Spiritual Autobiography
by Francis J. Buckley, S.J.


   Francis Buckley (who he died in 2013) wrote this paper for a session at CTS in 2003. He entitled it simply as “spiritual autobiography," suggesting something general without a special emphasis. It contains the two elements of any personal vocation, lay or religious:
              - the vocation-call when he felt called by God after viewing “The Song of Bernadette.”
          - the vocation-mission when he realized that “my life had prepared me for this collaboration” with a Mexican sister.
            This autobiography is mainly factual and descriptive, which will lead us to reflect more about it at the end.

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  I grew up in a multicultural society in Los Angeles.  At age five I went to kindergarten where sister Guadalupe taught me Spanish.   I solidified my Spanish in Mexico at age 9, where my parents took me to recover from a blood disease.  We had an altarcito in our home, with candles and a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe we brought from Mexico.

  Every summer, we would drive across the country, singing songs, praying the Rosary, and practicing French.  My father had grown up in Quebec, and was bilingual.  My mother’s family could speak German.  When attending Mass, sometimes I would use an English missal, sometimes French, sometimes Spanish, sometimes German.

  One day I was serving Mass at St. Brendan’s Parish.  I must have given Msgr. Mullane the water instead of the wine, because he gave me the back of his hand, and I tumbled down several steps to the floor of the sanctuary.  On the way home after Mass, my mother asked, “Do you want to go on serving Mass?”  “Of course,” I replied.  “But Father hit you,” she said.  She remembered my reply, “I’m not serving Msgr. Mullane, I’m serving God.”

   Growing up during the Depression, I had various odd jobs: delivering magazines, working at Pep Boys auto parts store, barker at Warner Brothers theater downtown, assistant manager at the Four Star theater on Wilshire Boulevard.

   One time, I saw “Song of Bernadette,” in which Jennifer Jones gave up marriage to enter the convent.  I felt that God was calling me to give up everything and join the Jesuits.  My father, however, insisted that I go to college first. I went to Notre Dame...  Within a few days I was singing in the Glee Club, editing a liturgical newspaper, enrolled in Catholic Action, working at a printing press, running a date bureau, coaching swimming for the Navy students, and running for office.  Like my father, I was something of an entrepreneur.

   In the Jesuit Novitiate at Los Gatos in Northern California we worked from before sunrise until we collapsed into bed at night, picking grapes, cleaning chickens, peeling fruit, washing clothes, and praying throughout.  “Pray always” was our motto, and we tried to live up to it.

   Despite the best efforts of our superiors, certain personality traits remained.  My master of novices broke the rule by giving me a nickname, “Brother Buckley of the Council of Trent”, because I was always making dogmatic proclamations.  At the end of two years he told me, “Brother Buckley, for two years I’ve been trying to give you trials, but nothing has worked.”  “Yes, Father, I noticed that,” I replied.  “But don’t worry, God has been giving me trials, and they worked.”

   After four years of studying the classics off we went to Mt. St. Michael’s in Spokane, Washington, to study philosophy for three years.  Our teachers were Thomists, so the Intuition of Being was all the rage.  I kept praying for some experience of God as Pure Act, Ipsum Esse Subsistens.  Eventually, God heard my prayer, and I received a precious, transforming experience.  It cannot be put into words, for God is beyond all words.  This experience did what high school and college and the Novitiate and Juniorate and Philosophy had failed to do.  It changed my life, relativizing everything.  It strengthens and nourishes me, up to this very day.

   When I was finishing Mt. St. Michael’s, the faculty wrote to my provincial, urging him to send me to teach philosophy at a university.   He sent me instead to Bellarmine College Preparatory to teach Latin and Religion and moderate the yearbook.  This provided three years of first-hand contact with adolescent psychology, educational techniques, and book layout, which turned out in God’s Providence to be invaluable later on.

   After studying theology for four years I asked to go to Germany but my provincial sent me to Port Townsend, Washington. During my tertianship I asked my provincial to send me to Rome for doctoral work.  Instead, he sent me to the University of San Francisco to teach theology. During my first year at USF a new provincial took office.  He sent me to study at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and Gregorian University in Rome. 

   Rome was alive with preparations, pro and con, for Vatican II.  Almost all my teachers were experts or members of various commissions, and they would regale us with gossip and ask us for prayers.  All these developments were exciting.  I realized that if I had gone to Rome when I wished, I would have missed all this.  So my trust in divine Providence deepened.

   Back from Rome, I was assigned to replace a sick chaplain at the convent of the Society of Helpers of the Holy Souls.  After Mass on the second day the Superior asked if I would give them a retreat.  After the retreat she asked if I would help her revise in the light of the Council a catechism she had written for children.  I estimated this would take about three months.  Thirty-nine years later, we are still working together.

    This Mexican Sister, Maria de la Cruz, has had a profound impact on my life.  For many years I would work at her convent every day.  Together we produced the On Our Way Vatican II Series [kindergarten through grade 8], the New Life Series, the Lord of Life Program, Familia de Dios Series, the God with Us Program, and various other books and videos.  We gave lectures and workshops around the world.
    Many elements in my life had prepared me for this collaboration: my early love of Mexico; my interest in child psychology and learning; my experience with printing and layout; my fascination with popular religiosity; my compulsion to talk and write in different languages; my vocation to the Jesuits and the priesthood; my devotion to scripture, liturgy, and social justice; my theological training in Rome; my American pragmatism.  All of these enrich my apostolate.

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To write an autobiography makes one vulnerable. Frank Buckley knew this, yet he wanted to present his life story at an open session followed by questions and discussion so that others could benefit from it. Here are some reflections.

    This autobiography is mainly behavioral and descriptive. There is little on spiritual life (prayer, spiritual practices, spiritual struggles, retreats, inner changes, etc.). Besides the mention of noviciate, philosophy, theology and tertianship, there is very little about Jesuit life. There is no reference to Ignatius and scripture. The spiritual practices mentioned are mainly pre-Vatican II (Rosary and home altar). Frank was interested in the liturgy, but there is no mention of post-Vacatican II liturgical life. His story is heavy on childhood memories but has very little on the last thirty-nine years. The line that seems to summarize his life is “Like my father, I was something of an entrepreneur.” I would call being an entrepreneur a (secular) “calling” which I distinguish from a (religious) “vocation,” whether lay or religious. Frank most probably considered his  entrepreneurship a “vocation” but we are not given to see this because he described his life factually and behaviorally, rather than spiritually.
     The model for Christian autobiographies is Augustine’s Confessions. There we find two aspects which characterize religious life stories ever since: praise to God for the good things and regrets for the bad things. Such life stories must be an inner dialogue rather than a narration of facts. We thank Frank Buckley for giving us the opportunity to reflect on our own life journeys in relation to our personal vocations.

     Some of the faith journeys to be posted in the coming weeks are quite different from Buckley's. Feel free to write the way the spirit leads you.

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