural methods in all continents...

There are the Study Seminars, the Formation Courses, the Congresses, often called by her “Congresses for the Family of Africa and of Europe”; a singular title, almost a confirmation that God does not ask her to renounce her missionary love, but to accomplish it in another way.

In all these initiatives, the involvement of doctors Billings and many other great personalities of the scientific and ecclesial world is frequent: scientists such as James Brown or Kevin Hume from Australia, Erik Odeblad from Sweden and then many theologians, moralists, Biblists , priests and bishops– first of all Carlo Caffarra, Elio Sgreccia, Dionigi Tettamanzi -, in support of a work of which cultural and pastoral scope is becoming increasingly clear.
In every initiative, it becomes a happy tradition to receive as a gift the private audience to the participants from the Holy Father John Paul II, who warmly supports the work of Anna Cappella and the Centre she directed, accompanying it with valuable discourses and catechesis.Anna con Mdre Teresa

But the relationship with the Polish Pope deepens more and more, thanks also to Anna’s closeness to Dr Wanda Poltawska, a fraternal friend of Karol Wojtyla and often present in Rome to meet the Holy Father. Anna participates in some meetings, some breakfast, some Eucharistic Celebration, and has the opportunity to develop a personal contact that will continue and will be fundamental for her life. More than once, with discretion, she spoke of private conversations, exchanges of views on sensitive issues and of great spiritual depth.

“Yes” hidden and delivered
And its spiritual depth helps to understand the third “Sì”, the last of her earthly life.

The moment of retirement will not be easy for Anna, because of her great love for work and her concern for the problems that afflict the Centre she founded at that time. But once again, a mysterious fertility will inhabit it.

It is the time in which to visit it means to take long walks, to welcome the fading of her memories... to be there, for a common prayer, for a lunch together, for a Pilgrimage to Divino Amore. Different rhythms from the director’s lively activity; different spaces, those of Villa Ave Maria, compared to the classrooms of the University.

The memories fade, it’s true. But there remains an ever lively interest in all that has characterized her commitment and the certainty of faith to have left a legacy that is not corrupted and does not rot, even among the many difficulties that, still today, the Centre goes through.

It is the heritage of a mission, that heritage which, paradoxically, can only be left when things do not belong to us, when we have not appropriated them, when we have lived them with the freedom of service.

This freedom Anna taught us, full of a wisdom that struggles to make its way in the academic and, at times, also in the ecclesial spheres, but which is the very heart of the Church, Bride of Christ, an obedient Servant and consigned out of love.

Thus, the last is the season of the final consignment of Anna, which is no less fruitful but reaps what she had sown with each consignment, with each “yes” said in the time of industrious liveliness.

There is an icon that I think describes well all this: her funeral. I witnessed it, like few others, because we were only a few, ten years ago, in the chapel of the School Missionaries in Florence, where Anna spent her last years of life. She who had known and gathered so many people, was accompanied to the House of the Father only by some sisters and collaborators. She, who had been a friend with Popes, Cardinals and Bishops, lived a funeral celebrated by a chaplain who perhaps hardly knew her. She, author of public initiatives, writings, articles, object of interest and interviews, walked away like this, tiptoeing.

A style that, after all, was precisely of her mild tenacity and that, perhaps, brought her again close to the stories of the poor women of Pakistan, forgotten by public opinion but so loved by her and thanks to whom, in a way, this extraordinary adventure had begun.

A style that is the heart of her identity and her life, realized - like that of every consecrated person – in “yes” to mission and works but rooted in the love of Christ and, ultimately, happy only with the intimate union with God, of which concealment is an authentic and desired instrument.

The last great lesson of Anna, perhaps the most eloquent and the one for which I am most grateful, is, for me, this last one of hers “yes”. A “Yes” which summarizes everything, and everything in silence. Just like Holy Saturday!

Paola Pellicanò

(Centre for Studies and Research on the Natural Regulation of Fertility
– Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Rome)

(our translation)

Published in IN DIALOGUE


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About Us

Union “St. Catherine of Siena” of School Missionaries is a Dominican Religious Congregation.
We are called to accompany our contemporaries along their path with study and prayer and to seek along with them Gospel’s answers to the questions of our complex, multicultural society.
We want to live therefore coherently a Christianity of frontiers and be yeast and salt of the least visibility yet cause to leaven and give flavor.