IN HONOUR OF BLESSED PETER TOROT CATECHIST AND MARTYR (1912-1945)
Bishop Rochus Tatamai of Bereina, a member of the family, pays tribute to Blessed Peter ToRot on the 100th anniversary of his birth, as the Archdiocese of Rabaul solemnly celebrates on 7 July the Feast of the Blessed catechist killed by Japanese occupying forces in April 1945.
By Bishop Rochus Josef Tatamai – Bereina
Grandson of Peter ToRot’s brother
Angelo ToPuia and Maria IaTumul were from Rakunai village located on the plateau about 40 minutes drive from the old Rabaul town. They had four children, Theresia IaVarpilak, Josef Tatamai, Peter ToRot and Gabriel Telo. Josef Tatamai the elder brother of Peter ToRot was the father of my dad Rochus Tirupia. When I was born in 1962 I was baptized Rochus Josef Tatamai combining the names of my dad and granddad. So my dad was the nephew of Peter ToRot. Thus Peter ToRot is my great grand uncle two generations over. In PNG terms I would refer directly to Peter ToRot as my grandfather since he was the younger brother of my grandfather.
It was in 1969 when I was about to enroll for prep at St. Augustine Primary School at Rakunai when our Parish Priest Fr Josef Theler MSC was trying to identify who I was. He asked the other children who my parents were and when they called my parents names, he immediately confirmed saying “the grandson of Peter ToRot … while the children protested saying, “No! his grandfather is Josef Tatamai.” Later that day I checked with mum and dad who Peter ToRot was and they told me that he was the younger brother of my grandfather Josef Tatamai. Those were the initial days of my growing awareness of who Peter ToRot was in relation to me and my father, my grandfather and family. After that I began to hear more stories of the Second World War in Rabaul and how Peter ToRot worked among our people as a teacher and catechist and that he was killed by the Japanese because of his witness to Christ and his teaching.
From my earlier recollections I observed my grandfather Josef Tatamai was a devote Catholic who attended daily Masses and received Holy Communion daily. Then my parents encouraged me to be an altar boy even before I went to school. I observed that every day we attended Mass and prayed at home and even before and after meals, practically any activities mum and dad would lead us in prayer. We went regularly to the parish cemetery where Peter ToRot was buried and prayed there as well as regularly put flowers. We also collected the soil and dust from the top of his grave and used it at home for any pains and aches and apparently we experience ease and healing. There was a growing devotion in the family to Peter ToRot as well as the whole parish community with living witness who began to share about their experiences during World War II and how Peter ToRot worked among them as a catechist and teacher.
I was conscious that my parents had a great devotion to Peter ToRot because my dad was Peter ToRot’s favorite nephew. Dad recalled many times his personal experience when Peter ToRot was killed in 1945. Dad was only 5 years old then and he was very sick. They were living in one of the tunnels near where Peter ToRot was keeping the Blessed Sacrament. In the night dad was having visions of Peter ToRot coming to visit him and wanted dad to go with him. He would be screaming and crying at the sight of Peter ToRot but his mum and dad and the whole family did not see a thing. Traditionally they used lime and ginger to dismiss any future appearances of Peter ToRot to dad. At least that is what they believe.
I discovered that being in the family of Peter ToRot was a great challenge and sometimes a scandal because not all the relatives were committed and devoted to our Catholic faith and Christian practices. Like all others in the villages we had our family arguments and disputes, disagreements yet the knowledge that Peter ToRot was a great catechist and his life was a model for Christian families, his example was always a challenge before us.
Discovering Peter ToRot
Well I must admit that I did not really think seriously about Peter ToRot during my primary and high school days. I was just like every other young boy growing up with the challenges of teenagers and peer pressures, but all the time I was back at home there was the strong Catholic influence of mum and dad. So when I decided to apply to the Minor Seminary at St. Peter Chanel College, Ulapia my Parish Priest took a personal interest in my decision and began to remind me of the great work of my grandfather.
