by Octavio Duran, OFM
We were only a little way from the small church in the community of San Antonio Los Ranchos in Chalatenango, El Salvador, when the car carrying San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was rudely stopped by Salvadoran army soldiers. They made us get out of the vehicle and searched for evidence to accuse us of being subversives, as happened to so many other religious and innocent people during that time. Romero was going to celebrate the corn festival with a Mass in the community of San Antonio.
At the end of the 1970s, when respect for human rights was eroding at an accelerating rate in my country, the Salvadoran government began a campaign of repression against the Catholic Church, accusing it of insurgency and killing priests, catechists and lay faithful. The people complained about the abuse to the legal aid office at the Archdiocese of San Salvador, and Archbishop Romero denounced the cases of abuse each Sunday at Mass.
On the steep road to the church in San Antonio, the local people, who had gathered to greet the archbishop with religious hymns, witnessed the affront the archbishop suffered. They watched as soldiers searched him thoroughly, along with those of us who were with him: myself, Father Fabián Amaya, two other Church workers and Salvador Barraza, who was Romero's chauffeur and friend. The soldiers did not find anything to incriminate the prelate, but the real reason for the operation was more to show the army's power and intimidate the population. At that moment, being with the archbishop and dozens of witnesses gave me some degree of security that we wouldn't be killed. Ironically, some of the many soldiers who were also waiting for Romero had climbed the trees, like Zaccheus to see Jesus, although perhaps not necessarily to seek conversion.
I was extremely nervous, in part because of a small camera hanging around my neck. I was afraid they would take it from me or remove the film and keep me from documenting another day in the life of the archbishop.
After long interrogations, we continued on to the church. The people received the archbishop happily, with hugs and music. But Romero's uneasiness after what had happened was obvious. 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.
Suddenly, while still in the church, a little boy and girl went up to Romero. She hugged him and the boy took hold of the cross the archbishop wore around his chest. 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.
This happened at the end of 1979, a few months before Romero was assassinated. Thirty years have passed since I took that picture with the camera that the archbishop bought for me himself so I could capture images for the archdiocesan newspaper Orientación.
I never imagined how my life would change by meeting Archbishop Romero in 1977, when I was only 21 years old. The assassination in March of that year of Father Rutilio Grande, whom I never knew in life, was a reprisal against those priests committed to defending human dignity and social justice.
Attracted by the social and political situation in El Salvador and the role the Church had there as savior, I had entered the San José de la Montaña seminary for the San Salvador Archdiocese. As a seminarian I understood the responsibility to preach a liberation that comforts the oppressed and condemns the oppressor. The Gospel of Luke opened my eyes to the reality of my country: "He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent away the rich empty-handed."
I met Romero in the seminary hallways when he came to explain to us the archdiocese's role in the situation in the country. That was how for the first time I shook the hand of this simple man who had a profound gaze and very few words when he wasn't in the pulpit. He was accompanied by a North American delegation interested in his pastoral commitment. The visitors were much taller than he. Though small in stature, Romero remains a giant for the Church.
My friendship with Archbishop Romero was the result of a fortuitous occurrence. After hearing me read at a Mass, the director of Catholic radio in San Salvador offered me—after a test—two hours of work a night at the radio, that is, when the radio program wasn't knocked off the air by attacks against its transmission towers or the buildings. One day, during a boring philosophy class, I got an unexpected call from the radio. They told me I had to interview Archbishop Romero for his weekly program. I had never before conducted an interview, but the archbishop, who was passionate about the communications media, advised me to leave my nerves outside the sound booth. This was the first of many weekly interviews I did with Romero and the beginning of a friendship that lasted physically until his brutal assassination on March 24, 1980, and that has lifted me up spiritually for more than three decades. Romero appreciated my desire to learn, gave me the confidence to become a person who is sensitive to human suffering and engendered within me the spiritual values that now are part of my life as a Franciscan friar.
I asked Romero if the interviews for the radio could be part of my pastoral work since as a seminarian I had to do a pastoral ministry in a parish at a time when the Bible was a symbol of terrorism, when the small Christian communities were denounced before local authorities and many of the faithful turned up dead with signs hung around their necks that read "traitor to the nation."
He told me that social communication was also a ministry. After that, I accompanied him on some of his pastoral visits on the weekends and took many photographs of him.
The radio and camera allowed me to better know this friend, pastor and prophet: the friend who said he did not fear death, the pastor who stayed and protected his flock, and the prophet who decried the injustice and oppression that the Salvadoran people suffered, a prophet who not only denounced but also announced that there was a just God whose justice was eternal. Thirty years after the death of Archbishop Romero, it is not only I who remember him but millions of people around the world.