Friday, 19 January 2007

HONG KONG Oldest Chinese Priest Celebrates 110th Birthday

HONG KONG (UCAN) -- Before the ferry anchored, a Trappist monk with a long, white beard was already waving from the pier. Father Nicholaus Kao Se-tsean, 110, then greeted each person as the visitors landed.

An hour-long journey by boat had brought them from downtown Hong Kong to Our Lady of Joy Abbey on Lantau Island. They came to "celebrate the miracle of the longevity of Father Kao," said Dom Anastasius Li, the abbot and main celebrant at a special Mass to celebrate Father Kao's birthday on Jan. 15.

Joining Father Kao as concelebrants were four other Trappist monks and Monsignor Joseph Chiang, director of the National Office for the Chinese Apostolate in the United States. He, like Father Kao, is from Fuzhou diocese in mainland China. "The older the wine, the finer it will be," and the wine in a 110-year-old wineskin is fine indeed, the abbot told the 150 guests from mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Taiwan in his homily.

At the birthday party after the Mass, the honoree blew out candles on three huge birthday cakes, singeing his beard in the process. Catholics honored the centenarian monk by giving him three bows, a Chinese tradition for showing respect to seniors. Speaking in the Fuzhou dialect, Father Kao told the guests he believed he was the oldest priest in the world, edging out a 109-year-old priest in Spain. His remark was translated into Mandarin by Monsignor Chiang, who was born two years after Father Kao's priestly ordination and who served as Father Kao's altar boy in Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province, 1,640 kilometers southeast of Beijing.

"The Blessed Mother believed I had been good and asked Jesus to give me 100 years of life. When I turned 100, she asked Jesus to add 10 more," the senior monk joked, removing rosary beads from his pocket. He said he has used them every day for 74 years. Father Kao's grandnephew Kao Bin came with his wife from Fuzhou. The couple, with whom the elderly priest stayed several times before, on visits, told UCA News that their granduncle's respect for the Blessed Mother and his filial piety to his mother have greatly impacted the younger generation.
Father Kao was born in Changle city, in Fuzhou diocese, in 1897, and was baptized in 1915. After being ordained a priest in 1933, he served in the cathedral parish. He then spent 40 years preaching in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. He survived two world wars, including difficult times during the Japanese occupation of China (1937-1945).

Tang Shi, one of about 20 Taiwan Catholics who came to wish him well, told UCA News his father, he and his son were Father Kao's altar boys. "I came to pay my respect on behalf of my departed parents," Tang said. Nineteen parishioners from Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish of Sibu diocese in Sarawak state, eastern Malaysia, came to the Mass and party. They told UCA News most Chinese Catholics in Sibu are migrants from Fuzhou and "felt a kind of closeness" when Father Kao was there. He often visited parishioners' families and catechumens, they recalled, crediting him for reviving the Chinese Catholic community by re-engaging members who left because they could not understand English liturgies.

In 1972, at age 75, Father Kao left pastoral ministry to enter the Hong Kong community of Trappists, formally the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. He made his perpetual vows at the age of 100. The community has 16 members, most of advanced age. The abbot, in his mid-40s, said having elderly confreres is a blessing. Dom Anastasius told UCA News that some of the monks were not present because they celebrated with their oldest member on Jan. 14 and had returned to their contemplative routine.

Father Kao told UCA News at the celebration that he too prays every day for world peace and evangelization. He added that having done so much in his life, he is satisfied. The one thing left to do, that he has never done, he said, would be "returning to the heavenly Father."