ST. PETERSBURG — Catholics from the Tampa Bay area and beyond will converge by the thousands on St. Petersburg this week for the historic visit of relics of one of the church's saints.
The relics — bones and tissue of the right hand of St. John Bosco — are in a life-size fiberglass likeness of the saint lying in a glass casket. This is the first time the relics, which are on a worldwide tour, have left Italy. St. Petersburg is one of only three stops in Florida and one of a few in the United States.
For the occasion, parts of Ninth Avenue N and Tyrone Boulevard will be closed from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday as almost 3,000 young people join a procession from St. Petersburg Catholic High School to the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, where the relics will be available for veneration.
The 130-country tour has spawned an official website, blogs, T-shirts and even a song. People have waved from street corners, crowded into churches and greeted the relics' arrival at the Mexico-California border.
In the Tampa Bay area, preparations for the visit began in April. St. John Bosco and the religious order he founded — the Salesians of Don Bosco — have special ties to the area. Members of the order arrived in Tampa in the 1920s and served immigrants in Ybor City. These days they continue their work at St. Petersburg Catholic and three Tampa locations, Villa Madonna School, Mary Help of Christians Center and St. Joseph's School.
"We're blessed to have him coming. What better way to rekindle the spirit of St. John Bosco,'' said Father Michael Conway, president and director of St. Petersburg Catholic and a member of the order the saint known for his concern for youth and the poor founded in 1859.
"For us, in particular with our young people, it's a call for holiness and the fact that St. John Bosco always challenged his young people to become saints and to become holy.''
About 2,700 students from area Catholic schools have signed up to take part in Thursday's rally that will include talks, music, prayer and games, followed by what is anticipated to be an exuberant procession to the cathedral.
"It's a time for witnessing and it's a time for fun. That was part of the secret of St. John Bosco,'' Conway said. "You can have fun and still be holy.'' The relics that are making their way around the world have been taken from a reliquary containing the saint's remains that lie in a cathedral in Turin, Italy. Salesian Joe Boenzi, writing in a blog, said the relics have been placed in two sealed silver-plated boxes for the pilgrimage. The box containing the hand of Don Bosco — as the saint is affectionately known — was placed in the chest cavity of the saint's replica. The other, with the right forearm, will be presented in other ways in some Asian countries where cultural sensibilities don't allow for the relics to be presented in a casket, Boenzi said.
The significance of these parts of the body being sent on the pilgrimage lies in the fact that the right hand is used to bless, baptize, give absolution and communion, Boenzi said. Don Bosco also used his right arm for writing and for teaching tailoring, carpentry, shoemaking and bricklaying to those to whom he ministered, the Salesian said.
American Catholic officials are at pains to explain the church's theology concerning relics. Father Len Plazewski, head of the vocations office for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, agrees it's a difficult concept for some American Catholics to embrace.
Relics of holy people, however, have been venerated since the early days of Christianity, when believers went to the catacombs to pray at the tombs of the martyrs, he said. Around the fourth century the martyrs' relics were brought into Rome and churches built around them. As late as the 1960s, Plazewski said, it was customary for relics to be placed under the altar stone of new churches.
"There is nothing magical about this. Relics are meant to draw people closer to the Lord,'' he said, adding that they offer the faithful a chance to recollect the life of saints and to be inspired by them.
On a related matter, Plazewski said: "We don't pray to saints per se. Our theology is we ask for the intercession of saints. It is only God who answers prayers.''
The relics coming to St. Petersburg are classified as first class, since they are part of the body of a saint, Plazewski said. A piece of clothing or other item used by a saint is considered a second-class relic, while items touched by a saint fall into the third-class category.
Wednesday evening, Don Bosco's relics, traveling in a refrigerated truck from New Orleans, will arrive in St. Petersburg escorted by police cruisers. The medium for bringing the sacred objects to the faithful — the fiberglass figure, casket, and metal and wooden stand — weighs more than 1,800 pounds. The welcome party in St. Petersburg is prepared.
"When the truck pulls in, we're going to back it up to the steps of the cathedral,'' Conway said. "There are only about five steps and the ramp (from the truck) should reach to the top of the steps.''
Bishop Robert N. Lynch will say special prayers at the entrance, and the relics will be escorted into the cathedral by a Knights of Columbus color guard.
Friday morning, after over 24 hours of prayer services, viewing and veneration, the relics will be sent off with a blessing to the next stop, south to Belle Glade.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.