GREEN BAY — Franciscan Br. Octavio Duran captured many of the iconic images of Archbishop Oscar Romero during the final two years of the Salvadoran archbishop’s life. Today, some of those pictures are being recirculated in news reports from the Vatican about Archbishop Romero’s possible recognition as a martyr for the faith.
The recommendation by a panel of theologians to the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes is a key step in the process of declaring Archbishop Romero, an outspoken defender of the poor during his country’s civil war, a saint. On Jan. 8, the panel declared that Archbishop Romero was killed “in hatred for the faith.”
Br. Duran, now a Franciscan friar, director of media for St. Anthony’s Guild and editor of The Anthonian Magazine in New York City, said he has mixed feelings about the declaration. He is happy that Archbishop Romero may officially be recognized as a martyr for the faith, but it’s a recognition “the humble people of El Salvador” have known all along.
“The good news is always revealed to the lowly,” said Br. Duran. “And so now, because a whole bunch of theologians have come to the conclusion that he was a martyr? It’s no big deal. We knew this a long time ago.”
Archbishop’s unofficial photographer
Before the Salvadoran church leader was gunned down celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980, Br. Duran accompanied Archbishop Romero on pastoral visits outside the capital city of San Salvador. In a telephone interview with The Compass, Br. Duran explained how he became the archbishop’s unofficial photographer.
His personal relationship with Archbishop Romero began when Br. Duran entered the archdiocesan seminary, San José de la Montaña Seminary, in 1977. At the time he was 21 and considered too old for the minor seminary. He convinced the rector, Jesuit Fr. Ladislao Segura, to give him six months to prove himself.
“I tried to do my best during those six months and eventually I was approved,” said Br. Duran. When Fr. Segura passed away, he was asked to read at his funeral Mass. It proved to be fortuitous.
Attending the Mass was the director of the archdiocesan radio station, Jesuit Fr. Rogelio Pedraz. The following Monday he was pulled out of class. “I see you can read well,” Fr. Pedraz told him. “Would you like a job at the station?”
It was only two hours at night, but the seminary rector feared his studies would suffer. For the second time, Br. Duran found himself asking for a six-month probationary period. The opportunity to work at the radio station took a life-changing turn in 1978.
Radio interview with archbishop
Br. Duran was attending a philosophy class when he was asked to go to the radio station. Archbishop Romero was there and the station needed someone to interview him.
“So I went to see him and I was very nervous,” recalled Br. Duran. “I remember seeing (Archbishop Romero) at meetings when he used to come to talk to us, but I had never had a close encounter with him.”
Br. Duran said he had never conducted a radio interview. “Luckily (Archbishop Romero) had a few questions and he said, ‘These are the topics I would like to talk to you about.’ After a few cuts here and there we were able to pull together a 30-minute interview on the radio.”
He explained that Archbishop Romero regularly spoke on the radio in a program called Sentir con la Iglesia (Feeling with the Church, which was also his episcopal motto). “That was his weekly radio program that he used to clarify some of the topics from the previous Sunday’s homily,” said Br. Duran. “Sometimes what he said in the homily was taken out of context by the local press and he used that program to clarify some misunderstandings.”
The archbishop would also talk about pastoral visits he made on Saturdays.
Following the interview, Br. Duran said he was relieved “and kind of embarrassed” because of his lack of interviewing skills. “But the biggest compliment he gave was, ‘Are you going to come back next week?’” said Br. Duran. “I said I didn’t know if (the seminary rector) will let me continue doing this and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I will talk to him.’”
The radio interviews continued and as Br. Duran grew more confident in his relationship with Archbishop Romero, he asked if he could accompany him on pastoral visitations. He believed witnessing the archbishop during the visits would better prepare him for radio interviews.
Fear for his life
There was also a more selfish reason for wanting to travel with him, said Br. Duran.
Seminarians were required to do pastoral work, but they were targeted by death squads. “Getting on the bus with a Bible was not a good idea,” he said. “There were many checkpoints along the way. Once the National Guard pulled you out, you could not even think about coming back alive.” He said two fellow seminarians were killed.
