Bl. Peter to Rot, Martyr

(1912-1945)

When a pope beatifies a holy person in St. Peter’s, Rome, the rite followed is governed by age-old rubrics. When the ceremony takes place in some other country, however, it is likely to be modified according to the customs of that land.

An illustration: the beatification of Peter To Rot on January 17, 1995. He was the first native “blessed” of the nation of Papua New Guinea (a member of the British Commonwealth in Oceania, half-a-world away from Rome). Pope John Paul II must have been touched by the way in which its Catholic citizens (who constitute 32% of the population) combined Catholic ritual with their own cultural practices in a charming manifestation of faith.

The papal Mass took place in a stadium at Port Moresby, the nation’s capital. Heading the entrance procession were Tolai warriors carrying spears. Peter’s relics were borne in to be deposited near the altar in a hut made of banana leaves. Following the relics to this destination was the martyr’s 49-year-old daughter, her face painted white, the traditional Papuan symbol of mourning. The Pope, of course, came at the end of the march, but in a humbler version of the “popemobile.” He rode under a yellow canopy on the back of a white pickup truck. As the truck circled the field, he was greeted at intervals by bare-chested dancers from three national ethnic groups. The only European-like touch was the uniformed brass band of the Port Moresby Police.

Despite the quaint adaptations made in his rite of beatification, Bl. Peter To Rot was a martyr in the grand tradition. As the Pope said in homily, “Martyrdom has always been a part of the pilgrimage of the people of God.”

Who was this man from Papua New Guinea whom we now welcome to the church calendar?

Peter was a lay catechist: a married man and a father engaged in teaching the faith and assisting the priests. According to his biographer, he and his wife Paula, in the early years of their marriage, had the usual matrimonial disagreements. Paula, who died in 1993, frankly admitted that he had even given her a “solid beating.” But she hastened to say that this was only once; and she blamed herself for it because she had been notional and uncooperative.

As the years passed the couple grew in grace. They nourished their strong mutual love by praying together each dawn and dusk. Peter was most conscientious about his church duties. He studied doctrine carefully, and when he failed to understand something he sought the advice of the “big holy men.” He was, said the Pope, “a loving father and a dedicated catechist, known for his kindness, gentleness and compassion.”

Early in World War II, the Japanese seized control of much of Papua New Guinea, especially the large island of New Britain where Peter lived and worked. They imprisoned all the priests, so the catechist had to try to substitute for them as best he could, not only by visiting the sick but by witnessing marriages and conferring baptism.

Eventually, the invaders called a halt to all his church work. Becoming increasingly oppressive, they issued laws legalizing polygamy, and even sought to encourage men to take plural wives.

Shocked at this threat to the whole Christian concept of marriage and matrimonial fidelity, Peter felt obliged to condemn as immoral the Japanese laws regarding marriage. For his courageous stance, To Rot was torn away from his pregnant wife and his children and clapped into a concentration camp. Because he would not accept the laws, he was condemned to death and executed by a lethal injection.

The manner of execution was modern and “scientific”; but Peter died for the same cause that St. John the Baptist had died – the sanctity of marriage.

At the beatification the people sang a hymn to Blessed Peter composed for the occasion. The text, in Pidgin English (a trade language widely used in the South Pacific) hailed him: “Yu strong na yu tru.” By his supreme sacrifice, Peter had more than compensated for the faults of his youth. He was indeed “strong and true.”

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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