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Friends with a saint Photographer for Blessed Romero: Embrace the ‘leper’ to embrace God

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St.Francis with a leper by Jan van Eyck (attr.). COURTESY IMAGE

By Eileen Connelly, OSU

In the mid 1970s, after a stint in the Merchant Marines, a young man returned to his homeland of El Salvador to find the country in turmoil and himself unsure of what God was calling him to next. Ultimately, a friendship with Blessed Óscar Romero changed his life.

Franciscan Brother Octavio Duran, the photographer who captured some of the most powerful images of the Salvadoran archbishop and martyr, shared his experiences and a challenging message for Christians today during a visit to the archdiocese in October. His presentation, “St. Francis and Oscar Romero: Embracing the Lepers,” was sponsored by a collaboration of Catholic parishes and archdiocesan offices.

His relationship with Blessed Romero began in 1977, when Brother Octavio entered the archdiocesan seminary, San Jose de la Montana. At 21, he was considered too old for the minor seminary. He appealed to the rector, Jesuit Father Ladislao Segura, who granted him six months to prove himself. When Father Segura passed away, Brother Octavio was asked to lector at his funeral Mass, where he was heard by Jesuit Father Rogelio Pedraz, director of the archdiocesan radio station. A few days later, Father Pedraz offered him a job.

“I had always wanted to work at a radio station,” Brother Octavio said. “I said ‘yes’ to the job and was rejoicing because I was finally going to do what I had always wanted to do.”

Franciscan Brother Octavio Duran spoke about Bl. Archbishop Oscar Romero at several locations in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati this fall. COURTESY PHOTO

Not long into his radio ministry, the young seminarian was asked to interview Blessed Romero. “I didn’t know what I
was getting into at the time,” he said. “Luckily, Archbishop Romero had a few topics he wanted to talk about. You can imagine my relief!”

The interviews continued and Brother Octavio grew confident enough to ask Blessed Romero to accompany him on his pastoral visits. He admits to having an ulterior motive. “All seminarians were required to do pastoral work, but they were targeted by the death squads. Carrying a Bible was a crime,” he said. “I was afraid.”

The archbishop readily agreed, reassuring Brother Octavio that being a communicator is part of a priest’s ministry, and before long, he was also photographing Blessed Romero on the visits. He remembers one visit in particular, during which their contingent was stopped on the road and interrogated by soldiers.

Just a few months later, on March 24, 1980, Blessed Romero was shot to death while celebrating Mass in the chapel across from his residence.

As he mourned the untimely death of
his friend, Brother Octavio also wondered what the future, now uncertain, held for him. With assistance from a Presbyterian minister who attended the archbishop’s funeral, he eventually traveled to the United States to continue his studies. He became acquainted with several Franciscans while attending the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, and realized his call was to join them. Today he serves as director of media for his province, and is compelled to continue to share the faith and example of Blessed Romero.

He recalled the story of St. Francis’ encounter with a leper while riding his horse

“If we don’t embrace the leper we are not embracing Jesus.If we don’t embrace the leper, we are letting the opportunity pass to embrace God… I want to keep the message of Romero alive: to not be quiet, to speak out, resist, and be the voice of the voiceless!” 

near Assisi. Though filled with disgust at
the sight of the leper, St. Francis dismounted and kissed the man, along with offering
him money. When he got back on his horse and looked around, the leper was nowhere to be seen. It was a transformative moment for St. Francis, who felt he had actually kissed Jesus. From then on, his ministry to lepers expanded.

Blessed Romero experienced similar a moment of transformation when his close friend, Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande Garcia, was assassinated in 1977 by Salvadoran security forces.

“What transformed Romero was embracing Rutilio’s body,” Brother Octavio said. “This was when he ‘encountered the leper’ and committed to dedicating his ministry to the example of Rutilio, to speaking out against poverty and injustice.

“I want to challenge people to recognize the lepers in our society,” he said, “to love the immigrants, people of color, members of the LGBT community, those of other faiths. They are our brothers and sisters. We must look for the leper, because in the leper, we may find transformation.

“If we don’t embrace the leper we are not embracing Jesus,” Brother Octavio added. “If we don’t embrace the leper, we are letting the opportunity pass to embrace God. I know this message can anger or scare people, but I want to keep the message of Romero alive: to not be quiet, to speak out, resist, and be the voice of the voiceless!”

Beatified in 2015 in San Salvador by Cardinal Angelo Amato, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes, Blessed Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez was assassinated on March 24, 1980, shot in the heart while celebrating Mass. The Cause for his sainthood was opened in 1990.

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