WASHINGTON, D.C. — There was a recurring theme during a Dec. 7-11 young adult ministry conference: Zoom encounters were adequate in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they quickly became a poor substitute for in-person ministry and worship.

Everyone’s eager for human interactions, and the vaccine can’t arrive soon enough.

This sentiment was, not surprisingly, expressed on Zoom.

Brian Rhude, the project coordinator for the Catholic Apostolate Center in Washington, used to schedule a weekly Divine Mercy chaplet with friends that way “before everyone got tired of Zoom.” He doesn’t think that would work now.

“Simply listen to form relationships with young adults,” he advised. “They’re individuals that come with stories and experiences. They’re beloved sons and daughters of God.”

Cynthia De Leon, a volunteer youth minister from San Antonio, said the pandemic isolation gave her “the appreciation of being in a group” and to “just enjoy the little moments, to never take these for granted again.”

They were among the participants in the National Leadership Forum on Ministry with Young Adults, hosted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth and organized by our National Advisory Team on Young Adult Ministry.

According to Paul Jarzembowski, the secretariat’s assistant director of youth and for the U.S. bishops, the forum was originally planned as two-day leadership gathering in New Orleans in early December.

But the advisory team, he said, “redeveloped the program into an all-online formation experience for ministry leaders in the church who are seeking ways to better engage and accompany young adults” ages 18 to 39.

Participant Kara Dixon, a TV journalist from Portsmouth, Virginia, said she’s had “stronger relationships this year due to COVID. One of the things I’ve learned this year is just being present, and just being along for the journey.”

“Psychologists will tell you that you form your identity as a child of God in relationships,” said Tracey Lamont, an assistant professor of religious education at Loyola University in New Orleans.

De Leon said that hit home for her when she found herself afraid when she simply bumped into a cashier at her supermarket. “You yearn for that, that physical touch, so I think that was just the biggest hit.”

Sarah Jarzembowski, the coordinator for campus and young adult ministries for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said conversations to remind young adults that they have a calling has to start early on and regularly.”

“Young people have to take the church out of catacombs after the pandemic,” said Schonstatt Father Alexandre Awi Mello, secretary of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, one of the week’s keynote speakers.

“From this crisis, we can get better or worse. Right now, what we need, (Pope Francis) says, is the opportunity to change or innovate,” he said.

Unemployment has limited the availability of young people for ministry, Father Mello observed. “We wonder what to do to minister to them … to give them an encounter with Christ and their church.”

They ask, he said, “for a dedicated accompaniment” by older adults, and “if we had to choose one stop to reinforce — I would suggest we put all our strength into accompaniment.”

He pointed to surveys that “say very clearly that young people live this exclusion. They all feel completely alone most of the time. About 40% have no one to talk to and feel left out.”

“The church should not hesitate to give them space to be protagonists. To give them space so they can act.”

Referencing mission synodality, Pope Francis’s theme for the next World Synod of Bishops in 2022, Father Mello predicted “a better world — something that’s going to surge after the pandemic. … As we know, the spirit of the Lord surprises us every time.”

Doug Tooke, vice president of ministry advancement for ODB Films, based in St. Charles, Illinois, mentioned “a lot of distrust” by young people, in part because of church scandals, and in part because of flawed messaging.

He recommended, “Focus on that language of humility and language of reconciliation. Our language and our tone for all of our ministry endeavors can’t be grandiose. It has to be simple.”