In 1995, Pope John Paul II flew to Papua New Guinea to celebrate the beatification of the nation’s first "blessed". This man was Peter To Rot (pronounced ‘toe rote’) who, in 1945 while his country was under Japanese occupation, was killed in a prison camp by a Japanese doctor under the pretence of treating a supposed "illness".
Peter was thrust unexpectedly into a position of immense importance and responsibility. He was, by trade, a trained catechist. Born in the village of Rakunai, which is near the capital of New Britain (Rabaul), he was the son of a village chief, Angelo To Puia. The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart had a school in Taliligap, New Britain, and Peter was sent to study there by his father. This was something of a compromise, since the priest, Fr Laufer, had suggested that Peter might want to become a priest himself, but Angelo was against the idea. Peter studied at the school for nearly three years before being called back to the village by Fr Laufer. At the age of only 21, Peter took up the position of catechist in the village.
In 1936, before the Second World War began, Peter got married. Paula Ja Varpit was a fellow classmate, and even though the marriage was arranged, they were a happy couple.
In 1942, the war reached Papua New Guinea. This was the first time many people had ever seen airplanes, and when they did it was accompanied by the horrific experience of dropped bombs. When the Japanese landed in Rabaul, they had strict instructions for all foreign missionaries to be sent into the labour camp based in Vunapope. This included Fr Laufer. Before he left, Fr Laufer put Peter To Rot in charge of catechising the village, saying: ‘Help them, so that they don’t forget about God.’ So, despite Japanese repression, Peter worked in secret to keep the faith.
Today, Blessed Peter To Rot is known as a patron of married couples. He was a great defender of Christian marriage in the face of Japanese law which permitted men to take a second wife. Unfortunately, some women were abducted to be taken as second wives, but Peter stood up to anyone and everyone in his village who was tempted by this, entreating them to follow God and the Church’s teaching on the matter. Peter also acted as a witness to any genuine Christian marriages.
Towards the end of the war, the Japanese became even stricter in their rules regarding religious worship. Prayer of any kind was expressly forbidden. When spies from the village reported Peter’s continual disobedience of this, he was arrested and in 1944 sent to a manual labour camp. In 1945, he was found dead on the porch of the prisonhouse while the other prisoners were away. Even though Japanese authorities reported to the village of Rakunai that Peter had died from a sudden illness, they were not believed.
Before his death, during a visit from his mother, Peter told her that a doctor was being sent in order to give him some medicine. Peter suspected it was a ruse of some kind since he was not ill. But, when his body was being prepared for burial in Rakunai, puncture marks were discovered on the back of his head, and it seemed as though his throat had suffered severe damage. It is supposed that when the lethal injection did not work quickly enough, they beat him to death.
During his homily for the beatification of Peter To Rot, Pope John Paul II said:
‘When united with the redemptive Passion of Christ, human suffering becomes an instrument of spiritual maturity and a magnificent school of evangelical love’ (§2).
Peter's fearless perseverance despite threats of suffering and death is a testament to this truth.
Melbourne Catholic22 September 2021
Fiona Basile21 September 2021