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A FAITH ADVENTURE

From Prairie Farm Boy to
Archbishop of Vancouver

 

Archbishop Adam Exner, OMI

Early Childhood

I was born at home in our farm house on Christmas Eve (December 24,) 1928, eight miles south east of Killaly, Saskatchewan. My parents were immigrants from Austria and I was the last of eight children.

By today's standards, my family was poor as were all other prairie farmer families at the time. To make a living we grew crops of grain and vegetables and raised live stock: chickens, turkeys, geese, pigs, cattle and horses. Making a living was a family enterprise. Each family member contributed to the family welfare. We always had plenty of fresh farm food but lacked many other things that people enjoy today. There was no electricity, no running water, no flush toilets, no central heating, no radio, no TV, no car. All these things came later.

Despite the humble life circumstances, I was a happy and content child. I have pleasant memories of playing with homemade toys, puppies and kittens. Music was a special joy for me. I particularly loved the frolicking and happy old-time polka and waltz music that was part of our culture. Already as a pre-schooler, I began to learn to play a piano accordion, without a teacher - there were no music teachers within reach. My clothes were either hand-me-downs or homemade. Overalls were made of denim material and shirts from bleached flour sack material. Sometimes the bleach didn't succeed in getting all the ink out of the flour sacks, thus leaving the flour brand name still partially visible, often "Robin Hood." Life was simple, but also healthy and good. I did not feel deprived. Life was the same for everyone.

Family Life

I grew up in a closely knit, warm, and caring family in which God came first and daily prayer was an integral part of life. We did not have Mass every Sunday. So, on Sundays when there was no Mass in Church, we had a para-liturgy at home. We didn't know the term "para-liturgy," but that didn't matter. We had the reality. On such Sundays, we had to dress up in our Sunday best and then gathered around our large kitchen table for our Sunday worship. This consisted of the singing of hymns, the reading of the Sunday Epistle and Gospel, a shared homily in which the Sunday readings were discussed and applied to our life situation and finally the praying of the Rosary.

First Holy Communion

A definite and unforgettable highlight in my early childhood years was my first Holy Communion. In the summer of 1935, when I was seven and a half years old and before I went to school, I, together with a group of other children, was prepared for first confession and first Holy Communion at our local country school by a seminarian from Germany. He spoke no English, but that was no problem because we didn't know much English either; instruction in German was just fine. He was a marvelous teacher and convinced me that the day of my first Holy Communion would be the most beautiful day of my life. His handwritten message on a holy picture that he gave me, which I still have, continues to remind me of his teaching. My first confession was somewhat different. It took place in the school washroom. There was no other private space available. The night before my first Holy Communion, I stayed with my grandmother. She spoke to me convincingly and at length about the privilege and joy of receiving Jesus in Holy Communion. She described Holy Communion as a foretaste of heaven. The experience of receiving Jesus in Holy Communion for the first time was everything I had helped it would be - a bit of heaven.

Elementary Education

In September, after my first Holy Communion, I began my elementary school education. I went to a one-room country school, two and a half miles from home. In the summer we walked to school. That was quite challenging for a seven year old youngster. In the winter we drove to school in a horse-drawn cutter, a small sleigh. This cutter ride to school was generally pleasant, but when temperatures dropped to thirty and more degrees below zero, it could become a very hardy experience. At school, we were generally thirty-five to forty children in grades one to eight taught by one teacher. All through elementary school I had only one teacher and a good one. He gave personal attention to pupils and helped me lay a solid foundation for my future education. Not only did our teacher give me a good educational foundation, but he also helped to give me a good faith foundation, affirming and supporting the solid religious formation I received at home and in our parish. My mother couldn't read or write, but she made sure that we knew our Baltimore catechism inside out. By skipping grade seven, I completed grade eight in seven years and then quit school at the age of fourteen. It wasn't unusual for farm children to leave school after grade eight. High School and especially university were not available options for most of us. Besides, I had other plans for my future.



Farm Life - My Future

As an altar boy during my elementary school years, my parish priest spoke to me periodically about becoming a priest.

Though I and my family held the priesthood in high regard, the idea of becoming a priest just didn't take root in me. I had my heart set on being a farmer. I loved farming and looked forward to the day when the home farm would become mine. According to family tradition, I, the youngest, was to inherit the home farm. Another aspect of my life at this time that I loved and that I thought had great promise for the future was playing in a small dance orchestra. I began playing at dances and weddings at the age of thirteen. At first I played only the piano accordion, but later also played the saxophone. It was an experience of pure joy to bring happiness into the lives of the people who danced to our music. The happiness at these social events was usually enhanced by a home-made alcoholic beverage commonly called home brew or moonshine. I had my fair share of this magic joy juice.

