In the religious controversies of post-Reformation northern Europe, the partisans of Rome were styled the “ultramontanists” for their loyalty to the Pope who lived beyond the mountains (ultra montes in Latin). For their opponents, the advocates of national churches in France and Germany, the Pope was indeed beyond the mountains — south of the Alps to be specific.

During the 1990s, Catholics in Canada got used to looking out beyond the mountains, too — the Rocky Mountains. Out on the West Coast was Adam Exner, who, after 13 years as archbishop of Vancouver, retired Jan. 10, to be succeeded Feb. 17 by Bishop Raymond Roussin, currently serving in Victoria.

Archbishop Exner, born 75 years ago Christmas Eve, had reached the mandatory retirement age for bishops, and so it was expected he would be replaced soon. But it will be difficult for anyone to replace a man who for three decades as a bishop in Kamloops, Winnipeg and Vancouver became a point of reference for Catholic faith and practice in Canada.

He was called by his critics an “ultraconservative,” which is the contemporary rendering of “ultramontane.” He was not very conservative in the sense of sticking to the traditional way things are done. He was an early promoter of lay involvement in administration and evangelization, welcomed the “Alpha” evangelization programs to his diocese and has been at the fore-front of reaching out to the many communities that make up British Columbia, from the Native Canadians who were there first to the Asians who are only the most recent immigrants.

Yet just as “ultramontane” once meant simply holding to the traditional faith about the role of the Bishop of Rome, today “ultraconservative” means simply holding to traditional Christian moral teaching. Not about the obligation to care for the poor, of course, but about sex.

Archbishop Exner did more than just keep the faith, hunkered down in a corner somewhere hoping that nobody would notice. He was bold enough to propose it anew and insist that it shape the teaching and practice of Catholics and their hospitals and schools. In an environment that includes the local Anglican Bishop Michael Ingham, the ecclesiastical pioneer of “homosexual unions,” Archbishop Exner was sometimes criticized for being from a different planet let alone from beyond the mountains.

He was not alone among bishops in his courage, but the size of his archdiocese and his relative facility with the media gave his voice prominence. More than that, though, Archbishop Exner was a man who realized that to be a Christian leader is to be a missionary, not a manager. The major emphasis of his diocesan synod was to convince Catholics to adopt a “mission model” rather than a “maintenance model” of the Church.

As a young man Adam Exner joined a missionary order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, hoping to be sent abroad as a missionary. He never was. Kept at home to teach theology and administer seminaries, he eventually ended up in multicultural Vancouver, where it is only necessary to drive, not fly, to see the whole world.

More than that, the hip secularism of the West Coast is exotic mission territory indeed, and Archbishop Exner finally got his chance to preach the Gospel to a hostile culture. Last year the archbishop's home was the scene of an angry protest by homosexual activists, which led to a police investigation of death threats and increased security.

Amid all this, Archbishop Exner went quietly about his work, so much so that his associates find it difficult to recall memorable anecdotes of working with him. It was all so ordinary, but for all the lack of ostentation he became perhaps the leading Catholic voice in articulating the Christian challenge to the culture today.

I only met him once, a few years ago in Rome. I was dispatched to give him a ride.

I only met him once, a few years ago in Rome. He was coming to the seminary to ordain a young man from Kamloops, and as the resident Canadian I was dispatched to drive him over. Although we had plenty of time before the Mass began, he was in a hurry to get everything in the sacristy in order. The rush? He intended to spend a good half-hour in prayer before the ceremony began. It is not that remarkable that a bishop should want to pray. But not all are quite so insistent upon it.

That was what Archbishop Exner did for so long. Just the things that bishops are expected to do but — human weakness being what it is — don't always do. In his dutiful discharge of his ordinary duties, he became an inspiration to many, drawing the attention of Canadian Catholics to the land over the mountains.

I don't expect that Archbishop Exner will fade away. But his years of obligatory teaching and preaching and governing are now behind him. I expect that he will likely want more time to pray. He has earned it.

Father Raymond J. de Souza served as the Register's Rome correspondent from 1999-2003.

He writes from Kingston, Ontario.