Br. Duran asked Archbishop Romero if the pastoral visits could count for his seminary credit. “He said, ‘Of course. Being a communicator is part of the ministry of a priest.’ That gave me such a relief,” he said.
Br. Duran’s vocation as a photographer began after the editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, Orientacion, asked if he could take pictures of Archbishop Romero during the pastoral visits.
“At that time I had a very simple camera. I started taking a few pictures and then the idea of getting a better camera went to my head,” said Br. Duran. He had seen a used Canon 35mm camera for sale at a camera store in San Salvador for $200 — more than he could afford. So he decided to approach Archbishop Romero.
“I said, ‘You know, it would be nice to have a nice camera.’ He read my mind and said, ‘How much will a camera cost?’ He gave me $200 to buy my first camera.”
It was with that Canon AT-1 and a 50mm lens that Br. Duran captured photos of Archbishop Romero that are now the lasting images of El Salvador’s most beloved church leader.
“From there on I was doing radio and pictures,” he said. “I am sometimes amazed that I took all of those pictures with that equipment (and) without any formal training.”
Br. Duran said he does not remember how many times he accompanied Archbishop Romero on pastoral visits. One, however, stands out.
Archbishop ‘shivering with fear’
It was to the community of San Antonio Los Ranchos in Chalatenango. “It was the first time that I saw Archbishop Romero shivering with fear.”
The church was at the top of a hill and as Archbishop Romero’s contingent of six people, including Br. Duran, approached the town by Jeep they were told that the Army had taken over the town. “I remember when we approached the place … the church was up on a hill and it was an unpaved road. At the first checkpoint I remember seeing soldiers up in the trees. It was like they were in a position like snipers. Then we saw some guys on the ground and I panicked.”
The soldiers approached the Jeep, pointing rifles. “They pulled us out from the truck and they started going through everything,” he said. “It was one of the times that soldiers actually searched (Archbishop Romero). They asked him to open up the cassock he was wearing.”
While the soldiers were searching the archbishop, people at the top of the hill began singing and soldiers fired shots in the air. “They were like, ‘Long live Romero’ and the soldiers were (shooting) their rifles,” he said.
Br. Duran said two things crossed his mind. One, that they would be killed, and two, that the soldiers would see his camera and confiscate the film.
“The day before, I (had attended) an ordination and had film left in the camera,” he said. “I was afraid they were going to lose some of the ordination pictures and I wouldn’t be paid (by the newspaper) for them.”
Soldiers did not find his camera
He believes it was providential that the solider who interviewed and patted him down did not find the camera. “I will say that was one of Msgr. Romero’s first miracles. They didn’t even see the camera hanging on my neck.”
After about a 20-minute interrogation, the soldiers allowed the group to walk up the hill to the church.
In an article titled “Remembering Oscar Romero,” Br. Duran described the scene in the church.
“The people received the archbishop happily, with hugs and music. But Romero’s uneasiness after what had happened was obvious,” he wrote. “In the church, the archbishop, trembling and his voice cracking, asked that Mass be held outside. He was concerned that if something worse should happen, such as shooting, the people would be able to escape into the open countryside.”
While he sat inside the church, a young boy and girl approached Archbishop Romero.
“She hugged him and the boy took hold of the cross the archbishop wore around his chest,” Br. Duran wrote. “It was like a signal that everyone needs a Simon, the Cyrenian who helped carry Jesus’ cross, in our own lives to help us carry our crosses. I took a photo at that moment that has circulated around the world in books, magazines and newspapers. In the photo, a soldier can be seen carrying his rifle — the nails of crucifixion in that era.”
When the Jeep arrived back at the hospital, where Archbishop Romero’s residence was located, everyone was relieved, said Br. Duran.
Archbishop is assassinated
The visit to Chalatenango took place in late 1979, said Br. Duran. Several months later, at the hospital chapel across the street from Archbishop Romero’s residence, he was shot to death by a member of the military while celebrating Mass.