After three years out of school, my future as a farmer looked even more attractive. The business of farming was improving and the prospect of mechanized farming was coming within reach. The thought of replacing horses with tractors, threshing machines with combines, horse and wagons with trucks, grain scoops with grain augers, pitch forks with hay balers, was very exciting. The future of farming looked promising and so did my future. I dreamed of a future with a wife, children and a fine farm. What more could a young man hope for particularly when other options were not available. But then, in one afternoon everything changed.

The Beginning of the Faith Adventure

One blistering hot day towards the end of July 1946, I and two of my older brothers were working in the bush, cutting down trees by hand with axes, thus preparing the bush to be ploughed under in order to make more arable land. At noon we went home for lunch. During the meal, my mother advised us not to go back to the bush right after lunch, because it was so hot and she was concerned that we could suffer from sun stroke. "Wait until about three o'clock before returning to work, she said and then added, "I will make dinner later tonight, so you can still get in a full day's work." My two brothers followed mother's advice. I didn't. I went back to the bush immediately after lunch. Why? Because I was ambitious! I wanted as much land cleared as possible. After all, the home farm would one day be mine.

Back in the bush alone, I worked hard. At a given point I had just cut down a beautiful young poplar tree in the prime of its youth. Hot and drenched in sweat, I sat down on the tree stump for a rest. As I sat there looking at the tree I had just cut down, an unexpected and unsettling interior dialogue emerged in my soul. It began with a deep feeling of sorrow for the young tree I had just cut down. An inner voice spoke to the tree, "You were in the prime of your youth, healthy, strong, and full of potential, and here I have cut you down. Soon I will lop off your branches, throw you on the pile from where you will be taken home to be cut up and used for fire wood. What a way to go!" Then another inner voice said, "Don't feel bad. When this tree appears before its Maker, it will be able to say, 'I have fulfilled the plan you had in mind for me.' What about you? Will you be able to say that too when you meet your Maker face to face?", the inner voice asked. I knew then and there that I couldn't. Until that point in my life I hadn't really thought of what plan God might have for me. I had made my own plans and was feathering my own nest. Relentlessly the inner voice persisted, "Like this tree, you are in the prime of your youth, healthy, strong, and full of potential. Some day you too will be cut down and will meet your Creator. He will ask you, 'What have you done with the gift of life I have given you?' When that moment comes, as surely it will, what would you want to be able to say?" After some serious thought, I decided that I would like to be able to say, "God I have tried as best I could to use the gift of life you gave me to serve You and to serve my brothers and sisters." Though I was absolutely sure that this is what I would like to say to God at the end of my life, I was deeply shaken by the realization that to become capable of saying that, my life would have to change radically. I would have to give up my dreams and say yes to God's plan for me. Then and there, deep within me, in my heart of hearts, I knew what God was asking of me. Then and there, I knew that I would never be at peace until I was ready to dedicate my life to the service of God and His people. Though I knew what I had to do, I was far from ready to do so. My whole interior rebelled and I began a vigorous battle against the idea of giving up my life dreams.

For the rest of the afternoon I worked feverishly in the hope that the pesty, unsettling thoughts that had invaded my soul would go away. They didn't. That evening I was very quiet at dinner and went for a walk afterwards, hoping for relief. No relief came. I went back into the house and picked up a Catholic magazine with the intention of reading the joke section on the last page, again seeking relief. The joke page was there, but the opposite page was filled with pictures and a strong pitch for vocations to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate! That was the last thing I needed! I threw the magazine away and went to the cupboard where the newspapers were kept with the idea of reading the comic section. That would help. As I was about to open the drawer, an inner voice said, "This is really bothering you; maybe you should ask some questions or seek some advice." I quickly decided that I wasn't ready to do so and opened the drawer. The newspapers were there, but for some unexplainable reason there was a prayer book on top of the newspapers. I had never seen it there before. The prayer book was open and in big bold print glaring at me were the words from the Gospel of St. Luke (11,9), "Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you." This was just too much. I'd had it. I slammed the drawer shut and went to bed. Needless to say, I couldn't sleep.

