MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Uruguay’s Catholic Church has a lot riding on the two-year global preparations for the Synod of Bishops on synodality Pope Francis has convoked for 2023.

Uruguayan church leaders began the first phase of a listening process for the synod Feb. 6 and are counting on parishes, base groups and religious congregations to contribute to a national document the country will present for the synod.

Church leaders admit that the process will not be easy as they struggle against falling numbers in what is South America’s most secular country.

“We are working to get Catholics involved in the church again. We have experienced a pronounced downward curve this century, but we believe that it has now plateaued,” Cardinal Daniel Sturla of Montevideo told Catholic News Service.

The number of Uruguayans identifying as Catholic has fallen to around 30%, and less than 40% of the country’s 3.5 million people have confidence in the church, according to the most recent Latinobarómetro regional survey.

While other countries in the region have separation of church and state, Uruguay went through a secularization process during the 20th century. Sturla said the Uruguayan calendar tells the story. Religious holidays are absent: Christmas is called Family Day, Holy Week is Tourism Week, and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is National Beach Day.

The cardinal said secularization has also meant that people do not leave the church for other churches, like in neighboring Brazil, where Pentecostal churches have boomed in recent decades. Uruguayans simply leave religion behind. Less than 10% of Uruguayans identify as Pentecostal.

“People here are not leaving the church to join evangelical groups; they just stop belonging to a church. They believe in something, they believe in someone, but they do not believe in an institution,” he said.

The church began a campaign in 2019 to encourage Catholics to return to the church. Sturla said it started strong but ended when the pandemic erupted locally in March 2020. The listening campaign and synod preparation could jump-start things.

The listening process is similar to what the bishops in Uruguay and throughout the region did before the Sixth Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean held last November in Mexico, and what the church in South America’s eight Amazon Basin countries undertook in the runup to the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in October 2019.

Uruguay’s church did a survey in its parishes to better define what it wanted to focus on during synod preparation. The survey settled on two of the 10 themes identified for the synod.

“Ten themes seemed excessive, so we are looking at two big issues, mission and the synodal style of the church,” said Sturla.

Father Mathías Soiza López, who is coordinating the synod process for the Montevideo Archdiocese, said the church needs to take advantage of the synod process to define where it is going.

“We need to use the synod process and everything it implies to ask ourselves questions that will help us, as an archdiocese, going forward,” he said.

The pre-synod plan calls for groups to discuss issues, form ideas and provide input for a meeting the country’s bishops will hold this May. A document for the synod will come next.

“We want to reflect our experience as a church. It will be our small way of contributing,” Soiza said.

Uruguay has eight dioceses, in addition to the Montevideo Archdiocese.