Devotees flock to visit the uncorrupted tongue of St. Anthony of Padua at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Dhaka on Feb. 1. (ucanews.com photo)
The nearly 800-year-old relic of St. Anthony of Padua arrived in Bangladesh for a nationwide tour, sparking enthusiasm among thousands of Christians and non-Christians, who consider the Portuguese saint a 'demigod' for the numerous miracles that have been attributed to him.
Two Franciscan friars have brought the relic from the St. Anthony Basilica in Padua, Italy for a tour across eight Catholic dioceses from Feb. 1-9.
On the first day, they displayed the relic at Holy Rosary Church during a Mass in central Dhaka. An estimated 30,000-35,000 people attended, according to Father Kamal Corraya, the parish priest.
"St. Anthony is the most popular saint in Bangladesh and we expected a large crowd but the massive attendance crossed far beyond our expectations. Initially, we allowed for just a couple of hours to display the relic and have people visit but we had to extend the time," Father Corraya told ucanews.com.
Rini Chambugong, an indigenous Garo Catholic and NGO worker, said that her devotion to St. Anthony won her a great favor.
"From my childhood, I have seen my parents and neighbors flock to pray for blessings from St. Anthony, and personally, the saint has fulfilled my prayer. I believe if we pray to him, he will protect us from all kinds of evils," said Chambugong.
Wearing an Islamic skullcap, Muzammel Hossain waited patiently outside the church gate. He said his devotion to St. Anthony helped him conceive a child.
"I have been married for 14 years, but we couldn't get a child. A Christian friend told me to pray to St. Anthony and we did. Now, we are blessed with a beautiful daughter," Hossain told ucanews.com.
However, he regretted that church authorities didn't allow non-Christians to get inside but instead suggested he visit the main shrine in Panjora, near Dhaka, on Feb. 3, the saint's annual feast day
"I've planned to visit the St. Anthony shrine with my family. I believe St. Anthony doesn't belong to Christians only but all of the society," he added.
Thousands of devotees attend the annual feast of St. Anthony of Padua at Bangladesh's most popular shrine at Panjona village in Gazipur district near Dhaka on Feb. 5, 2016. (ucanews.com photo)
The relic is scheduled to arrive at the official shrine where a statue of the saint is preserved in a chapel in Panjora village. The shrine attracts tens of thousands of devotees on the annual feast day, usually celebrated in February for good weather, although the original feast of the saint was on June 13.
Father Joyanto S. Gomes, parish priest of St. Nicholas of Tolentino Church in Nagari, which covers the shrine, said that people were overwhelmingly enthusiastic.
"This year, more and more people are attending the nine-day novena prayers and we are expecting a massive attendance on feast day," the priest said.
"A top official from the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints learnt about the huge popularity of St. Anthony in Bangladesh and made the arrangements to fly the relic to the country so local devotees could connect with the saint whom they love and revere so much," added Father Gomes.
St. Anthony was born in Lisbon, Portugal on Aug. 15, 1195. He was ordained a priest and later became a Franciscan friar. He was widely acclaimed for his outstanding preaching, undying love for the poor and sick and expert knowledge of scripture.
He died in 1231 at the age of 35 in Padua, Italy from a chronic case of edema. He was canonized by the Vatican a year later and in 1946 he was declared a Doctor of the Church.
Thirty years after his death, church authorities exhumed his body to put it in a proper basilica but found his tongue was uncorrupted even though the rest of his body had decomposed.
They considered it proof of St. Anthony's gift for eloquent preaching and spiritual sermons. The tongue was separated from the remains, along with the saint's jawbone and left forearm, and preserved as a relic.