Friday 24 June 2011
On 7 July, Catholics in Oceania will remember the devout life and courageous death of Blessed Peter To Rot, a Papua New Guinea native and lay catechist who died defending his faith and the institution of marriage.
Peter To Rot was born in 1912 in Rakunai, a village in present-day Papua New Guinea. His parents converted to Catholicism in adulthood and were among the first generation of Catholics in their region. Protestant missionaries had previously dominated the area, which was a British colony until 1906.
Peter’s father, Angelo To Puia, was a tribal chieftain whose conversion opened a way for Catholic missionary work by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. The chieftain’s son was a devout and obedient young man who was considered a candidate for the priesthood.
But Peter’s father did not believe his people were ready for a native priesthood at that time. Instead, he agreed that Peter be trained as a catechist, so he could take on the mission of promoting a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith among his people.
In 1930, Peter enrolled at St Paul’s Mission School. He earned his diploma in 1933 and returned to Rakunai to begin his life’s work. He organised groups for teaching and prayer, and was especially attentive to the concerns that people brought to him about faith and life.
In November 1936, Peter married a young Catholic woman named Paula la Varpit, in a Catholic ceremony that also maintained many of the best native traditions. They had three children, two of whom died relatively young while a third survived into old age.
The events that would lead Peter to martyrdom began in 1942, during World War II.
In that year, the Japanese invaded and occupied New Guinea, imprisoning the territory’s missionaries.
Peter, who remained free, was forced to lead the Catholics of Rakunai on his own as a layman. He offered non-liturgical prayer services, administered Baptism, provided the reserved Eucharist to the sick and dying, and offered assistance to the poor.
As time passed, the Japanese authorities began to treat the native Christians even more harshly. They outlawed all religious gatherings and decreed that the New Guinean’s pre-Christian practice of polygamy was to be restored.
Peter spoke out openly against the restoration of polygamy. He was arrested in the Spring of 1945, and imprisoned in a cave. “I am here because of those who broke their marriage vows,” he said, “and because of those who do not want the growth of God’s kingdom.”
Peter’s wife and his mother often visited him and brought him food. But he confided to his mother that he did not expect to be released. “The police have told me that the Japanese doctor will be coming to give me some medicine,” he said.
But Peter was not sick. “I suspect that this is a trick,” he told her.
Soon after he made this prediction, a doctor indeed arrived. He administered an injection and gave Peter something to drink. Peter suffered convulsions, lost consciousness, and soon died.
Blessed Peter To Rot was buried with no religious ceremony, due to the Japanese occupation. However, he was immediately regarded as a martyr by many in the large crowd that gathered to pay their respects.
Pope John Paul II beatified Peter To Rot in 1995, during his visit to Papua New Guinea. CNA
Kairos Catholic Journal Volume 22, Issue 11