'Winning Souls to Christ'

He's the most light-hearted, jovial no-nonsense guy you'll probably ever meet. He has a booming laugh, an operatic voice, and a persona that's larger-than-life. He hates excuses and loves results, his eyes twinkle as he smiles (which is frequently), and around this time of year, he moonlights as St. Nick, a.k.a. the real Santa.

Meet Fr. Dan Cambra, MIC, new Provincial Superior of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy Province, based in Stockbridge, MA. Fr. Dan assumed provincial leadership following the death on Oct. 19 of Fr. Mark Garrow, MIC, from cancer.

It's obvious in talking to Fr. Dan that Fr. Mark is still very much with him.

"Mark was very much at peace with the thought of dying," Fr. Dan says, "more than anyone I've ever met who was under the age of 85. He led a most fruitful, meaningful life. Mark knew that he had answered God's call, and this was a great source of comfort to him, I'm sure, and it comforted all of us [Marians]. He was one of those men grew more open to love each day of his life as a priest. He enjoyed new experiences, trying new things, exploring new possibilities. He was intrigued by the possibility of what people could become in their lives, which made him a brilliant novice master."

Smooth Transition
Father Dan says the transition from 1st Provincial Councilor, a position second in succession, to Superior was eased by Fr. Mark, who confided back in June that his illness had become terminal.

"Mark did all he could do to make the transition easier for me," Fr. Dan says. "He even began delegating some of his duties to me, for example, making provincial visits to the Marian houses of formation in the U.S. Visiting the postulants and novices was so special, seeing them beginning a journey that I've been on for 25 years of religious life. Mark loved making these visits, and for him to entrust it to me meant the world to me."

Father Dan's managerial philosophy can be described as: "Discern the direction, then move full speed ahead." Of his leadership style, he says, "When faced with an issue, I ask, 'What's the problem? What's the solution? and Why haven't we implemented it yet?' "

When asked if the phrase "cut to the chase" would accurately convey his forward-looking style, he agrees. "That's usually the best way to respond to an issue. Often, I'll ask, 'Why are we pussyfooting around this problem and hoping it just goes away?' I'm a 'Big Picture' person. I'm not good on details. I'm better as a visionary - setting up the guiding principles and finding the right people who can make them happen."

When to bend, when to stand firm
Father Dan describes the art of leadership as assembling talent and then employing that talent in the best possible way. "Leadership is the wise use of one's resources," he says. "You may have a particular person of great talent, but if you employ him or her in an area or on a job where they're not capable, you'll never see it. But take that same person and put them where they belong, and they will blossom. So being an effective leader is very much about getting to know the members of your team, their strengths and weaknesses, their motivations and ambitions, and giving them the right job."

He says this process is "more art than science, sometimes being [a matter of] intuition and feel." That being said, there are times when pragmatics paint a clear, objective picture of the right direction. That's where leadership must be flexible, knowing when to bend and when to remain firm.

"Each situation is unique," he says. "Not long ago, I had to deal with a candidate in formation who clearly wasn't cut out for the program. The most compassionate thing I could do for him was to tell him what deep down he already knew, that his future in God would best be found outside our community. The easy way out would have been to be his enabler, but that would have hurt him and certainly would not have helped the Marians."

In the same way, he says, sometimes a young man has all the markings of a great religious vocation, but he may stumble along the way. The best way to help him is to give some slack, provide "advice though listening," help him discern a direction, then "pick him back up and help him meet his spiritual destiny."

Five Goals
After Fr. Mark's funeral, Fr. Dan had a sit-down meeting with Fr. Jan Rokocz, MIC, the Marian Superior General. In that meeting, Fr. Jan asked him about his goals for the four years remaining in his term, and Fr. Dan responded with five items:

• Opening a mission in the Philippines "this year."
• Opening a mission in India "within 3 years."
• Achieving greater productivity on Eden Hill.
• Making more efficient use of the Internet.
• Strengthening the Marian formation program.

He says he plans to emphasize formation. The "next crop" of Marian brothers and priests represents the future, which Fr. Dan characterizes as "an unfolding that will heavily involve translating into practical terms the huge task of sharing the Divine Mercy message with the world," a mission Jesus Himself entrusted to St. Faustina.

"We must be clear about who we are and what we stand for, and we must convey that to our candidates," Fr. Dan says. "We must make the Marian formation programs, particularly in Argentina and America, the best they can be. Formation is very individualistic. We need to account for each candidate's personality while at the same time providing our young men with the tools to become as holy and as well prepared for their ministries as possible. There's no more important task [for the Congregation]."

Outsized Challenges
Father Dan, who could easily be cast as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," is used to oversized challenges.

"Some 18 years ago," he explains, "I left my position as novice master to take up work in a Marian parish that wasn't having much success. I was sent there to make corrections or else have the parish taken over by the diocese. No one wanted that, so we went to work. There were some extremely basic problems that needed basic answers. We replaced leaky windows, for example, and put a pitched roof on a flat-roofed building. It's hard to pray when the wind's coming in through the windows and the roof is leaking because of snow."

In a sense, he says, most problematic situations are like that. There's a solution, and a difficulty that keeps you from that solution. The key, he says, is to study the difficulty. Whereas ordinary thinking focuses on the solution, the best approach, in his experience, is to "study the problem closely, because most problems contain the answer."

Even while he handles the responsibilities of Marian Provincial leadership, Fr. Dan must juggle his work as pastor of two, that's right, two Illinois parishes with a combined 2,200 families. The next time you think you're overworked, think about that.

'People and Situations
He says one of the "real surprises" of first couple months as Provincial has been "how many different people need my attention. I can understand a little bit better why it was getting difficult for [Fr.] Mark to respond to a lot of things - the people and situations - and the enormous drain it had on his time and energy."

Father Dan is hopeful that by dealing with issues head-on, even preventively, the demands may ease.

Overriding all else is the overall goal, the "Big Picture." And what is that "Big Picture"? Father Dan says it's the mission of the Marians to serve where the needs are greatest, whether it's Cameroon, Africa or Fairbanks, Alaska - or other points between and within. For him, the "Big Picture" is measured in spiritual terms, which is about "winning."

'The Only Thing'
To drive the point home, this self-described "Cheesehead" - a designation reserved for only the most ardent fans of the Green Bay Packers football team - aptly quotes the legendary Packers' Hall of Fame coach.

"One of my favorite lines is from Vince Lombardi, who said, 'Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing.' In my business, success means winning souls to Christ."

Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, both in online and in print. He also authors "Dan Valenti's Journal" for thedivinemercy.org

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