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A fierce grace: leadership secrets of Adam Exner.

In January 2004, Adam Exner the Archbishop of Vancouver, having reached the age of 75, handed over the affairs of office to his successor Raymond Roussin, Bishop of Victoria. This brought an end to a 30-year career of episcopacy begun in the diocese of Kamloops, B.C. in March 1974, followed by ten years as Archbishop of Winnipeg, and concluded by thirteen years in Vancouver.

A moral theologian by profession, in all three Sees he spoke in defence of the unborn, the family, and Orthodox Catholic moral teaching while not neglecting other aspects of Church teaching. Unlike the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ottawa, he saw abortion as a social justice issue, requiring Catholic politicians to act accordingly, as he explained in several pastoral letters.

In Winnipeg, he quietly convinced his fellow Manitoba bishops to co-sign a statement on the family. It bypassed the controversial CCCB's 1968 Winnipeg Statement which led Catholics to believe that birth control was a matter of private opinion.

The following tributes are reprinted from the B.C. Catholic January, 18, 2004.


Archbishop Adam Exner, OMI, faces, as all of us must, the machine mind of the dominant culture. This mind aims to build a world in its own image. It is the mind of violence, forcing a forgetting of what it means to be human.

Without fail, the archbishop met this with a fierce grace and resolve to protect the vulnerable and tell the truth.


This is an ordinary thing for a bishop to do, a fact of episcopal life since Pentecost; bishops are supposed to be prophetic. Caught up as we are in a world at war, however, expecting duplicity, self-serving, and scandal from people in public authority, Archbishop Exner's unwavering sense of accountability has the ring of a miracle. He walks the talk of the Gospels, and in doing so deepens our humanity.

A priest friend told me once that being a bishop is like crucifixion in slow motion. We are a long way from Nero, but from the front pages of newspapers and the nightly news to cabinet tables and judges' chambers, ours is a landscape of Calvaries. Let us not forget Guatemala's Bishop Gerardi, bludgeoned to death for telling the truth about the near-genocide in his country. Recall as well the ongoing struggle of the bishops in China for the freedom to live in open fidelity to the Holy See.

Judging by his legacy, at home and in the Pacific Rim, Archbishop Exner is their brother, not by analogy but in fact. Telling the truth about Jesus, in precept and example, is at the same time the archbishop's most vexing challenge and enduring accomplishment.

He lays down his life for this, not all at once like Bishop Gerardi, but a little bit at a time in a public square torpid with scepticism not only about faith, but about mason as well. His task is to manifest the reality of the Gospel, to show it as living proof that God's love is the foundation of human dignity.

Health care

The denominational health-care agreement which the archbishop secured from Premier Michael Harcourt in 1995 is a cornerstone of this Christian architecture. The Denominational Health Association carries forward the legacy of his predecessor, Archbishop James Carney. It was on Archbishop Carney's watch that St. Paul's Hospital opened its doors without hesitation to people with AIDS and HIV, even as other hospitals turned them away.

With the DHA, Archbishop Exner saw to it that Catholic health care would retain the freedom to practise the Beatitudes in this way. Challenges remain, as we see in the attempts of Minister of Health Colin Hansen to close St. Mary's Hospital over Archbishop Exner's unequivocal objection.

Even so, the archbishop entrenched Catholic health care as a key component of the common good in British Columbia. It teaches us that you cannot have human rights without a manifest commitment to the right to life.


This reverence for life is at the core of the archbishop's spiritual devotion and social action. It has not been an easy road to walk. We have witnessed the horror of attacks on doctors who perform abortions. At the same time, as the social safety net is cut apart, we have seen abortion become an obscene tool of social policy.

British Columbia finds it more cost-effective to pay for an abortion out of the public purse than to build a society where children can thrive. The dominant political culture, right and left, presents this as emancipation.

Archbishop Exner stands out in stark relief against this status quo, as one of Canada's leading practitioners of non-violence. This is evident in his condemnation of attacks on abortionists. It is also clear in his ongoing work, especially within the institutions of the archdiocese, to be a model of the Gospel of Life.


He tasks Catholic Charities, VANSPEC, and a robust network of Catholic schools and post-secondary institutions with the ultimate goal of bringing hope. The construction of new Catholic elementary and high schools, the tenacious defence of St. Thomas More Collegiate and Vancouver College, and his welcoming Covenant House into the archdiocese are manifestly pro-life accomplishments.

