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No Heroes?

by the Most Rev. Edward M. Egan

The talk-show host sounded particularly abrasive as I drove home from the Catholic Center one evening. A caller had suggested that the young people of our nation are much in need of heroes to imitate, and the host was evidently not in agreement.

"You're probably one of those lightweights who are always talking abut `role-models'," he sneered, his voice rising in anger. "There are no heroes. There are no role-models. This is the twentieth century. Wake up, and smell the coffee."

At home that night I re-read the section of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church that has to do with the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Commandments. The obligations it identified as deriving from just these three ordinances of the Lord were both weighty and numerous. I could not help but agree with the man who had telephoned the radio talk-show: We need all the assistance we can get, including the inspiration of heroes.

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Take, for instance, the Fourth Commandment, I mused to myself. It requires that we not only obey our parents and legitimate superiors but that we also accord them "honor, affection, and gratitude." The obligations, however, do not stop there. Parents too, the Catechism teaches, are the subjects of serious duties rising out of the Fourth Commandment. They must provide their offspring with food, clothing, and shelter, of course; but they must also "evangelize" them in the basics of the Faith, choose for them "schools which correspond to their (the parents') convictions," and - perhaps most importantly - accept "the grave responsibility of giving them good example."

Nor is the Catechism content with even all of this. It further insists that, in virtue of the Fourth Commandment, "it is the duty of citizens to contribute along with civil authorities to the good of society," but "not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order." As for civil authorities themselves, the Catechism adds that they are held to "respect the fundamental rights of the human person," to "dispense justice humanely," to "promote domestic prosperity," and to "safe-guard public morality."

If, however, the injunctions emanating from the Fourth Commandment in the teaching of the Catechism seem onerous, those connected with the Fifth are that and more. For as the authors of the Catechism make clear from the very outset of their treatment of "Thou shalt not kill," what is at issue here above all else is the sacredness of the human person, "created unto the image and likeness of God."

Thus, the Fifth Commandment is understood to approve "legitimate defense of persons and societies" but to forbid the killing of the innocent, among whom two groups are singled out for particular attention. In the first are those beings within the womb that have never been proved to be other than human beings with an "inalienable right to life"; and in the second, the sick and elderly whose "quality of life" some might question but whose right to live is no less sacred than that of any other of God's children.

In addition, according to the mind of the new Catechism, the Fifth Commandment requires that we do all in our power to safeguard peace among nations and that we carefully and prayerfully consider the ethical perils of capital punishment, especially in a society in which the criminal justice system is faltering and other effective and "bloodless" means of punishment are available.

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The dictates of the Sixth Commandment are analyzed by the new Catechism with particular clarity and force. Again, we are reminded that we have all been created in God's image and that we must therefore live out our lives on earth as worthy reflections of the Divinity. We must be chaste. We must be "masters of ourselves." And we must treat other human beings - images of the Lord no less than we - with reverence and "cleanness of heart."

It is not until this theological foundation of the Commandment has been firmly laid that the authors of the Catechism turn to transgressions against it. Among these are - as one might expect - adultery, whereby husbands and wives fail in faithfulness to their partners, and fornication, whereby unmarried persons engage in acts which the Creator has reserved to those who have entered into the covenant of matrimony. But the transgressions are not limited to these two. They include, as well, rape, prostitution, unnatural acts, and such offenses against the sacredness of conjugal life as polygamy, incest, and what the Catechism terms "trial marriages."

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The demands laid upon our consciences by just these three commandments may appear at first blush to be overwhelming. We, of course, know that they are not. For the Lord will never permit that any of us be without sufficient grace to abide by His holy law. Still, it would seem that the example of a life lived in our times by one who has been heroic in obeying the will of God might be of no little help.

Here, then, is the story of a modern-day hero.

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Peter To Rot was born in 1912 in what is today called Papua New Guinea. He was the son of the local king. Hence, when his father was moved by missionaries to invite all of his subjects to consider becoming Catholic, Peter weighed the matter most attentively and was in due course baptized.

Early on Peter decided that he wanted to be a priest. His father, however, was opposed because he felt - wrongly - that none of his people, so new to the Faith, should enter the priesthood or religious life in the first generation of the Catholicism.

Peter, therefore, enrolled in a school for catechists where he studied for three years before receiving his diploma. Shortly thereafter, he married Paula La Varpit, with whom he had three children.

In 1942 the Japanese invaded and imprisoned all of the clergy and religious. Peter, however, was allowed to continue his catechetical work along with a number of other members of the laity who were teaching Religion under his direction. Before long, Peter and his associates were baptizing, witnessing marriages, visiting the sick, directing the charitable agencies of the Church, and even conducting Sunday and Holy Day services in which they distributed to the faithful the Eucharist that had been consecrated by the priests in prison.

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In early 1945, as it became ever more clear that Japan was losing the war, the military authorities occupying Papua New Guinea forbade all religious instruction and undertook a program of imposing upon the people the practice of polygamy, wherein the men were to have many wives.

Peter protested vigorously and was soon thrown into prison. Each day Paula brought him his food and dressed his wounds after cruel beatings. Finally, he was dragged from his cell and threatened with death if he would not openly espouse polygamy. He refused and was injected with poison. Since the injection did not kill him immediately as had been expected, he was at length smothered to death by soldiers, while a group of his fellow prisoners looked on in horror.

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In January of 1995, His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, journeyed to Papua New Guinea to proclaim Mr. Peter To Rot - layman, husband, father, citizen, catechist, and martyr - to be Blessed Peter To Rot, well on his way to becoming Saint Peter To Rot.

There are no heroes in this century?

Nonsense! There are many. They are fathers and mothers struggling against incredible odds to rear their children physically, morally, and spiritually, in accord with the Fourth Commandment. They are citizens challenging unjust laws and ill-considered court decisions to protect the unborn, the sick, and the elderly, in accord with the Fifth Commandment. They are young people and adults turning their backs on all manner of filth in the media and entertainments, in accord with the Sixth Commandment.

Their stories are not widely known; but they plod on just the same, trusting in the wisdom of their Creator and the grace of their Redeemer. One of their number is a citizen of the twentieth century by the name of Peter To Rot - a hero whose heroics might assist even the most insecure of us to "wake up," "smell the coffee," and live the Commandments of our God with faith, confidence, and courage.

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