Modern Day Saint

Peter ToRot

(1912 to 1945)

Martyr for Marriage

The islands of the Pacific became well known in World War ll as Americans and their allies fought and died to rid the region of the forces of Japanese occupation. Yet, in the newspapers, little was mentioned about the native peoples living on these island battlegrounds where titanic forces fought their global war. Even fewer realized that Catholics died as martyrs on these islands. Blessed Peter ToRot, a native of one of these island battlegrounds, was martyred for the faith he refused to deny.

Peter was born in Rakunai, New Britain, an island off the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea, in 1912. His father was Angelo ToPuia, the chief of the village, and his mother was Maria Ia Tumul. Peter's father had invited missionaries to his village, and he and his family were baptized.

One of the major features of the evangelization of New Guinea was the extensive use of lay-catechists. A school for training catechists was setup in Taliligap by the Sacred Heart Brothers. The role of the catechist in the village was well outlined. They were to run the school, instruct people for baptism, gather them and conduct prayer services if the priest were absent, look after the sick and those in need. A demanding program with results proving this to be a fruitful apostolate for the evangelization.

Beginning in adolescence, Peter had a strong inclination to piety and obedience. He had an intense prayer life and received daily Communion. The parish priest felt that the boy should become a priest, however Peter's father felt that none of his people were ready for the priesthood. He did agree that Peter should become a catechist.

Peter enrolled at Saint Paul's Mission School in 1930 at the age of eighteen. He obtained the catechist's diploma in 1933 and was assigned to the mission in his own village. He began to gather small and large groups for instruction and prayer. He referred constantly to the Bible and always carried it with him, quoting it directly as the occasion required. For Peter, his work as a catechist was not merely a job; it was the total dedication of his life to God. He was particularly devoted to those that had fallen away from the practice of the Faith. He explained to them in simple terms how God loved them and was eager to forgive them. Many returned to the Church.

On November 11, 1936, he married the young Catholic Paula La Varpit. Their marriage was celebrated in church, but many of the traditional local customs were included. Three children were born from the union.

The decisive turning point in Peter's life and mission occurred when the Japanese occupied the island during World War ll. They arrived in March 1942 and drove out the small Australian garrison. At first they showed no opposition to any religion practiced by the people. However, shortly after their arrival the activities of the missionaries began to be restricted and later they were confined under guard. When the priest was sent away he turned to Peter and said, " ToRot, I am leaving all my work here in your hands. Look after these people well. Help them, so that they don't forget about God."

Peter ToRot was outstanding as the organizer of his village for prayer, baptisms, communions, weddings, and burials. After the church was destroyed he built a bush church outside of the village. He kept records of baptisms and weddings and helped other catechists who were confused about changes brought by the Japanese. Peter, was arrested several times

After the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese began to tighten up their leniency on religion. They imagined that the people were praying for the defeat of the Japanese. All forms of worship were forbidden. The Japanese tried to win the favor of the local populations by legalizing polygamy and making resistance to the legislation a punishable offense, and when their efforts failed, the military authorities instituted rules and regulations designed to limit the Catholic presence. Peter openly opposed the regulations, knowing that he had to witness for the faith.

Peter organized Catholics in smaller less conspicuous groups and hid the parish records. He continued with his mission. Inevitably, he was caught. A couple from another village, coming to get married, happily told a native policeman. The policeman reported to the Japanese police and Peter was arrested. Peter was charged with holding religious assemblies and interfering with the Japanese plan to promote polygamy.

The efforts by the Methodist chief of Navunaram and the Catholic chief of Rakunai to have Peter released failed. Peter told them, "Do not worry about me. I am a catechist and I am only doing my duty. If I die, I die for my faith." To another, he said of his imprisonment, "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."

On the day of his death the Japanese police informed him that a Japanese doctor would come to give him medicine. Peter said, "I suspect this is a trick. I am not really ill at all and I cannot think what all this means." He told his elderly mother, who was visiting him in the prison, "Do not cry. Go home and pray for me." Peter asked his wife to bring him his good clothes and his cross - he wanted to go to God properly attired.

When the doctor arrived, the Japanese sent the other prisoners outside. The doctor gave Peter an injection, then something to drink, and finally stuffed his ears and nose with cotton. Two police officers made him lie down while the doctor covered his mouth. Peter was stricken with convulsions and held down while he died in agony.

The next morning, a Saturday in July 1945, fellow prisoners found the carefully arranged body. The Japanese, summoned by loudspeaker, registered great surprise when they saw Peter's corpse. Later, they told an old family friend that Peter died from a secondary infection. His body was returned to his village for burial, which took place in silence without a religious ceremony. The immense crowd that attended Peter's burial, in spite of the presence of the Japanese police, immediately acclaimed Peter a martyr. His murder occurred only a month before the Japanese surrendered to the Allied forces in the pacific region.

Pope John Paul ll beatified Peter in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on January 17, 1995 declaring the heroic virtue of the devout catechist. Peter dared the wrath of the occupying military forces in order to fulfill his commitment as a Christian by fostering the faith in a time of peril. Defending the truth of marriage, ToRot offered his life as a 'living sacrifice of praise.' His beatification is a fresh inspiration to married couples throughout the world, strengthening their resolve to trust that God will reward their fidelity to Him.

Jim Fritz

The above was edited from an article on Peter ToRot in John Paul II's book of Saints published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.; and, an article on Peter ToRot in Faces of Holiness, by Ann Bell.



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