ST. PETERSBURG — More than 80 years ago, Roman Catholic officials exhumed the body of John Bosco from his tomb in Italy. They planned to display his body in a glass casket to celebrate his beatification, an important step toward sainthood.
Don Bosco, as he is known, is revered for his concern for youth and the poor. He founded the Salesians of Don Bosco, the world's third-largest religious order.
This week, some of his remains — called relics by the faithful — arrived in St. Petersburg in a life-sized fiberglass likeness of the saint lying in a glass casket. The relics — bones and tissue of his right hand sealed in the chest cavity of the fiberglass form — drew thousands of people to the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle.
On Thursday, nearly 3,000 middle and high school Catholic students made the pilgrimage to venerate the saint.
Members of his religious order first arrived in Tampa in the 1920s. They now work at St. Petersburg Catholic and in Tampa at Villa Madonna School, Mary Help of Christians Center and St. Joseph's School.
Police closed parts of Ninth Avenue N and Tyrone Boulevard to allow the students, who gathered at St. Petersburg Catholic, to make the milelong walk to the cathedral.
About two dozen led the procession, carrying a banner that read: "Don Bosco Relic, A Call to Holiness." Behind them, middle schoolers from St. Stephen's in Valrico offered exuberant renditions of religious songs. Another group recited the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary. Others chanted. Neighbors came out to watch and take photographs.
At the cathedral, students overflowed into the choir loft. Many squatted in the aisles to take advantage of the historic visit. The St. Petersburg stop, part of a worldwide tour, is the first time Don Bosco's relics have left Italy.
Despite the excitement surrounding the visit, some Americans — non-Catholics and even some Catholics — find the idea of relics strange, if not macabre.
But Father Michael G. Witczak, assistant professor of liturgical studies at the Catholic University of America, said the link the faithful feel to relics is not unlike the connection people feel to family members who have passed away.
"Most of us want to have a memento or keepsake of someone dear who has died. A lot of family fights after funerals revolve around who gets Grandma's recipes, her favorite chair, that lovely piece of art, the precious jewelry," Witczak said. "Wanting to have something nearby of a loved one is pretty normal. Relics share in that human reality."
Suzann Corral, a mother of six from Tampa who was a chaperone Thursday, said she offers a similar explanation to her children.
"Honoring relics is like honoring our deceased family members. It's a way for us to connect with our church family,'' she said.
"People have been healed through these experiences," added her friend, Mary Kimball.
The theology of relics is long and complicated, Witczak said. Christians first honored martyrs who were persecuted and died before Christianity was legalized, he said.
"Christians would gather at the tomb of the martyr on the anniversary of the death and celebrate Mass," he said.
Later, churches were built over tombs. Pilgrims began visiting the sites and others decided they wanted to be buried near the saints. Some wanted to have saints near their homes.
"They didn't have any local martyrs, so they obtained either the body of a martyr or part of the body to take to their own city to have a saint there that they could visit," Witczak said.
Catholic officials say there is nothing magical about relics and that their purpose is to draw people closer to God and to offer the faithful a chance to recollect the lives of saints. That said, they are associated with miracles.
As she took a break for lunch Thursday, St. Petersburg Catholic High School student Marina Townsend said she was glad the relics had come to the area.
"I think it is a great opportunity to see miracles happen," she said.
Fifteen-year-old Dat Pham, a student at Dixie Hollins High in St. Petersburg, waited for the relics with his parents, his father, Doan Pham, and mother, Trinh Luong.
"John Bosco is my saint and my communion name," he said.
A few minutes later, he touched the casket and made the sign of the cross.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.