REWIND: It’s August. My childhood chums and I are nine going on ten. We’re running through lawn sprinklers trying to escape the stifling heat that visits our Midwest town every ‘Dog Days’ season. We aren’t the normal, cheerful, carefree kids we were in June and July—that’s for sure. We’re both sad and mad that the ‘Dog Days’ heat-induced growth of algae has infested our favorite swimming holes—the two fresh, inland lakes that border our city—making them inhospitable for swimming. No denying it. We’re afflicted with the funky melancholy that, like a wet blanket, hangs on all of us every darn August.
After the sprinkler stint, and for lack of better things to do, we begin to desolately kick stones down the street. At the end of our block, we’re stopped by a wave from Mrs. H, one of our favorite neighborhood moms. She stands up in front of her flower bed and declares ceremoniously: ‘I know what’s ailing the whole lot of you.’ ‘What?’ we yell back. ‘You’re suffering from the ‘Dog Days’ Blues.’
Our limited appreciation of musical genres accounts for our failure to grasp what the Blues were but, so as to save face, we waved and said something like ‘Oh-h-h, OK, Mrs. H,’ while we continued despondently to kick the stones in the opposite direction. However, I guarantee you, that night, every last one of us asked our parents the same question: What did Mrs. H mean by diagnosing us with the ‘Dog Days’ Blues?
The Cause & Effect: Here’s the general gist of what I remember from my parents’ explanation. ‘Well, Mrs. H was probably referring to the fact that you’re in the midst of a bit of tension—on one side, you’re having to say good-bye to the hazy, crazy, lazy days of summer and, on another, you’re having to stare down the prospect of school, whose studied discipline appears (mind you, I say appears) to rob you of all freedom. That tension leads to sadness—the Blues. You know, the music where the singer and/or instrumentalist flattens even the flat notes, and just pours out their grief over something that’s near and dear—like your summer set of freedoms—that’s now been taken from them—like your suspicion of school with all of its apparent restraints.’ My response was to do what kids do: ask another question. ‘So how do I shake this feeling, these blues?’
The Cure: ‘Don’t run away from school,’ my parents counseled. ‘Embrace it. Love that building that sits just two blocks away. See it as a way to resolve the tension that lies at the source of your August ‘Dog Days’ Blues. Embrace school for what it really is: a place where you and your friends can learn the real meaning of freedom. Not so much the freedom to do whatever you want, but the ability to excel in always choosing what’s right, so that your next summer will be even more fun, even more exhilarating. See school and the virtues it teaches and the vices it warns you about as the gateway to character excellence, one of the best means you have—right in your neighborhood—to grow into a really good person, a good daughter, a good citizen, a saint!
FAST FORWARD: It’s August, 2021. Now I’m an adult consecrated religious woman, someone who writes, lectures and does consulting in bioethics, and somebody who—would you believe—is suffering from a relapse of my puerile ‘Dog Days’ Blues.
The Cause & Effect: You see, during the past June and July, I was swept up into the euphoria of a theological ‘high.’ I was convinced realization of the lofty conceptual descriptions of a synodal Church—its modus operandi and modus vivendi—would be just the ticket for a Church in crisis, a Church reeling from, among other things, the wounds of clerical pedophilia, Vatican mishandling of ecclesial finances, and the consistent uptick of “nones”—those baptized Catholics who’ve left the Church and who prove it by answering polls assessing their religious affiliation with “none.”
I was viscerally heartened by what I viewed as an opportunity to weave the “Feminine Genius” into the fabric of the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. First, with the choice of a consecrated religious woman to not only serve as an Undersecretary but to also cast a deliberative vote alongside the bishops. And, second, by the choice of a Sister from my own congregation to assist in the Secretariat’s preparations and execution of the October 2023 Synod.
I had explicit confidence that realized synodality—lay men and women united with their respective bishops, and the college of bishops united with and under the Pope all traveling together (sun) on the same path (hodos), the salvific road of Jesus, joyfully proclaiming His “good news” that anyone who believes in Him may not die but may have eternal life—would garner a rich harvest of ecclesial revitalization. Just what the doctor ordered.
So, you ask, what caused my relapse into ‘Dog Days’ Blues?
A good dose of realism. Midst the stifling heat of August, 2021, I began to examine how things are going at the current German national synod of bishops. I tried to square Pope Francis’ recent restrictions on the use of the Tridentine Mass against his synodal insistence on listening to and respecting the opinions of all baptized Catholics. I concurred with the hermeneutic of suspicion that grounds various critiques of the ’23 Synod by theological experts I respect.
Before you know it, I was enmeshed in the same melancholic funk of my childhood’s ‘Dog Days’ Blues. Trapped by a gloomy, cramped tension, all fueled by concern over a possible dystopian outcome to the ’23 Synod. In short, I was spider-webbed by the concern that when the rubber hits the road, synodal praxis at the Roman 2023 synod will, like the German synod, fail to match its original theoretical heights. In plain English, instead of being the solution from heaven, this next universal synod could turn out to be a Trojan horse.
Despite my wariness, I strongly believe any assessment of how the notion of synodality will play out in the upcoming synod must respect the prudential tension of two standards. First, the old Latin principle: abusus non tollit usus (i.e., just because the idea of synodality could be abused should not prohibit attempts to realize it). And, second, the norm of Ronald Reagan: ‘trust but verify’ (i.e., pursue each phase of the synod, but with guarded caution at every juncture).
That’s to say, the bishops, like our President’s Secret Service, should protect the lay/collegial unity with and under the Petrine primacy by carefully scrutinizing the generally well-intentioned synodal crowd for possible outliers—like those reportedly identified at the German synod:
- Political partisans who prefer to balkanize the Church, perhaps to the point of schism.
- Power brokers who view exercise of Church authority less as gospel servanthood and more as a grasp for power, as in wielding-control-over-others.
- Lay and religious women who concern themselves more with feminist theories of sexual empowerment than with optimizing the complementarity of male and female genius when it comes to listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and
- Intellectual activists who subscribe to a horizontal, democratized, anthropocentric, and individualist ecclesiology.
The Cure: The ultimate resolution of the tension of anyone’s synod-related ‘Dog Days’ Blues is, as St. Jane Frances de Chantal counsels: “To rise above self, to rise above all feelings, opinions and dislikes, so that we gaze upon God,” so that we attune ourselves, “by a simple assent,” to the directives of His Holy Spirit.
And where can every baptized Catholic who’s involved in the ‘23 Synod—whether male or female layperson, or bishop, or Pope—find the courage to forget self? Find the wisdom to search only for the face of God? And the freedom to listen only to the voice of his Holy Spirit? The Eucharist—of course! The one Divine remedy open to all who will plan, participate in, and implement the 2023 Synod. The one reality capable of purifying each synod participant so that they’re guided in their respective synodal activities, not by their own lights, but by the light of Divine truth, the Holy Spirit, the personal truth that is Jesus.
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