For the next two weeks, I slept very little. The little sleep I did get was broken and fitful. Due to lack of sleep and rest, I was beginning to look more and more tired and haggard. Towards the end of these two weeks, one mid-afternoon, while hard at work, I dropped into the house for a drink of water. As I came in, my mother looked at me and said, "What's the matter with you? You look sick." At that moment I surprised myself by blurting out, "Mom, I have to leave home." "My God," my mother exclaimed, "You are sick. Sit down and tell me what is going on." I sat down and told her my story. She listened intently and then, with tears rolling down her cheeks, said, "I want to tell you something that I have never told to anyone before. Ever since I was a little girl, I have said a prayer to God every day, asking God to give me a good husband and children and asking God to take at least one of my children for His service. When you, the youngest, dropped out of school, my heart sank, but I didn't stop praying; I only changed my intention, saying to God, "If you don't want one of my children for your service, that is all right, but in answer to my prayers, please give a vocation to a child from another family." Then quietly and with a look that reflected deep inner joy and gratitude, she added, "Maybe God wants one of my children after all." At this point, all resistance within me melted away and I could say, "Be it done to me according to Your word." I had just taken the first step, a big one, in my faith adventure. I was now at peace with myself and with God and I could sleep again. But in subsequent days, ever so often tempting inner voices tried to frighten me, "What have I done? Am I fooling myself? Am I worthy? Am I capable? Is it worth it? Will I be happy?" Whenever these disturbing thoughts emerged, another inner and stronger voice would reassure me saying, "Do not be afraid. I will be with you. Trust Me. I will make you worthy and capable. Just cross one bridge at a time. Walk in faith. With my help, there is nothing you cannot do."

High School

The next step in my faith journey was the beginning of my high school education which began in September 1946 at St. Joseph's College in Yorkton, a boarding high school run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers. I was seventeen and a half years old. Because I was older and willing to work hard, I completed grades nine and ten in one year. Being away from home for the first time among people that initially were total strangers to me was a new experience. I often suffered from home sickness, but also experienced an inner peace and satisfaction, knowing that I was doing what God wanted of me.

In September of 1947, I transferred to St. Thomas College, Battleford, Saskatchewan, a boarding high school run by the Oblate Fathers. I made this transfer, because deep within me I felt called to become a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate. I felt called to bring the faith to those who hadn't heard of Christ or did not yet believe in Him. I spent three years at St. Thomas, completing grades eleven and twelve and one year Arts in affiliation with the University of Ottawa. At. St. Thomas, I again experienced living with people who initially were total strangers, an experience that was to repeat itself in years to come. I began to learn that strangers are really friends whom one has not yet met.

 

Novitiate

In August of 1950, I was accepted as a novice in the Oblate Fathers novitiate at St. Norbert, Manitoba, on the outskirts of Winnipeg. Here I was initiated in the spirituality of St. Eugene de Mazenod and in the Oblate rule of life. My desire to be a missionary grew. There were twenty-three novices. About half were francophones and the other half Anglophones. Consequently we alternated, functioning in French one week and in English the next. This system helped me enormously to use and improve the French I had learned in high school. One phrase that our novice master often repeated was, "L'homme propose, mais Dieu dispose." (Man proposes, but God disposes.) This truth sank in deeply and served me well in years to come. Whenever I had to scrap my desires and aspirations, a not infrequent experience in my life, I would always remember my novice master's phrase and say to myself, God disposes. He is in charge of my faith adventure. He knows what He is doing. It all has meaning, purpose and value, even though I may not understand it." On September 8, 1951, I pronounced my first temporary vows and thus became a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, able now to put OMI behind my name. I was happy and proud. A big surprise awaited me.

Seminary Formation in Rome

A letter from the Provincial Superior's office informed me that I was being sent to Rome for my seminary formation. The news left me somewhat breathless and excited, but also fearful. It wasn't what I had expected or planned, but then why should I be surprised or fearful After all, God disposes; He is in charge; He knows what He is doing. Another adventure episode in my faith journey was about to begin.

A whole new world opened up to me in Rome, a new country, new languages, new food, new climate, new culture. At the Oblate College, we were generally about one hundred seminarians coming from some twenty different countries. The official working languages in our college were Italian and French. At the Pontifical Gregorian University which I attended there were seminarians from fifty-six different countries and all classes were taught in Latin. Talk about adventure! It took some getting used to the complexities and challenges of life in Rome.