Br. Duran said he was at the seminary when he learned of the shooting.
“We had just finished the evening prayers and the porter came into chapel and talked to one of the priests and we were given the news Archbishop Romero had been shot,” he said. “We did not know if he had survived, but he was taken to a private clinic.”
The seminary rector called Br. Duran into his office. “He said, ‘Let’s go and see what happened.’ We took a cab and we went down to this clinic and I remember seeing his body lying on a metal stretcher. … I stayed there until the autopsy was done and then we came back,” he said.
Br. Duran said his immediate thoughts were about what would happen next.
“In that situation like we were, there was no room to mourn the death of the archbishop,” he said. “I didn’t mourn his death until a few months later — and even years, when I realized from the feeling point of view he was gone.”
He explained that living with death every day in El Salvador, one became numb to it. “You lose the sensitivity that a human being can be killed in front of you and you feel sorry for him,” he said. “You understand what’s going on but it takes a long while for you to understand pain.”
An Uncertain future
He also worried about his own future.
“(Archbishop Romero) had offered me a scholarship to come to the United States and continue my studies here,” he said. “I was like, ‘Where do I stand now?’”
At the funeral Mass, which was attended by dignitaries from around the world, he spoke to a Presbyterian minister whom he previously met while with Archbishop Romero.
“I said, ‘All of my dreams about going to the States are gone’ and he said, ‘No. Look, if it was the archbishop’s intention, then you will go.”
Br. Duran said the pastor, while on a trip to Europe, gave a retreat and talked about El Salvador. A retreatant gave the pastor an envelope with money and told him to use it to help someone in El Salvador. In a letter he wrote to Br. Duran the pastor said, “When I opened that envelope I immediately thought about you.”
The money helped Br. Duran travel to San Antonio, Texas, and register for classes at the Mexican-American Cultural Center in June 1980. “Letters had been exchanged between Archbishop Romero and the administration of the Mexican-American Cultural Center, so I was not unknown to them.”
It was a life-changing experience for Br. Duran. “I went through a cultural shock when I moved to San Antonio,” he said. “One of the things that used to drive me crazy was when people would ask, ‘What’s the weather going to be like?’ I really was not used to very mundane statements … coming from a place where (one asks) ‘Am I going to live or die today?’”
One of Br. Duran’s duties was teaching Spanish to missionaries departing for Latin America. One of his pupils was a Franciscan friar, Fr. Thaddeus Sapio, from Camden, N.J. The two became friends and eventually Br. Duran was asked to consider the Franciscan order. He attended a vocational weekend and took home an application. After many phone calls, he submitted the application and was accepted into the order. “It’s been going on like 20 years now,” he said.
In addition to serving as editor of the Anthonian, a Franciscan magazine, Br. Duran serves as photographer for the Franciscans’ Holy Name Province.
As the church approaches the 35th anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s assassination, Br. Duran is modest about his role in preserving the archbishop’s memory through his images.
“In a way I’m glad that I am part of the history,” he said. “I think that there are more important people in the life of the archbishop but it’s like a building. This building has some very important columns. Without them the building will not stand. But I feel (his photos are) like a little screw or nut that is holding these columns. … These images will show the world that he was just another human being like you, like me, like those who died thinking that they were in one way contributing to the cause.”
Wounds have not healed
Br. Duran said he hesitates to talk with the media about Archbishop Romero. “Some of the wounds have not healed,” he said.
“Often I am asked, ‘What was he like?’ I don’t know what the hell they expect me to say. He was like you and me. The images perhaps can speak for themselves and say, this is what he was like. You put the captions on the picture. The images describe the humanity that lived in him. They are not any pieces of art.”
Regardless of what the Vatican says next about Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom, Br. Duran does not need an official pronouncement.
“If theologians had spent six months in El Salvador (with Archbishop Romero), they would have realized that the moment he was killed,” he said. “But sometimes people are trying to find God in the sky, when God lives among us. We try to look for God in the clouds and we don’t see the God that lives with us.”