ST. PETERSBURG — Almost 3,000 students from Tampa Bay area Catholic schools gathered Thursday morning to celebrate the historic visit of relics of one of the church's saints.
"The buses are rolling in,'' Father Mike Conway, president and director of St. Petersburg Catholic High, shouted above the din.
The relics — bones and tissue of the right hand of St. John Bosco -— are in a sealed box inside the chest cavity of a life-size fiberglass likeness of the saint in a glass casket. On a worldwide tour, the relics have never left Italy before. St. Petersburg is one of three Florida stops.
The students came together for a St. Don Bosco Relic Youth Rally and then marched one mile in the midday heat from the school to the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, where the relics lie in front of the altar. Parts of Ninth Avenue N and Tyrone Boulevard were closed for the procession.
About two dozen students led the marchers, holding a banner that read "Don Bosco Relic, A Call to Holiness."
Middle-schoolers from St. Stephen's in Valrico sang. The marchers also prayed aloud — the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary.
For Stephanie Spencer, 17, the visit of the relics "is a good opportunity to feel close to Don Bosco, to be close to my Catholic values,'' she said as she munched a bag of Dorito's.
Dara Wilson, 17, who is not Catholic and worships at Pinellas Community Church, approves of the visit. "Whether you believe it or not, it's still a positive cause for everyone getting together and it's for God overall.''
Adult volunteers Mary Kimball and Suzann Corral of Tampa took time to talk about their beliefs. They belong to the home school group JMJ (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) Tampa Bay. Kimball, who has seven children, said the visit of the relics "is an aspect of our faith we don't always get to experience. People have been healed through these experiences.''
At 11:45 the students lined up to prepare for the procession.
TSt. John Bosco and the religious order he founded, the Salesians of Don Bosco, have played an important role in the area. Members of the order arrived in Tampa in the 1920s and served immigrants in Ybor City. Their work continues at St. Petersburg Catholic and in Tampa at Villa Madonna School, Mary Help of Christians Center and St. Joseph's School.
The middle and high schoolers, who arrived by car and bus to St. Petersburg Catholic High, started the day with separate prayer and worship services. The gymnasium was a sea of mostly green T-shirts, with middle schoolers sitting on the risers and squatting on the floor. The high schoolers, wearing blue T-shirts, worshipped in the St. John Bosco Center for the Arts auditorium.
At St. Jude's, which was opened for public veneration of the relic, people were coming and going. Red and white signs pointed from the church to "relic parking'' a mile away at the school.
The relics are from a reliquary containing his remains that lie in a cathedral in Turin, Italy. The relics for the world tour have been separated into two sealed silver-plated boxes. The box containing the hand of Don Bosco, as the saint is affectionately known, was placed in the chest cavity of the likeness now in St. Petersburg. The other, containing the right forearm, is being displayed in other ways in areas of the world where it is considered culturally insensitive for the relics to be presented in a casket.
The concept of relics is not easy for some to grasp, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
It is actually quite simple, said Gary Macy, professor of theology in the religious studies department at Santa Clara University in California.
"The idea behind relics is a pretty common sense one,'' he said. "If you put together the general human tendency to save reminders of the departed along with the belief that in Christ we do not die, then any reminder of a person of faith — their burial site, their body, their belongings — can be symbols of their presence that are very powerful.''
He added: "One example of a powerful symbol for Americans is the flag. So you don't desecrate a flag. It's not just a piece of cloth. It's a very powerful symbol.''
Whether they realize it or not, Americans are familiar with the idea, Macy said.
"When you find celebrity items up for auction, they go for a lot of money. Thousands and thousands of people go to Graceland. We put up memorials to people who die in battle,'' he said.
Catholic officials say there is nothing magical about relics. Their purpose is to draw people closer to God and to offer the faithful a chance to recollect the lives of saints and to be inspired by them.
Wednesday evening, hundreds of people turned out to welcome Don Bosco's relics, which arrived in a refrigerated truck from its recent stop in New Orleans. The crowd captured the occasion with cameras and many reverently touched the glass casket with rosaries or bare hands. Among those present was the Jesus Guy, barefoot, wearing his usual white robe and carrying a beige blanket. Taking it all in.
So was Yvonne Khan, 49, with her mother and daughter. She has had a special devotion to Don Bosco since she was a child growing up in Bangladesh, she said. She even has a piece of cloth that is a relic associated with the saint, the teacher's assistant said.
Even though she grew up attending Catholic schools, relics are new to Ngozi Acholonu.
"I don't remember it being taught,'' she said.
Still, she appreciates the concept.
"It's a testament to the strength and beliefs of the system that God can still work through that person and that it's used to draw us closer to him,'' she said at the end of the service that welcomed the relics at St. Jude's.
"You can feel the energy. You can feel the excitement,'' she said as people thronged to the front of the church to venerate the saint.
For Maria Perez, the event was overwhelming. She put her hands to her mouth as the glass casket arrived. She and her husband, Steve, both attended Salesian schools in Cuba.
"Since then we have a special love for him in our hearts,'' she said, adding that they even sent their daughter to Villa Madonna, a Salesian school, in Tampa.
"In April we went to see him in Turin and now he's here,'' she said.
It was a multicultural group that chatted excitedly as the truck with the relics arrived. There was a hush as the doors opened. The Knights of Columbus, resplendent in colorful regalia, surrounded the casket as Bishop Robert N. Lynch prayed.
"It is very important for us to witness something like this,'' said Carmen Forteau, who grew up in Trinidad.
"It makes you feel holier,'' said her friend, who is also from Trinidad, but declined to give her name.
Fifteen-year-old Dat Pham, a student at Dixie Hollins High in St. Petersburg, came with his parents, his father, Doan Pham, and mother, Trinh Luong.
Why was he there? "Because John Bosco is my saint and my communion name,'' he said.
A few minutes later he broke through the Knights of Columbus circle to touch the casket and make the sign of the cross.
To Terrie Cafazzo,72, of Clearwater, who learned about Don Bosco while attending Catholic school, the concept of relics isn't strange. She has what are called third class relics, items believed to have touched something belonging to a saint.
She looked around at the crowd gathered outside the cathedral. "There are probably people here for a miracle, I bet,'' Cafazzo said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.