Ordination to the Holy Priesthood

After seven consecutive years in Rome, with no home visits, I finished my seminary studies, having earned a Masters degree in philosophy and a Masters in theology. I was ordained a priest on July 7, 1957, during my second last year in Rome. What had seemed so far away and so impossible had now become reality. For my ordination card, I chose a quotation from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (15,10) "By the grace of God I am what I am." In my soul I experienced a deep and vivid awareness that my priesthood was not my achievement, but a purely gratuitous gift given to be given for the service of God and His people. My priesthood was not my doing. It was God's gratuitous doing. I merely proposed and in fact had to scrap many of my proposals. God disposed. He was at the steering wheel of my faith journey.

Back to Canada and to Post-Graduate Studies

During my last year in Rome, the Superior General asked us to write him a letter telling him what kind of ministry we felt called to. I told him that I felt called to serve in the foreign mission fields. My first obedience sent me back to Canada and to the University of Ottawa where I was to work towards a doctorate in theology. This was not what I had wanted or hoped for. I had to scrap my hopes and desires and once again God disposed.

Coming back to Canada after seven consecutive years of absence was a strange experience. In a sense, I felt like a stranger in my own country. I couldn't even recognize my own nephews and nieces anymore. In Ottawa, I soon settled down to the books and to once again living with people who initially were strangers. Working under an imposed time constraint, I completed my doctorate in moral theology in two years, probably the hardest two years of my life. I came away so tired and wound up that it took me a couples of years before I felt like a normal human being again.

Seminary Professor

Upon completing my doctoral degree, I was sent to teach moral theology at the Oblate seminary at Battleford, Saskatchewan. Teaching wasn't what I liked or felt called to, but I gave it my best, following the advice of my spiritual director who told me: "Whatever job you are given, put your heart and soul into it as though it were the one and only job you will ever have. Don't keep your suitcase near the door waiting for something better to come along." Again God disposed and I became a teacher.

For eleven years I taught at St. Charles Scholasticate, the Oblate seminary at Battleford, Saskatchewan. Six of those years, I was the seminary rector. Then in 1972 the Oblate seminary moved to Edmonton and for the next two years I taught at Newman Theological College. After fourteen years of teaching, I learned to like my teaching job and began to feel that I had acquired a certain competency and had something to offer in the formation of future priests. During those same years I also preached many retreats, mainly for priests and religious, a ministry that I found very fulfilling. In summary, I felt that I had found my place in life, that I was where I should be and that I was doing what I should be doing. I hope and planned to stay put, but that was not be. Again, God meddled and disposed.

Bishop of Kamloops

In January of 1974, Archbishop Joseph McNeil, Archbishop of Edmonton, personally delivered a letter to me from the Apostolic Nuncio. The letter informed me that Pope Paul VI had appointed me Bishop of Kamloops. My blood began to run backwards and for a couple of hours I argued with Archbishop McNeil pointing out all the reasons why I couldn't accept such an obedience: I had never been a pastor; I had little management and administrative experience; I had no Chancery Office experience; I had no experience working with first nations people; it wouldn't be fair to the Diocese of Kamloops, etc., etc. I guess Archbishop McNeil was beginning to lose patience with me, because at a given point he backed me up again the wall. His exact words were as follows: "Fella," he said, "there are two questions that you have to answer and then you will know what to do. The first question is, are you or are you not willing to be crucified with the Lord? The second question is, are you or are you not obedient to the Pope?" Needless to say I felt cornered and trapped so I pleaded, "But, Bishop, you are not giving me any elbow room!" He replied, "There is no elbow room. If you are waiting for a clearer indication of God's will for you, you will never get it." At this point, I knuckled under and accepted in faith, not really knowing what I was getting into. Again I had to scrap my desires and hopes for the future. Again God disposed, once again showing that He was still at the steering wheel of my faith journey.

On March 12, 1974, I was ordained a bishop in my home diocese, Regina, and on March 28th of the same year I was installed as the Bishop of Kamloops. I didn't know a soul in Kamloops, but soon got to know the clergy, religious, and lay faithful. They were warm, accepting, and cooperative. As a new and inexperienced bishop, I had to learn quickly and I did. Necessity is the mother of invention, but it is also the mother for learning quickly, though sometimes the hard way. Living alone was a new experience for me. For twenty-four years, before becoming a bishop, I had lived in seminaries. I was used to community prayer and community living. Living alone was not easy, but I got used to it. After a number of years in Kamloops, I began to feel at home. I felt I was where I belonged and where I should stay. I had become acclimatized and comfortable and hoped to remain in Kamloops for the rest of my life. But that was not to be. Again God intervened and disposed.

