Youth ministry has always required flexibility, imagination, prayer and energy. But youth ministry during COVID has drawn more deeply than ever on those fundamentals.

In early summer, when my supervisor first approached me to ask about the plan for our Youth Group at St. John Chrysostom Parish in Wallingford, I knew we had to jump at the chance to gather and be together again, albeit in a new way.

I had to narrow my focus on why I do what I do to begin with. I had to gently acknowledge, and then put aside, certain things that I couldn’t control: an uncertain, constantly changing time during a pandemic, mixed with a climate of heavy political and racial unrest.

New opportunities in the new normal

After the initial shock of COVID-19 and its nationwide closings, the quarantine had settled somewhat and we began to navigate the “new normal” of living during a pandemic. Even in Pennsylvania’s most restrictive “red phase” of the pandemic, new opportunities popped up to keep youth ministry alive and well.

Virtual Mass and Catholic youth ministry programming with prayer, music, worship and games were offered online. Zoom meetings became popular, and free online platforms offered opportunities for mental health needs and socialization.

As the red phase moved to yellow and some restrictions lifted, there still remained a lot to consider in restarting youth ministry. Both the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and our parish shared new meeting and activity requirements. Health and safety plans needed to be studied, new considerations weighed and addressed, and new protocols developed. There would be new paperwork to create, manage and communicate, and new meeting and disinfecting protocols to navigate.

There were so many questions to answer: Would kids even want to return? Would the parents be comfortable? What did a safe meeting look like? What service projects can we tackle? Could meetings be fun with masks, temperature taking, and everyone at a distance? How many rules could we expect busy parents to be able to manage and even remember from week to week? Is it safe to play cards? To share a pizza? May the carpool driver sign the COVID clearance form for her son’s buddy? What are we forgetting?

Still, although the mountain of additional details was sometimes daunting, we never doubted our call to return. Ministering to our youths in this stressful and isolated time and finding new opportunities for them to connect with their faith and with one another was more important than ever.

We talked through as many processes and potential scenarios as possible, working through everything from how to operate our new Ghostbuster-type room sanitizer to who would have to be sent home from a meeting if a sick teen had carpooled with a buddy who seemed healthy.

Different rules for being together

Then we needed to communicate, proactively and often, with parents and guardians. We had to see how they felt about restarting Youth Group, which serves grades six to 12 and meets every other week at our parish. We hosted a Zoom meeting for parents and guardians to find out their interest level, hear their concerns and suggestions, and answer their questions.

In order to meet, we decided to require both the archdiocese’s Participation Release Form and COVID Questionnaire. We would take temperatures before each meeting. Parents would not be allowed to drop their kids and leave until our program assistant checked them in.

We had to shift our meeting space to an area conducive to our current needs (a challenge for our limited facilities). Initially, we are fortunate to have a covered, outdoor space that will allow for gatherings as long as weather and light permits. All of this would bring back some normalcy.

We decided not to worry about programming for now. We recognized that the simple gift of hanging out and talking – especially these days — is very valuable.

Reaching out to parishioners in need

Service projects are a big component of St. John’s Youth Group. We considered the needs of our immediate community. This required reconnecting and communicating with other St. John’s ministry leaders, who were also in states of transition.

We quickly identified a need with our parish homebound. With home visits long suspended, these parishioners had had little contact outside of check-in phone calls from our home visitors. We decided to make care packages.

Amazingly (let’s call it Providence), we resumed our biweekly Youth Group meeting (complete with face coverings, screening questionnaires, and sanitizers) in mid-August. This was our usual start time after a summer hiatus!

St. John’s Youth Minister Caroline Tamaccio snaps a selfie as she makes a socially distanced delivery of a Youth Group care basket to a homebound parishioner.

Each youth brought a self-care item for our homebound parishioner care packages. The baskets included homemade masks (created with love by other parishioners), hand sanitizers, packaged teas and cookies, puzzle books, a small plant and notecard from our youth.

And yes, it was fun. The kids, who attend several different schools, greeted each other truly as long-lost friends.

It was always important to gather and be together before the pandemic. Now more than ever, we are called to provide this opportunity, if we are able.

We are always encouraged to come “exactly as we are.” Yes, we now meet in a new way. But doesn’t Christ make all things new? Being alongside each other again on the church grounds is quite healing.

Now, we continue on our pilgrimage to the Kingdom. Knowing that we can fall off the path at any time requires perseverance, consistency, flexibility and support. As a youth minister, my main goal is to walk with my youth and give them Jesus. This is why I do what I do, many times in subtle ways.

Ultimately, gathering together — with pizza and games, of course — provides a feeling of normalcy and security. We come together for fellowship, fun and service, all in good faith. This is indeed holy.

St. John’s Youth Group took a quick group photo before dispersing for games and service projects at a recent biweekly meeting.