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Sarah-Marie ChanAugust 21, 2023
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The Vatican named 363 voting members for October’s Synod on Synodality a few weeks ago, including Archbishop Etienne of Seattle at the personal invitation of the pope. Since this synod was announced in 2021, I have worked with the Seattle chancery as a synod volunteer and responded to the call for dialogue by personally talking with 100 people who were baptized and are now non-practicing. Having found that the archdiocese took my findings seriously, I was heartened by the Vatican’s announcement.

When I first heard about this synod, I was caught off guard: The Catholic Church was interested in informing institutional direction by listening to her members? Equipped with a background in research and design thinking, I asked the Seattle archdiocese how I could help.

The archdiocese had a robust plan in place. Our diocesan phase listening sessions were liturgical: Parish groups opened in prayer and facilitators used questions like, “How are you journeying in your faith?” and “What is the Holy Spirit asking for us to do next?” Prayer, intentional listening and an emphasis on the Holy Spirit disarmed political agendas. But I noticed that the plan had a gap: We were reaching the baptized through parishes. How might we hear from baptized Catholics who no longer went to church?

I made it my mission to reach non-practicing Catholics and to embrace the stories of people who had not yet been heard.

A personal mission

I am a cradle Catholic in my 30s with an engineering degree, a love of Lindy Hop dancing and a penchant for the outdoors. My city is very secular, and I have not always been outspoken about my faith. Encouraged by the excitement surrounding the synod, I gradually opened up. On the edge of the dance floor, someone would ask, “What do you do?” I would respond: “I’m working on a project to learn how all the baptized experience their faith.” They would say, “I’m baptized.” I would leave a small silence, my eyes looking out at the floor and then back at them, and within seconds they would tell me their story. I listened with genuine interest, hearing questions about identity and experiences of spirituality. I encountered these conversations on hikes, at coffee shops and in other routine spaces in my everyday life.

I noticed that archdiocese’s plan had a gap: We were reaching the baptized through parishes. How might we hear from baptized Catholics who no longer went to church?

One day, I noticed that a friend liked a page called “The Saints” on Facebook, but I had never heard him talk about God. The next time I saw him, my stomach twisted as I asked, “What is your experience of faith and religion?” He responded, “You’re Catholic, right?” He went on to explain that he had grown up Catholic and had made most of his friends at the Newman Center in college. Then one of his best friends came out as trans. He grimaced as he said he could not be affiliated with a homophobic institution. Out of allegiance to his friend among other things, he became agnostic. It had been two years. I asked him about his personal relationship with God. He said he’d never had one.

By this point, I began not only to record the stories I heard but to place myself in them. I felt the pain of my friend’s ostracization. I felt the clash of God against culture. I questioned why God would put us in a position to choose between God’s love and the pain of institutional wrongs. I grew angry with God and sad on behalf of the baptized who shared their stories with me. In empty chapels, I cried, listened for God in the silence and wrote reflections in paper notebooks. I brought the stories to the diocese, spiritual mentors and therapists. I hungered to understand other perspectives, so I listened to podcasts, sought out opinions in foreign environments and discussed the experiences with friends.

My city is very secular, and I have not always been outspoken about my faith. Encouraged by the excitement surrounding the synod, I gradually opened up.

We know that disengaging from the church can be painful—and that the pain is often left unaddressed. Addressing it now opens a window of hope. Maybe God exists; maybe the institution is learning; maybe I can have the community I was promised as a kid. One person said, “Faith is usually something I suppress, but now that you bring it up, it’s all I can think about.” Another person told me, “My mom said I would always be Catholic, no matter what.” So many people have questions from their adolescence that were never answered.

Less than 24 hours after I left my agnostic friend, he sent me a message: “Can we talk? I barely slept just thinking about what we talked about…. I would like to listen [to] what your faith means to you. I’d like to hear more about your experience with God.” I met him for coffee, prepared to discuss L.G.B.T. issues. But he only wanted to talk about my faith and how God is working in my life. Two hours later, he went to Mass for the first time in two years and asked the priest for spiritual direction.

Listening to the faithful

In April 2022, I brought the stories I had heard to Archbishop Etienne. I have learned that to be heard well, you must listen first, so I asked about his needs for the archdiocese. Seattle was about to implement a plan in which two or more parishes would be clustered in a new family structure. The archbishop and I planned how we might use the momentum of the synod to invigorate the laity. How might the laity participate in pastoral care through accompaniment and discipleship? How might we better shepherd Catholics as we encounter attrition in our parishes? How might we not just retain Catholics but engage, inspire and transform their relationships with God?

God’s people will continue wrestling with their challenges, but we can ease each other’s suffering with our presence.

That summer, I participated in a synod reading retreat of 30 individuals who reviewed reports from the parish listening sessions, synthesizing stories from just over 11,000 Seattle Catholics. We tried to identify themes and quotes that captured the spirit of these conversations for the report that we would send to the U.S. bishops. Through the summer, I assisted in editing the final report, appreciating that the messages from the non-practicing Catholics continued to be present.

Our report is just one among thousands that will inform the prayerful plenary assemblies of cardinals, bishops, priests, men and women religious and laity who will gather in Rome for nearly a month in October 2023 and 2024.

Many of the discussions might focus on the issues of the church born of human imperfections. These issues were repeated in synod reports at every level: The church needs to feel more like a home, not a rule-laden institution; disenfranchised groups need to be loved and empowered; leadership needs to be re-examined and resourced.

While I am eagerly anticipating institutional healing, over the last two years I have been even more encouraged by the healing I see already happening through listening. Becoming a more synodal church allows us to listen to how God is speaking through each of us, including those who no longer sit in our pews.

What I have learned

When people find their faith challenged and no one willing to listen to their doubts or questions, they are likely to disengage. By accompanying people in their faith, we provide opportunities for them to get to know God personally. When people ask about God, they are really asking: “Do you know God? Can you introduce me to him?”

Encountering people in this synodal spirit has changed me. I enter into the stories of particular discomforts and conflicts with faith, and then I ask myself and others to consider experiences of beauty, goodness and truth. I am still challenged to enter spaces where I might disagree or be judged, and while I am afraid I will lose friends, I am getting better at it. Synodality humbles us to learn how to communicate sensitively, to care pastorally and to enter into spiritual friendship. God’s people will continue wrestling with their challenges, but we can ease each other’s suffering with our presence. We need each other’s synodal listening because it renews our sense of hope.

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