Archbishop of Winnipeg

One early spring morning at about 10:00 a.m., after eight years in Kamloops, I received a phone call from the Apostolic Nuncio informing me that Pope John Paul II had named me Archbishop of Winnipeg. Rumors had been flying about who the next Archbishop of Winnipeg would be, so I was not completely taken off guard. Still it was hard to accept because it meant having to leave Kamloops and that was painful. Equally painful was the thought of having to start all over again in a diocese where I knew hardly anyone. God had manifested His will. I knew better than to fight it and so I accepted.

On June 23, 1982, I was installed as the Archbishop of Winnipeg. I received a warm prairie welcome. The people seemed so pleased that their bishop was a home-grown prairie boy. Being familiar with the prairies and prairie culture, it didn't take me long to adjust and feel at home in Winnipeg. Again I sank deep roots and this time with the conviction that I wouldn't be moved again. Archbishops don't get moved, I was told. How wrong I was! Again God meddled with my plans and hopes for the future and I had to move and begin all over again in a totally new environment.

Archbishop of Vancouver

On May 22, 1991, after nine years in Winnipeg, my phone rang again and again a call from the Apostolic Nuncio. This time I was informed that Pope John Paul II had named me Archbishop of Vancouver. Putting aside my cherished hope of spending the rest of my life in Winnipeg, I accepted the nomination. On August 15, 1991, I was installed as the Archbishop of Vancouver. The welcome I received was very warm and reassuring and had a definite welcome home tinge to it.  Coming back to British Columbia and to Vancouver did in fact feel like coming home.

  I do feel very much at home in Vancouver, but I do not yet feel comfortable. The vitality, the growth, the needs, problems, challenges, and potential of the Archdiocese, exciting and promising as they are, prevent me from feeling comfortable. Besides, I'm afraid of allowing myself to feel comfortable, because every time I become established and comfortable, I get moved.

God Knows Best

Truly my life has been and still is a wonderful faith adventure by far surpassing anything that I could have possibly imagined or hoped for as a child and as a young man. All along the way I proposed plans and dreams, but God, the one at the steering wheel, disposed, sending me off in unexpected and often unwanted directions. 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."

Every job that I have had since my priestly ordination have not been jobs that I would have chosen by myself. I was told where to go and what to do. Superficially seen, such a life might seem oppressive and unfulfilling. Yet, the very opposite is true. In restrospect, reflecting on my faith journey, I have to admit three things. First, by the fact that I was told where to go and what to do, the Church was better served than if I had chosen my own jobs. In my wildest dreams I would never have challenged myself as much as I have been challenged. God made far better use of my potential, gifts and talents than I would have by my own decisions. Second, I have been and am a happy and fulfilled priest and bishop, without doubt happier than I would have been had I made my own decisions. Third, God has fulfilled my youthful desire to become a missionary. As a young man, I wanted to go to a foreign country to bring the faith to those who hadn't heard of Christ or who did not yet believe in Him. I never made it to a foreign country as a missionary, but that really wasn't necessary anyway. The foreign countries have now come here. A very significant percentage of our population is non-Christian. I am living in missionary territory. I have become a missionary.

The Heart of the Adventure

To walk in faith is an adventure that can be scary, but it is also reassuring. It can at times be very hard and painful, but is always beautiful and worthwhile. It can cost a lot, but the rewards are worth it. It is the experience of Good Fridays and Easter Sundays. The faith adventure is, simply put, a sharing in the passover mystery of Jesus, a sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus which in the end will lead to the fullness of life in heaven - a life so wonderful that, as St. Paul says, eye has not seen, ear has not heard and mind cannot even imagine the wonders God has in store for those who love Him.

Praise and Thanksgiving

As I reflect on my life, on my faith adventure, my soul experiences one overwhelming need, the need to give praise and thanks to God. To give expression to this need, I can think of no words better than the thanksgiving prayer of the Blessed Mother which I feel I can make my own.

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has looked upon the lowliness of His servant.
Behold, henceforth all generations can call me blessed
-for so I have been.
He who is mighty has done great things for me.
Holy is His name."