Photo: Felix Carroll
By Dan Valenti (Apr 9, 2010)
He preaches in exclamation points. He talks in pauses. His homilies are given in 48-point headline type. He prays in 12-point body copy.
He believes denial to be the deadliest form of delay. He confronts problems in ways that permit solutions, which can pass as one definition of wisdom.
In January, the Very Rev. Fr. Dan Cambra, MIC, Provincial Superior of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, relocated from the Midwest to Eden Hill in Stockbridge, Mass. By Holy Week, he was still getting the provincial office to his liking, putting new books in place of the old. One of those books is an enormous, unabridged dictionary, a sure clue this man respects words.
"Much to like," I write in my notebook, before our interview begins.
Father Dan, who will deliver the homily on Divine Mercy Sunday at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, may only now be getting to his office arrangements but not because he procrastinates. Rather, he sees the accoutrements of personal space as window dressing compared to his duties as superior for 84 Marians spread throughout the United States and Argentina. His plate and cup doth overflow. Priorities trump personal comfort.
A Delight of the Senses
Spending informal time with Dan Cambra delights the senses. Sitting opposite him at the conference table in his office, you see a bear of a man dressed in an olive-drab T-shirt and casual black slacks. He fills the vision, as it were. His voice sounds like notes on a scale, and his sentences, even in casual talk, sing with cadence. The office gives off a hard-to-identify fragrance best compared in my imagination to the tasting notes of a fine cigar: hints of chocolate and coffee, with a suggestion of "chewy earth." His delicate hands fidget as if the fingers were probing for new surfaces to feel.
Asked a question he hadn't expected, Fr. Dan pauses before answering, giving the matter the benefit of his reason and seat-of-the-pants gut feeling. He's one of those rare authority figures — yes, a bureaucrat — who actually has something to say. No boilerplate with this man. No string of clichés pulled down, ready made, from the shelf.
"God doesn't want me to be perfect," he says in describing his conversion due to Divine Mercy. "He wants me to love Him. That's all." He reveals how in his early religious life, he had scruples, beating himself up over imperfections. It's hard to picture this jovial, zesty man with a case of "the scruples."
They ended, he says, when "I finally realized there was nothing I was going to do, or could do, to satisfy God. He loves me as I am. He doesn't want me to 'do' anything but love Him. If we love God, the rest takes care of itself."
The insight didn't occur to him in a Saul-of-Tarsus flash, knocking him "off the horse." Rather, he says, "It began growing the way a pine tree grows out of the fissure in a granite rock. Slowly. S-l-o-w-l-y. I realized, God wasn't asking for perfection. He was asking for love." He then lays some Latin down with translation: "You can't give what you don't have."
Adept at Transitions
Father Dan deftly provides transitions between one thought and the next, just as he leads the men of the province in their spiritual lives as Marians from one phase to the next. He gives a case in point: Br. James Cervantes, MIC.
Father Dan had wanted Br. James to continue his studies over the summer at the Dominican House in Washington, D.C. The seminarian, however, felt the Lord calling him to complete his studies in the Philippines, where he likely will be stationed as priest.
Father Dan called Br. James in to hear his reasons for wanting the move. "He actually wanted to hear the young man," I think. The thought impresses me.
After the two-hour meeting ended, Fr. Dan gave his permission, showing the openness that's a given in all successful leaders. Many so-called "leaders" want "yes" men to preserve their own insecure fiefdoms. Such a style is the antonym of Dan Cambra's, a man smart enough to know he doesn't have all the answers.
He's hesitant to define his "leadership style." That's too formal, too esoteric, and too philosophical. Father Dan likes the trenches and eschews the ivory tower. The closest he comes is saying of his fellow Marians, "We are truly brothers. Yes, I can say my prayers by myself, but praying with my brothers shows I have a responsibility to them, and that they have a responsibility to care for me. We are truly a family."
One extrapolates. One infers. "His leadership style is love," I write in my notebook, a shorthand way of preserving my insight. "Love" is loosely defined — one of the few one-size-fits-all words. Not maudlin mush, not syrupy sentiment — love as in care for self and others.
Asked if he has been surprised since taking over as Provincial following the death of Fr. Mark Garrow, MIC, in October 2007, Fr. Dan mentions "the urgency of spreading the message of Divine Mercy." He admits he hadn't fully realized how much people need (and want) a reliable source of hope.
"God knows I don't have to tell the laity about the evils of the world and even the wrongs committed by the Church," Fr. Dan says. The latter remark I take as a reference to the burgeoning, global child molestation scandal. "People don't want bromides. They want a reliable source of relief, genuine hope. I can honestly put forth [to them] God's love and mercy."
Check, Check, and Check
When he became provincial head, Fr. Dan set clear, precise goals. In asking him for his "State of the Union" for the province, he refers to these goals.
(1) Open a mission in the Philippines. Check. It opened in June 2008 and has been growing since.
(2) Within three years, open a mission in India. Land has been purchased in the southern part of the nation, the Marians have the support of a local bishop, and an opening is "on the horizon."
(3) Greater productivity on Eden Hill. Check. Workers and managers at the Marian Helpers Center have adopted practices to do more with less. This is an ongoing process, with much more to be done.
(4) Make more efficient use of the Internet. Check. Again, another work in progress. Many strides have been taken to boost the Marians' web presence.
(5) Strengthen the Marian formation program. Check. Father Dan cites the incorporation of clinical pastoral education (CPE). The CPE initiative will put young Marians to work in settings such as hospitals and jails. "The idea is to integrate their education with real-world suffering. The message of mercy is often best received by those confined where suffering takes place." Another part of the formation upgrade is launching an Apostolic Year, which, like the CPA, aims to get men in formation "to step out of [classroom] education into some form of active ministry."
(6) Outreach to parishes. Check. In March, with the help of Br. Chris Alar, Fr. Dan began a series of parish missions that will take place at a two-a-month clip until the end of the year. The initial visits, including to Immaculate Conception Church in Nashua, N.H., have met with encouraging success.
A Sense of Love
As these goals are being met, Fr. Dan's formulates other plans. For one, he wants to "encourage others to support Marian seminarians." Many young men have expressed interest in the Marians, and he attributes this, in part, to the sense of family and camaraderie found within the Congregation.
"When a young person is 'trying out' a [potential] congregation, does he or she feel comfortable when they visit? If they have a real sense of peace and ease, then I would say they found [the right] community."
In this regard, Fr. Dan mentions St. Faustina: "She went from place to place until she found the [religious] order that wanted her. The sense of being wanted is the evidence of being loved. I think that's what a lot of the young guys sense when they visit us."
Our interview ends when Br. Ken Galisa, MIC, house superior, enters the office for a meeting with Fr. Dan. In watching the two men joke with each other and engage in good-natured bantering, verbal jousts without stead, Fr. Dan's love of his brothers in the Congregation goes on display. A friend is someone who laughs at the same things as you do. I am falling out of my chair laughing. This must make us friends.
The cryptic notation in my notebook reads: "Br. Ken + Fr. D: Vaudeville." That's this writer's shorthand reminder of the fun they are having, which brightens the room like sunshine. I look out the window to the grounds of Eden Hill. The sky is gray and a light rain falls to the ground in swirling mist.
Once again, I realize, the Light comes from within.
Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of Dan Valenti's Mercy Journal.