Donned in colorful capes, feathery chapeaux and white gloves, the Knights of Columbus Corps led the procession at the funeral Mass.
Altar servers followed, carrying candles, incense and a cross.
Then came the priests and seminarians, more than two dozen dressed in gold-trimmed, white robes, somberly walking down the aisle past rows of full pews.
After the hymn Sing With The Saints echoed through the church, parishioners brought forth Christian symbols and placed them on the casket: a pall, a book of Gospels, a stole and a cross.
This is how the celebration of Monsignor John Scully's life began Tuesday night at St. Stephen Catholic Church. And what a life it was.
The 86-year-old priest collapsed on the altar last Friday in the middle of a morning Mass. He fell while preparing the offertory gifts, and his last words were, "Blessed be God forever."
The phrase epitomizes his 62-year devotion to the church. He came to the Diocese of St. Petersburg in 1953 and grew to become the founding pastor of six churches, four elementary schools and two high schools.
"This is exactly where he would have wanted to be," celebrant and St. Stephen pastor Bill Swengros told the congregation. "To fall between the altar and the tabernacle, looking up at the face of Jesus, it just doesn't get much better than that.
"When it's my turn, please, that's what I would like."
Swengros blended emotional tributes with humorous stories about his friend and mentor. He talked about how Monsignor Scully loved to hear confession, celebrate the Eucharist and refused to consider himself as retired.
"He said once to me, 'If I have only one regret in my life, it's that I have only one life to serve God as a priest.' He loved being a priest. He loved helping people."
"He loved to save souls."
During the offertory, a seemingly endless line of children, many in Cub Scout and Boy Scout uniforms, laid flowers on the altar. Monsignor Scully may have been 86, and he may have spent only three years at St. Stephen, but from every indication, his grandfatherly nature touched young and old at the parish.
During the prayer of the faithful, one of the readers said, "We are waiting for the day of his coronation."
Through it all, I wondered how this church will move forward in the wake of the tragedy. How does any church cope when one of its spiritual leaders is suddenly taken away?
I found an answer in Swengros' homily.
"What did he say to you that touched your heart?" Swengros said. "How are you going to share that, how are you going to live that in your life?
"We want to think about that because truly Monsignor was a gift, and we can't allow his encounter with us to be a blip in our spiritual lives. We have to be able to incorporate that, to live in that.
"To me it's going to take awhile, it's going to take some time … because I don't want to forget, and I want to remember and somehow I want to be able to honor him by the way I live my life."
So many times, people talk about what they want to get from their minister: inspiration, motivation, biblical lessons, something to help get them through the week. When they walk out of church unfulfilled, they talk about dry sermons and wonder if it's time to join another congregation.
But perhaps we don't think enough about what we need to give our spiritual leaders. Through attendance and support, attentiveness and salutations, we lend an all-important sense of purpose to their lives — lives that they have dedicated to serving us.
The good people of St. Stephens can move forward from this loss by not only focusing on all the inspiration Monsignor Scully gave them, but the gifts they granted him in his final three years.
In allowing Monsignor Scully the chance to serve them, they filled his final years with joy.
That's all I'm saying.