New Saint from El Salvador Leaves Lasting Impact on Friars

Stephen Mangione In the Headlines

Editor’s note: Br. Octavio has been interviewed many times about his connection to Archbishop Romero.  Some of the quotes in this article are from stories published by Catholic and secular media outlets, including National Catholic Reporter, Franciscan Media, Maryknoll Magazine and Octavio’s personal website.

A photo of the archbishop taken by Octavio Duran.

Not many people can say they walked alongside a saint. But Octavio Duran, OFM, was blessed with that privilege, which made his witness to the canonization of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero that much more special.

Representing Holy Name Province, Octavio, along with Juan de la Cruz Turcios, OFM, both natives of El Salvador, were among the tens of thousands of pilgrims that packed St. Peter’s Square in Rome’s Vatican City on Oct.14, when Pope Francis canonized the fourth archbishop of El Salvador into sainthood — making him the first Salvadoran to be declared a Catholic saint.

Octavio, editor and photographer for The Anthonian magazine, served as a personal assistant and photo historian for the beloved archbishop, who was assassinated 38 years ago while celebrating Mass in a small chapel at the Hospital of Divine Providence in San Salvador — just a day after delivering a homily beseeching government soldiers to end their killings of innocent countrymen.

The civil war breaking out at that time eventually led to 75,000 deaths, ironically nearly the same number of people who turned out in St. Peter’s Square for Romero’s canonization Mass, where Pope Francis honored the archbishop by wearing his bloodstained cincture, a powerful symbol of his martyrdom.

Octavio Duran being interviewed on Franciscan Media about the impact of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

For Octavio, the thunderous applause from the multitude in St. Peter’s Square acknowledging Romero’s elevation to sainthood brought back memories of the crowds lining the roads in San Salvador that used to greet Romero when he arrived in their towns.

“It was always packed. People were standing for a long time; they were sweating. Some climbed trees to get a better view. I remember him making his entrance, people clapping,” recalled Octavio.

It was the Gospel of Luke that opened Octavio’s eyes to the social and political realities of his country and the role of the Church as savior of the oppressed — a Gospel for which Romero lived and ultimately died. Defending human dignity and social justice provided Octavio’s inspiration for entering the seminary.

As a 21-year-old seminarian, he met Romero in 1977 in the hallways of San José de la Montaña seminary of the San Salvador Archdiocese.

“That was the first time I shook the hand of this simple man who had a profound gaze and spoke few words. He had a dual personality — on the one hand he was timid, a man small in stature and shy, and who didn’t do well in social events. But when he was on the pulpit, he was the prophet that we all expected him to be. He was a giant for the Church,” said Octavio.

One of those right-time-right-place-moments in life for Octavio profoundly changed his own life and eventually led him to his Franciscan ministry.

After hearing him read at a funeral Mass, the director of the archdiocese’s radio station in San Salvador offered him two hours a night on the air. But the life-changing moment came later when he was rescued from a boring philosophy class by an unexpected call from the station to interview Romero for the archbishop’s weekly program.

Oscar Romero at the radio station in a photo by Octavio Duran.

Recalling a Friendship
It was the first of many interviews and the start of a close friendship with Romero that Octavio says has lifted him spiritually for more than four decades.

“He appreciated my desire to learn and gave me the confidence to become a person sensitive to human suffering — engendering in me the spiritual values that are part of my life as a Franciscan friar,” he said.

“He taught me that social communication was also a ministry,” added Octavio, who is the de facto photo historian for Holy Name Province, documenting in images solemn professions, ordinations, jubilee celebrations, funerals and other major Province events.

From that point forward, Octavio accompanied Romero on his pastoral travels, chronicling the life of the then-future saint in images that led to international recognition of this professionally trained photojournalist.

When Octavio was asked to share his photos with the Salvadoran archdiocesan newspaper, he realized he would need an upgrade from his point-and-shoot camera. Romero not only agreed, but he provided enough money to purchase a then-state-of-the-art 50 millimeter lens camera that enabled Octavio to record what have become historic photos and many of which appear in the 2009 biography by Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints.

Some of the travels with Romero were tense and frightening, particularly since the archbishop’s vocal criticism of the government’s campaign of repression – and his outspoken defense of human rights, the poor and voiceless, and indigenous communities – made him a controversial figure.

One such moment came when Octavio was traveling with Romero and others to a small church in San Antonio Los Ranchos in Chalatenango to celebrate the corn festival with a special Mass. As the locals lined the road and greeted Romero with religious hymns, the Salvadoran military halted the car in its tracks and detained Romero and his companions with lengthy interrogations.

“I was extremely nervous because I was afraid they would take my camera or remove the film, which would have prevented me from documenting that day in the life of the archbishop,” he said.

