Blessed Peter To Rot

Peter To Rot was born in 1912 in Rakunai, a  village on the Melanesian island of New Britain, today an eastern province of the  independent nation of Papua    New Guinea. Due to the lack of  documentation, destroyed by the Japanese during the war, it is impossible to  determine his date of birth. This is also the case for his martyrdom and for  almost all the events in his life. In the culture of Papua New Guinea it was not  customary to keep public records.

His parents, Angelo To Puia and Maria la  Tumul, baptized as adults, belonged to the region's first generation of  Catholics. It should not be forgotten that the evangelization of Papua New Guinea  owed a great deal to the extraordinary faith, training and commitment of  English Methodist Missionaries.

On 29 September 1882 the first group of  Missionaries of the Sacred Heart arrived in Matupit, New Britain, 10 years after the Methodists  had begun preaching and had established the Malaguna Mission. What happened in  1898 is surprising. Angelo To Puia, the great chief of Rakunai village on the  hills near Rabaul, told the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart that the majority  of his people wished to be Catholic and not Methodist. It was precisely in  these circumstances that Peter To Rot's father, together with other powerful  tribal chieftains, was solemnly baptized, forming the nucleus of the first  generation of Catholics in the region. It was Angelo To Puia himself who opened  the village of Rakunai to the faith and to  collaboration with the missionaries. He promoted the Christian life in his  village, where he was chief for 40 years.

Beginning in adolescence, Peter To Rot had  a strong inclination to piety and obedience, which convinced his parish priest  Fr Emilio Jakobi that the boy was born to be a priest. But Peter's father  considered this choice premature. He felt none of his people were ready for the  priesthood at the time. He nonetheless agreed that Peter should be trained as a  catechist.

A capable but modest catechist

In 1930, at the age of 18, the Servant of  God was enrolled at St Paul's Mission School  for training catechists who would work closely with the missionaries in  evangelization. He succeeded brilliantly in his studies and in 1933 obtained  the catechist's diploma. An account testifies to the character of this young  student: "...he was modest and there was not the slightest vanity in him,  neither with regard to his background nor capability. He let the older  catechists guide him in his work and accepted their advice, but eventually eclipsed  them all and soon became their recognized leader, although he was  younger".

When he had completed his studies, Peter  was assigned to the mission in his own village, and so began his work as a  catechist in Rakunai. These were years of intense work to organize catechesis  in the village, to gather large and small groups for instruction and prayer and  to become acquainted with people's real life situations. All those who had him  as their catechist recall his straightforward, immediate and effective teaching.  He referred constantly to the Bible and always carried it with him (rare for  Catholics of the time!), quoting it directly as the occasion required. He was  particularly sensitive in discovering the inner problems in others' lives and  shared them intimately.

On 11 November 1936, the only certain date  in his life, Peter To Rot married the young Catholic Paula la Varpit from a  neighbouring village. Their marriage was celebrated in church but many local  traditions—like the 50 shell necklaces to buy the bride—were joyously included.  Three children were born from his marriage with Paula: Andrea, who died after  the war; a little girl, Rufina La Mama, who is still alive; and the third child  (name unknown), who was born shortly after the Servant of God's death in 1945  and died soon thereafter.

The decisive turning point in Peter To  Rot's life and mission occurred in 1942. After the Japanese occupation, all the  missionaries and mission staff were imprisoned in a concentration camp. The  Servant of God remained alone. During the war he was the only spiritual guide  for Catholics in the Rakunai district. With his constant presence, he provided  prayer services, catechetical instruction, the administration of Baptism, the  preservation and distribution of the Eucharist to the sick and the dying, and  assistance to the poor. On the outskirts of Rakunai, he built a church for the  Catholic community from branches, the only material available. The main church  had been destroyed by the Japanese.

At the start of the Japanese occupation, he  was on good terms with the military authorities. This sort of friendly  relationship with the inhabitants ceased in 1942 after the Japanese suffered  some military reverses. At that point the military police replaced the local  authorities, creating an atmosphere of repression.

Therefore, they decided to forbid Christian  worship and all types of religious gatherings, public and private.  Subsequently, the repression became more violent. The Japanese, seeking to  force the local chieftains into collaborating with them, decided that the  Tolais should return to their previous practice of polygamy. This was a severe  blow after almost half a century of missionary work. Peter firmly opposed this  and was not afraid to disagree publicly with his brother Joseph.

The Servant of God was arrested in April or  May 1945. According to accounts, his questioning by the official Meshida was a  farce as well as an expression of the crudest violence. He was sentenced to two  months' imprisonment. Later, referring to his imprisonment, Peter said: "I  am here because of those who broke their marriage vows and because of those who  do not want the growth of God's kingdom".

'A martyr for the faith'

The Servant of God was held in a  concentration camp which had been set up in a cave. Various accusations were  leveled at him, including: religious gatherings, undue interference in the  Japanese plan for polygamy and persistence in his catechetical activities.

Efforts by the Methodist chief of Navunaram  and the chief of Rakunai, Anton Tata, to have Peter released failed. A prison  mate said: "He was often visited in prison by his aged mother and his  wife, who brought him food every day. At one of their last visits, To Rot said  to his mother: the police have told me that the Japanese doctor will be coming  to give me some medicine. I suspect that this is a trick. I am really not ill  at all and I cannot think what all this means".

Despite the precautions of the Japanese,  Arap To Binabak, a prisoner, could see the brightly lit room where Peter had  been summoned after the doctor arrived. The doctor gave Peter an injection,  then something to drink and finally stuffed his ears and nose with cotton wool.

Then the doctor and two police officers  made him lie down. Peter was stricken with convulsions and looked as though he  was trying to vomit. The "doctor" covered his mouth and kept it  closed. The convulsions continued for a time, while the doctor held him still.  Peter fell into unconsciousness and after a long while drew his last breath. The  same eye witness gently spread the terrible news of Peter's death to his  companions. Several prisoners, taking advantage of the night-time absence of  the Japanese, wanted to see his body. Thus they verified his horrible death.

But in the morning they saw a totally  different scene: Peter's corpse was now arranged on the dormitory floor. The  Japanese, summoned by loud speaker, registered great surprise when they saw  Peter's corpse. Later, to Anton Tata, an old family friend, the Japanese  cynically replied that the prisoner died from a secondary infection. In the  meantime, they informed the family and returned his corpse for burial, which  took place in silence without a religious rite.

The immense crowd which attended the  Servant of God's burial, notwithstanding the presence of the Japanese police,  immediately considered Peter a martyr. This was not a momentary reaction but a  growing certitude. In fact, in the Tolai language Peter To Rot is called  "A martir ure ra Lotu": "A martyr for the faith".

Fr Renato Simeone, M.S.C

Printed with permission from L'Osservatore  Romano, January 25, 1995