“Saints are not people who plan and organize their particular style of life and perfection and follow it strictly on their own strength. Saints are people who love and trust God to the point that they let Him guide them and lead them where He wants.” Adam Exner was not alluding to himself when he made this statement but to Saint Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer at the latter’s canonization. Nonetheless, the comment could refer to him inasmuch as his life adventure, so implausible in purely sociological terms, demands a more supernatural explanation.
Adam Joseph Exner was born on Christmas Eve, 1928, at home on the family farm near Killaly, Saskatchewan. He was the last of eight children: five boys and three girls. His mother had a strong enough faith to give birth to him against her doctor’s advice to abort. Although the pregnancy had its complications, the birth was uneventful. “How could I be anything but pro- life,” Exner would be able to tell audiences?”
Exner’s parents were Austrian immigrants. Making a living was a family enterprise. The Exners grew crops of grain and vegetables and raised livestock: chickens, turkeys, pigs, cattle, and horses. They were happy despite the absence of electricity, flush toilets, central heating, a radio, a TV, and a car. “My clothes were either hand-me-downs or homemade,” he writes, in “A Faith Adventure”. His overalls were made of denim cloth and shirts from bleached flour sack material. Despite such circumstances, he did not feel deprived. Besides, “life was the same for everyone.”
It was life that the Exner family treasured. Human beings can endure many deprivations, but without life, they have nothing. With life, surrounded by love, they can be rich. Adam, like most young boys, had particular plans for his future. But an inner voice told him that they were not God’s plans. That voice reminded him that one day he will meet his Creator who will ask, “What have you done with the gift of life I have given you?” Then and there, he knew what God was asking of him and he also knew that he would not be at peace until he was ready to dedicate his life to the service of God and his people. When he related this experience to his mother, she wept, for she had been praying every day that God would lead one of her sons to the priesthood.
Nonetheless, it was not without considerable struggle that Adam was able to exchange his private dreams for God’s plans. Later, looking back on his life, he could say that “The major orientations and directions in my life didn’t come from me, but from God. In all truth, I can say with St. Paul, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’.” In the eyes of the world, his journey from a prairie farm to the Chancery in Vancouver may be viewed as constituting a radical change. Certainly his circumstances underwent an extreme change, but his commitment to the sanctity of life and the importance of the family remained as a stable element.
Adam Exner was ordained a priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in1957. He was installed Bishop of Kamloops, B.C. in 1974, Archbishop of Winnipeg in 1982, and finally Archbishop of Vancouver in 1991. He was professor, rector, and superior at St. Charles Scholasticate in Battleford, Saskatchewan and professor of moral theology at Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Alberta. Upon his retirement in 2004, the Catholic Civil Rights League created the Archbishop Exner Award for Catholic Excellence in his honor. I was most honored to be able to speak in behalf of Archbishop Exner’s commitment to life when I received the award that bore his name, in 2015.
Academically, Archbishop Exner holds degrees in philosophy and theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a Doctoral degree in theology from the University of Ottawa. He speaks six languages: English, German, Italian, French, Spanish, and Latin. His learning was always at the service of life, the motto he adopter being “To Serve As He Served.”
On May 11, 2017, at the age of 88, the Archbishop Emeritus, Adam Exner spoke at a Student’s Pro-Life Mass in Victoria. B. C. He based his talk on Jesus washing the feet of his closest followers. Jesus did this, Exner pointed out, to indicate that our mission as His followers is to serve others, the poor sick, the suffering, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. “And today,” he asked, “who is in more need of our attention than the unborn child in the womb or the dying person who is suffering?” “Respect for human life,” he went on to say, “especially to those in greatest difficulty, that is, to the unborn, and those near death, profoundly engages your mission both as young Catholics and as citizens of our democratic country. That’s why we are participating in today’s March for Life.”
Refuting the weak rhetoric employed to support abortion, he explained that in opposing abortion, we are not “imposing” our religious beliefs on others, but “giving voice to values that are the common patrimony of all men and women, wherever they live and whoever they are.” “You shall not kill,” is not an arbitrary suggestion, but resonates within the deepest centers of our being. “It is on the hard-drive of humanity.”
His final “tip” to his audience of “servants for life” was to remind them that the Holy Spirit is always working with them, that they are not alone. Therefore, “Be courageous in swimming against the tide,” a nautical event to which Archbishop had become thoroughly accustomed.
From a farm 8 miles southeast of Killaly, Saskatchewan to the Vancouver Chancery, for Exner, was not a geographical nor a sociological journey, but a spiritual one, guided by the Holy Spirit. He came a long way and through considerable hardship to tell us something he learned from a background of material deprivation, namely that life and love are essential and all our service to others should be inspired by that fact.