But they didn’t confiscate his camera and eventually let the group continue to the church, where Romero’s uneasiness was obvious by his crackling voice and trembling body, recalled Octavio, who described his history with Romero as a “blessed one.”

It was that scene where Octavio perhaps captured the most iconic photograph on record of Romero, when two small children approached the archbishop — a girl hugging him and a boy holding the cross dangling from Romero’s neck in the palm of his hand. The photo, in modern tech language, went viral, as it circulated globally and appeared in publications throughout the world.

“It was a scary place to live in those days, but Archbishop Romero gave everyone hope — even if hope sometimes seemed like water in the desert,” said Octavio, who professed his final vows as a friar in 2003.

It became evident that Romero saw something special in Octavio when he offered him a scholarship to go to San Antonio, Texas, to take formal classes in broadcasting (since Romero was a firm believer in using the media to spread the Gospel message). But those plans changed — at least temporarily — when Romero was killed.

A Presbyterian pastor at Romero’s funeral promised Octavio that he would make good on the archbishop’s will for the young seminarian to study abroad in the U.S. Several months later, the Presbyterian pastor helped raise the funds needed for Octavio to move to the Mexican American Cultural Center in Texas, where he lived while studying at San Antonio College. That’s also when his Franciscan journey began after meeting friars with Holy Name Province.

Juan de la Cruz Turcios at the canonization celebration.

Reflecting on Archbishop’s Impact
Unlike Octavio, Juan de la Cruz Turcios, OFM, never met Romero, who Pope Francis beatified as a martyr in 2015. But the connection is just as inspiring.

“My personal journey with St. Romero goes back to the moment I was born,” said Juan, explaining that he was born the day after the archbishop died. “The [canonization] celebration was a great prayerful moment, bringing to mind all of the people that have been a great influence in teaching me about St. Romero and his work and passion for the oppressed.”

Juan, who is stationed at Blessed Giles Friary in Chicago, Ill., continued, “This has helped me to keep the memories of Archbishop Romero alive in my life. Standing in St. Peter’s Square with Octavio and thousands of Salvadorans who came to Rome to witness this historic moment, brought tears to my eyes.

“I thought about the struggles that Archbishop Romero endured to get to this point. It was a very emotional moment for me,” added Juan, who authored a personal reflection of his experience at the canonization Mass in Rome.

Although Pope Francis canonized seven individuals in total that day — including Pope Paul VI, who led the Church in the turbulent 1960s and is credited with implementing Vatican II reforms to bring the institution into the modern era — Juan said there was something special about St. Romero.

A photo of the crowd at the canonization celebration.

“I felt like the entire country of El Salvador was there on Sunday at that long-awaited moment,” said Juan, who is involved with the Province’s recently implemented ministry, “Stand Up, Immigrants!” — a campaign that seeks to build a network of protection — which has him and Julian Jagudilla, OFM, director of the Migrant Center of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in New York City, making presentations at HNP parishes in places like Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey.

Romero was born on Aug. 15, 1917 in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador. He was ordained a priest in 1942 in Rome, and later as auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of San Salvador in 1970. He was appointed archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, and was killed on March 24, 1980.

Other friars have penned reflections about Romero in recognition of his canonization, including Javier Del Angel, OFM, who wrote, “Romero was a man of the Beatitudes. His holiness consisted of practicing the message of the Beatitudes with concrete works feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, and above all, seeking justice and freedom for the poor and oppressed.”

“It was faith and love that impelled Romero in his heroic activism and ministry for the poor,” said Javier, a native of Mexico. “His was a revolution of love — for which he worked and for which he witnessed with his own life. This is the revolution of love for which Oscar Romero, a saint in life, has been canonized as an example for us to follow.”

In his reflection on Romero, Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, who is stationed at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md., and is a past chair of the HNP Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Directorate, wrote, “I cannot shake off a lingering, somber question: what would Oscar Romero do and say to us in the United States if he were alive today? Romero came to understand the correlation between the plight of the poor and the harm inflicted on God’s earth and its fragile ecosystems.

“If we want to preserve his legacy, we must work to overcome the fragmentation between the struggle for immigrant rights and climate justice, and women’s rights and the dignity of every human being,” Jacek continued. “The legacy of Oscar Romero commits us to expose the propaganda that stigmatizes the poor, scapegoats the most vulnerable, and divides our nation.”

Jacek added, “What stance would Romero take regarding the pretense of invoking Christian values while acquiescing with a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-poor agenda? We are invited to seek answers to these questions – not just with words, but also with individual and collective action. Saint Romero, show us the way.”

In reflecting about his close friend who earned sainthood for the way he lived his life, Octavio said, “I don’t think I miss anything because even though Romero is gone, he still lives in me. I have him in my heart, in my soul, and in my mind. Romero is an inspiration for me every day.”

— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.  Research provided by Jocelyn Thomas.

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