Sandy Cooke, executive director of Covenant House, captured this aspect of the archbishop with a story about their first meeting. He observed to the archbishop that Covenant House in Latin America had to contend with the killing of street kids by death squads and hired assassins. "The difference in Vancouver," the archbishop said, "is that we just leave them on our streets to die."

The business of building (and indeed saving) schools and hospitals as well as fostering charitable institutions is not, in itself, sufficient to fulfil the Gospel of Life. This work is alive and bears fruit because the archbishop does it prayerfully.

September 11, 2001

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war on terror that followed brought this home. In the shadow of 9/11, we faced the real possibility that Vancouver's diverse communities could become suspicious of each other, closing themselves off.

The archbishop responded by convening a meeting of religious leaders at Rosary Hall within a month of the attacks. A text called God Keep Our Land: A Call to Justice, Peace, and Solidarity was endorsed.

The statement condemned violence in the name of religion as arising from the enemy of the human race. It affirmed the commitment of the religious communities to collaborate for the common good in "brave new works of peace."

This quickly received national attention. Within 24 hours, Stephen Owen, MP for Vancouver Quadra, and Senator Mobina Jaffer delivered the text to Prime Minister Jean Chretien and read it to both Houses of Parliament.


The archbishop's commitment to inter-religious collaboration is also clear in his defence of religious freedom. He gave unstinting support to a Catholic intervention in the case between Trinity Western University and the British Columbia College of Teachers. The college had ruled that TWU could not train teachers for public schools because TWU required its students to abstain from, among other things, homosexual relations.

The intervention argued that the college was asking the courts to make it unconstitutional to grant a public benefit to any private religious entity that could not approve of homosexual sex.

With the archbishop's approval, this intervention used for the first time in Canada the Catechism of the Catholic Church as an aid to jurisprudence. It was a deciding factor in winning the case at the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal.

Same-sex marriage

Serious challenges to religious freedom remain. The Archbishop has led opposition to the federal government's intention to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex relationships. The truth about marriage, he argues, exists prior to the Church and the state. Church and stare share a duty to preserve this truth, because it is key to the nature of human life.

The archbishop has pointed to the real possibility that the proposed change in the definition of marriage will undo Canada's founding commitment to religious freedom. Although the federal government has proposed that no religious official will be compelled to perform a "same-sex marriage," it has not suggested that religious institutions will be free from pressure if they refuse to accept the notion. Instead, it has kept the door open to taking away their public benefits (like their tax status as charities) until they live up to Canada's secular orthodoxy.

The current state of events reinforces the significance of the archbishop's call for the practice of vigorous and sustained citizenship among the laity.


His insistent prayers for vocations to the priesthood and the religious life and the expansion of the archdiocese into new parishes are of a piece with this necessity of evangelizing the temporal order.

All of this aims to form Catholics who are equal to the challenges of the 21st century: contributing to the common good instead of carving out special interests, embracing human rights as arming from our God-given dignity, and living without fear the Gospel of Life.

We are a bigger place than we were 12 years ago, and nothing signifies this more powerfully than Archbishop Exner's appointment by the Holy Father to the 1998 Synod for Asia. At the time, this seemed on casual observation a routine turn of events, even though he was the only Canadian to be called.

In retrospect, though, it is a visible sign of the vocation of the Archdiocese of Vancouver.


In his intervention before the synod on the Feast of St. Mark, the Archbishop called attention to the blessings that come with a richly diverse and multicultural community. He observed that globalization has brought with it migration and a coming together of peoples.

"The multicultural experience is a very rich one in that it provides for mutual enrichment and contributes greatly to the growth of better understanding, fraternity, harmony, and peace among people of different racial and cultural origins."

Multiculturalism, he concluded, is part of building of the kingdom of God.

He advised the assembly that he had convened a synod for Vancouver that would welcome the gift of multiculturalism and enable us to grow in "understanding, fraternity, harmony, and peace among people of different racial and cultural origins."

The best explanation of Archbishop Exner's success comes in his comment on the canonization a year ago of Saint Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer. Here's the text from the Vatican Web site:

"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."

This, however, is what one would expect of a bishop. He is an Oblate of Mary Immaculate; God brought the missions to him.
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Author:Marwick, Michael
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:May 1, 2004
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