I supposed all the influences of who Peter ToRot meant in my life and formation was highlighted on the day of my ordination to the Priesthood and especially during my first Mass of thanksgiving in my home Parish in 1989. During the speeches, the elders of our parish repeatedly made reference to a passing conversation between Fr. Karl Laufer MSC, the then Parish Priest at Rakunai and a good friend of Angelo ToPuia the father of Peter ToRot. In this encounter Fr. Karl Laufer proposed to Angelo ToPuia that his son Peter ToRot could go for formation to the priesthood. Angelo ToPuia was reluctant and claimed that “their generation was not yet ready” for such a step, adding that “maybe one day a grandson of mine or his(Peter TOROT) will rise up to that calling. However, if you insisted on Peter ToRot, then as his father I will allow him to do some training to become your helper.” Hence Peter ToRot went to St. Paul’s Training College at Taliligap and graduated as a Teacher Catechist. For a lot of folks at home my day of ordination was the fulfillment of that wish or dream while some prefer to claim it was a prophesy by Angelo ToPuia.
When I was part of the TV documentary research team with Fr Zdzislaw Mlak SVD and Robin Brown of EMTV, end of 1994 to the beginning of 1995, I began to discover more about this exciting story of Peter ToRot and really enjoyed putting together the sequence of his life. This research was like meeting Peter ToRot through the experiences of the living witnesses and to the extent that Peter ToRot became truly alive and present as we interviewed his students, fellow catechists and fellow prisoners, religious and missionaries, and the people in general in the parish. This entire exercise was like fitting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together. It was a spiritual journey which made a deep impression in my life to the extent that I was challenged to rediscover and appreciate the beautiful vocation of the laity, the role of men in the community, as a husband and father of a family, the protector and promotion of the servant leadership of one who is ready to lay down his life for his people.
Beatification of Peter ToRot
At the time of the Beatification of Blessed Peter ToRot in January 1995, and without any training or background in Journalism or Media work, however, with the encouragement and support of Fr Mlak SVD I assisted him to complete the research, hence to discover and present Peter ToRot to the world through the eyes of the Media. We successfully completed this classical documentary “PETRO TOROT” and it was screened the evening before the day of his beatification. We were fortunately lucky to interview many significant personalities and “live-witnesses” who knew Peter ToRot first hand on a personal and during daily encounters. This documentary did the greatest service to the general public including the local and overseas media and everyone throughout PNG and the region who were constantly asking the basic question: “The Holy Father is coming to PNG for the beatification, but who is this main character by the name of Peter ToRot?” So that documentary presentation attempted to answer those very basic questions and after that its now all history.
On the actual day of the beatification I joined John Eggins the renowned EMTV commentator for the running TV commentary on the ceremony with the Mass with some additional comments and information on the life and work of Peter ToRot. Fortunately I had some background and inside stories about his pastoral work as a catechist, his resistance to the Japanese authorities during the war as well as his concern and pastoral care for the widows, orphans, children, women and strangers as well as organizing food supplies for the missionaries in the concentration Camp at Ramale.
After the beatification celebrations, I was privileged to present to Pope John Paul II, Rufina IaMama, the surviving daughter of Peter ToRot, together with my dad Rochus Tirupia and John ToKeleto the son of Peter ToRot’s elder sister. We had a couple of pleasant exchanges with the Holy Father when he asked me about Rufina IaMama, “Is she a good aunt?” I promptly replied “Yes; Your Holiness, she is a good aunt.” The Holy Father was grateful to see the blood relatives of “Blessed Peter ToRot: Catechist and Martyr”.
At the end of the day we realize that we do not inherit sainthood in the blood but rather each one has to strive daily in order to grow towards sainthood and holiness as this is God’s universal call and grace, an invitation open to all and available for all through Jesus Christ and in communion with the Holy Spirit.