Like the national March for Life, bigness as well as personal interactions are a huge part of the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the largest single Catholic gathering in the United States.

The importance of the event for religious educators, parish leaders and other parishioners, and youth meant that canceling it this year, its 65th year, because of the pandemic was never considered. So planning for a virtual conference, held Feb. 18-21, began last April, when it was becoming clear that California would have one of the nation's strictest and longest-lasting lockdowns.

And this is what everyone learned: First, as everyone knew by the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, there's just no substitute for in-person fellowship. Second, however, that an online-only event means no one has to lay out for travel or lodging expenses, and that speakers can be listened to much more easily. So some elements of the virtual conference may end up being included in future ones.

"I am happy we were able to offer something this year," Sister Rosalia Meza, a religious of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity who is senior director of the Los Angeles archdiocesan Office of Religious Education, told Catholic News Service. "I've been receiving very positive comments."

She estimated that the total online "attendance" was at least 10,000, considerably less than previous years, when the conference averaged 40,000. The program included livestreamed presentations, liturgies and other broadcasts, and on-demand content. There also was a dynamic virtual exhibit hall. The congress also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Youth Day track.

"It was difficult and awkward, because people weren't used to it," said Father Chris Ponnet, director of the St. Camillus Center for Spiritual Care and head of Catholic chaplains at Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center in downtown L.A.

He noticed that the "energy and spirit were very different," comparing the experience to the difference between Masses he's celebrated on Zoom, with only a couple of other people present, and a Mass for 500.

The crowd dynamic, Father Ponnet observed, is impossible to duplicate online. The usual experience is to "see people you haven't seen for years."

But the one advantage he found was that "because we were pulled into this experience because of COVID, more people were able to share it with us."

Vilma Santos, coordinator of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program at Christ the King Parish in Hollywood, California, missed meeting the speakers in person. "Online, we only have what they offer us."

The conference is her principal way of buying the educational materials "we need for the whole year. They give it to us much cheaper than if we order at a different time of the year."

"I have set a high a goal for myself" as an RCIA coordinator, Santos said. "I would save up money just to buy books and materials. Sometimes I could go there and buy seven books and have only two left. Next year, I'd buy five and have two left, so I'm way, way behind my goals."

She missed "the excitement, and staying there until Sunday, going out Friday night, meeting other people. And you exchange notes, email addresses, and you get in touch. That's something that I do miss."

Maria Elena and Rene Burgos, also from Christ the King Parish, found some personal benefits. "We didn't have to get up early in the morning and run," Maria Elena said. "It's so crowded. You have to really plan ahead."

As confirmation coordinator for the parish, Maria Elena has been teaching classes online. Rene found the virtual education conference useful since, as a member of the diaconate program, he was required to write a conference summary, and he could pause all of the workshops.

As an antidote for pandemic isolation, "we go out with passion, and that helps, I think, psychologically," Maria Elena said.

Rene has seen some of the social damage to the parish that will take time, and skill to heal. "They have been depressed, a lot of the people that we know, all during the pandemic, in their homes, and especially older people, and they've been stuck in their homes and depressed," he said.

Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, a ministry for gang intervention and rehabilitation, concluded: "I think everybody also would acknowledge that there's something about being in each other's physical presence. But given that we had to do it, I think it probably worked."

Since Los Angeles designated Homeboy Industries as an essential service, "we never really closed," he said. "We kind of pivoted, with our restaurant, to address food insecurity."

"There is a certain sense of atrophy in this. I did a funeral the other day and the widow hugged me, and I realized this was the first human being I'd hugged in 11 months. And at Homeboy, we're kind of a huggy culture, but we don't even do fist bumps, because the difference between a fist bump and a handshake is, what?"

"I'm fully vaccinated now, and a bunch of us are, not that it makes you invincible," he added. "So I'm feeling a little bit more protected, although everyone says be careful still."