I arrived in the Bolivian city of Sucre at the same time as the holy relics of a modern day saint. It was not my intention to do so, and I doubt it was his either.
As I crossed the main plaza in Sucre beneath the tall trees and the stern gaze from the statue of the city’s founder, General Sucre, I saw a large gathering forming in the far corner of the square. The crowd comprised mostly of school children between the ages of 11 and 16, as well as a few parents, locals and bemused tourists.
A procession was forming along the children’s lighting street leading into the square. I could see several vehicles, flags and blue and white balloons all gathering together in the narrow road between brilliant white colonial buildings. A few residents and store owners in the street stood on their first floor balconies for a better view of proceedings.
The first vehicle to pass was a Bolivian policeman on a motorbike. Dressed in a light green khaki shirt, biking leathers and sunglasses, his primary purpose was to ensure that the way through the square was clear. Nevertheless, his arrival was greeted with great enthusiasm by the children in the plaza, who cheered and applauded him as though he was the main attraction.
More vehicles followed, accompanied by a group of children waving and shouting. Although this was clearly a formal occasion, and while many of the children had turned out in their smartest uniform and were marching alongside the cars with pride, others were more relaxed: blazers and jumpers off, top shirt button undone and tie halfway down the chest. No one seemed to be overly concerned whether the children looked smart or not.
A white 4*4 pick up truck followed, containing half a dozen or so members of the Bolivian army sitting in the back. They were not there to bring law and order but to provide the marching music for the procession. Dressed in full camouflage combat gear they sat playing trumpets and banging on a large blue drum.
Behind them came another jeep filled with children: hanging out of the windows and spilling over the sides at the back. There was also a balding man in their midst, who I took to be one of their teachers. He was carrying a large microphone and exhorting the children in the jeep and in the streets around him to great enthusiasm.
The focus of the parade seemed to be on the next vehicle. From what I could see, it appeared to be a large aluminium sided van. Hardly an obvious object of celebration. Nevertheless, people standing behind the vehicle were taking photographs, shouting, and in some cases screaming in delight. There was even a film news crew sticking the lens and boom of their camera into the back of the van.
As the van rounded the corner where I was standing, I saw that it was occupied by two priests, standing on either side of a large glass coffin. Children carrying large blue and white flags followed the van. And I could see the name “Don Bosco” written in large letters across the flags. There were several messages on these flags: “Don Bosco lives”, “Don Bosco we are with you”, “Don Bosco the Virgin Mary is with you.”
The children were also chanting Don Bosco’s name with great enthusiasm. Some were even carrying small posters showing the face of a man I took to be Don Bosco himself. I noticed too that the uniforms of the children also bore an insignia made up of the letters DB.
The whole procession made its way joyously to the main square, the rear of the parade being brought up by a large white minibus, with children leaning out of the windows carrying a large blue and yellow flag. The whole group assembled outside the main cathedral on the far side of the square.
It made a peculiar sight. The sterm clay coloured facade of the cathedral, with its sombre saints and ancient statues, with the multitude of joyous children at the gates. Several larger banners had now appeared, most of them in the red, yellow and green of the Bolivian nation – delicately embroidered with the names of youth groups from the city.
The procession had stopped, and appeared to be waiting for something. Children stood expectantly in jeeps, or climbed on the backs of adults to gain a better view. Several officious smartly dressed men and women, who I took to be teachers, attempted to marshall the children into some kind of order. A few police officers looked at the scene with little concern.
Greeted with a great roar and cheer from the children, a ramp was lowered from the back of the white van, and the glass coffin slid out onto the shoulders of waiting pall bearers. I could see through the clear sides that this coffin contained the body of a man, dressed in white priestly robes, laid out on a red pillow and bed.
The coffin was carried by the pall bearers into the cathedral and the multitude of children swarmed behind through the doors and into the main body of the building.
Since I was unable to enter the cathedral I was left with the dilemma of trying to work out what had just occurred. I did not know who Don Bosco was, and was also uncertain whether he was the dead man in the coffin or not. If he had just died, it seemed strange that this was such a joyous occasion.
I decided to ask one of the drinks sellers in the plaza what was going on. I did not want to ask the children because this would only demonstrate by ignorance of the occasion.
The street seller grunted something to me about Don Bosco. He did not seem to share the children’s enthusiasm for the event – though it had clearly brought a large crowd to his stall and increased business.
I asked him who Don Bosco was. But had not realised that a crowd of children had assembled behind me to buy drinks. They thought it incredible and hilarious that I had never heard of Don Bosco. “He doesn’t know who Don Bosco is” one lad turned to the others to explain in amazement. It was as though I had turned up to St Peters in Rome on Easter Sunday and asked who this Jesus bloke was.
I replied to them that I had only arrived in Sucre that morning, but I understood that he was a very religious man. They agreed with me that this was the case. I then asked whether he was dead, for I wanted to confirm that he was the man in the coffin. They replied quite earnestly that he was not dead.
This initially caused me great confusion for I could not understand who else Don Bosco could have been. This confusion was also not resolved when I asked the woman who ran the hostel where I was staying, who replied that Don Bosco was a professor at a local Sucre secondary school.
The situation was only made clear when I returned to the plaza and saw several posters on display on the lamp posts stating that the relics of Don Bosco were being brought to Sucre that day. I had obviously received a theological answer from the students – Don Bosco’s remains were clearly being brought to the Cathedral in Sucre, but the man himself was evidently alive and well living in the kingdom of heaven at God’s right hand amidst the choir of angels. Either that or they were just having some sort of fun at the expense of my ignorance.