Gospel for a long life according to 108-year-old priest

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 July, 2005, 12:00am

Don't smoke, eat less and exercise more are common tips for a long life, but when the advice comes from a 108-year-old priest, it should be taken as gospel.

Father Nicolaus Kao Se Tseien is listed in the Guinness World Records as the oldest Catholic priest. He was born two months before Soong May-ling, the wife of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, and she died in 2003, aged 106.

Attempts to confirm he is the oldest person in Hong Kong have so far failed because the only government statistics available are from 2001, which show there were 697 people over 100.

Father Kao is about to be recognised as holding another world record - the oldest person to have a cataract operation. In a wheelchair at St Paul's Hospital for a check-up after the operation in May, the sprightly Father Kao is gleeful about his regained sight. 'My legs have not got enough strength to walk, but I can see clearly now. You are beautiful,' he smiles. 'I can read the Bible and all the good books now. It is great.'

Despite requiring a wheelchair at times, he loves to chat and always asks people to guess his age. Many usually say he is in his 80s, and he proudly tells them he is 108 years and five months old.

'I was born January 15, 1897. I am five years older than the [South China Morning] Post,' he says.

Born in the Qing dynasty, he was the third of four brothers from a Fuzhou teacher's family.

He studied at a Catholic school, joined the priesthood at 18 and was a missionary for 40 years in Taiwan, Malaysia and the mainland. There have been 10 popes in his lifetime and when he reached his 100th birthday, he received a congratulatory message from Pope John Paul II, who also bestowed on him the apostolic blessing in recognition of his 'dedicated priestly ministry'.

Arriving in Hong Kong 32 years ago, Father Kao has spent most of his time at Lantau Island's Trappist Monastery, well known for its milk, where he still lives.

He leads a quiet life, usually going to bed at 8pm and rising at 3.30am, and spends his time growing vegetables, reading the Bible and exercising. 'I do not watch television or listen to the radio,' he says. 'If you see something bad on these channels, it is very difficult to get it out of your mind.'

Asked how he has lived to such a ripe old age, Father Kao rattles off the seven don'ts - don't smoke, get angry, be greedy, get drunk, overeat, stop exercising or stop praying - and the seven do's - have faith, love, modesty, a good heart, treat your parents well, be happy and be consistent. Of all these rules, he is particularly ardent on not smoking, which he sees as the No 1 rule for a long life.