Time for a bit of blogging about some remarkable lay Catholics who have responded in remarkable and creative ways when the Church has been suppressed and persecuated. July is full of their feast days.
July, 2012 happens to be the 100th anniversary of an extraordinary man that most of us have never heard of, the first indigenous blessed in the entire South Pacific region: Peter To Rot. I first stumbled across Peter To Rot in 2002 when we put on Called & Gifted workshops in two languages for 1,000 Catholics in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Catholicism reached Papua New Guinea in the mid 19th century but most of the first missionaries, including two bishops, and numerous priests died as martyrs or from disease. When missionaries finally established a foothold in the 1880's, their strategy from the beginning emphasized the critical importance of lay leadership and especially the formation of lay catechists.
Peter To Rot was a second generation Catholic, son of a major chief, who with his wife, had been baptized and catechized his own children. Peter was passionate about his faith from his childhood and began his work as a trained catechist at age 22 in 1934 but his real test came under Japanese occupation in 1942 - 1945. The missionaries were immediately put into concentration camps but Peter, as a layman, was allowed to stay in his village.
As has happened numerous times in Catholic history, the weight of the local Catholic community lay upon this lay man's shoulders. Soon, he was leading Sunday prayer and exhorting the faithful to persevere, witnessing marriages, baptizing newborns, presiding at funerals. One missionary who had escaped arrest lived in the forest; Peter brought villagers to him in secret so that they could receive the sacraments.
Although the Japanese did not outlaw all Catholic practices at first, they soon began to pillage and destroy the churches. To Rot had to build a wooden chapel in the bush and devise underground hiding places for the sacred vessels. He carried on his apostolic work cautiously, visiting Christians at night because of the many spies. He often traveled to Vunapopé, a distant village, where a priest gave him the Blessed Sacrament. By special permission of the bishop To Rot brought communion to the sick and dying.
The Japanese occupiers tried to reintroduce polygamy to gain the favor of several local chiefs but Peter To Rot stood strongly against it. "As a villager later testified, “Without him, I would have taken a second wife. To Rot was a saint, concerned only about the salvation of souls. He had no fear of the rich and the powerful.”
Peter was arrested and imprisoned in 1945 at the end of the war and then murdered by his captors on July 7. He died wearing his catechist cross. You can read the whole of his remarkable story here. Today, 22% of the population of Papua New Guinea is Catholic and the diocesan radio that helps bind together this vast diocese with its rugged landscape and hundreds of languages together is called The Voice of Peter To Rot.