What I learned from listening to non-practicing Catholics ahead of the Synod

By Sarah-Marie Chan, 26 August 2023


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.

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Sarah-Marie Chan is the founder of The Accompaniment Project, volunteers for the Archdiocese of Seattle, and is a member of Catholic Leaders Circle at Leadership Roundtable.

Thanks to American Magazine where this article originally appeared.


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