CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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An unassuming yet brilliant missionary

LECCO (SE): A long-time missionary to Hong Kong, Italian-born Father Fernando Galbiati, from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (pime), lost his battle with cancer on February 18.

Born on 14 November 1932 in the Bussero district of Milan, Father Galbiati was the superior general of pime during a highly productive time of growth, which sadly also saw great tragedies between 1983 and 1989.

It was an era of expansion and Father Galbiati saw 62 new members added to the pime society, a rough average of 10 each year. 

One year into his term, on 19 February 1984, he also saw the beatification of Father Giovanni Mazzucconi, who had been martyred in Papua New Guinea in September 1855.

During his term, he oversaw an expansion of the society’s commitment into Taiwan in 1986 and the affiliation of the PIME Philosophy and Theological College in Milan with the Pontifical Urban University in 1987.

In addition, Father Paolo Manna was declared a venerable, the second step towards canonisation, in 1989 (he was beatified in 2001). 

Father Manna had served in the mission of what was then known as Burma in the first half of the 20th century, as well as being superior general of pime for some years.

In Italy, he is credited with being the founder of the Pontifical Missionary Union, which works to promote enthusiasm for foreign mission among diocesan priests.

But Father Galbiati’s time as superior general also saw great tragedies. Father Tullio Favali was murdered in an ambush during the gruesome days of martial law in Mindanao, The Philippines, in 1985. Media reports at the time said that the soldiers who killed him, mutilated his body and danced on his remains.

But Father Galbiati’s missionary heart belonged to Hong Kong. He entered the seminary in Monza in 1943 and on 25 June 1956 was ordained to the priesthood by Giovanni Cardinal Montini, who was later to become Pope Paul VI.

He arrived in Hong Kong in the following year, later becoming a qualified teacher in the British colony in 1960.

Highly gifted academically, Father Galbiati went on to take out a doctorate in political science at the University of Sapienza in Rome in 1976, before becoming a doctor of philosophy from Oxford University in England in 1982.

The publication of his thesis, P’eng Pai and Hai-Lu-Feng Soviet, by Stanford University Press, earned him acceptance as a member of the New York Academy in 1998.

Stanford Press notes, “The pioneer of the Chinese peasant movement finally found the biographer he deserved.”

As a priest in Hong Kong, he worked in several parishes including St. Jude in North Point, Ss. Peter and Paul in Yuen Long, St. Vincent in Hang Hau (1962 to 1965), Mother of Good Counsel in San Po Kong (1966 to 1970; 1989 to 1998), Holy Spirit  in Homantin (1975 to 1983) and Ss. Peter and Paul in Aberdeen (1998 to 1999).

For a few years (1960 to 1962) he taught philosophy at the Holy Spirit Seminary and was active in educational and social fields, especially promoting youth activities, setting up groups of parishioners for visiting families and giving financial support to people in need.

He was part of the production team for the first Chinese Hymnal for the diocese of Hong Kong.

In 1971 he took on responsibility for a pime non-government organisation for humanitarian projects in mission territories, a job he carried until 1975. 

Between 1970 and 1971, he participated in Rome in the Special Updating Assembly and later joined the Ninth General Assembly of pime, at which he was elected superior general.

However, his life’s work was not finished at the completion of his term and he returned to Hong Kong for some years, but in 1999 he was recalled to Rome as the secretary general of the Pontifical Missionary Union, where he remained until 2003 when he became the international coordinator for the Pontifical Societies for the Propagation of the Faith from 2004 to 2005, and then given the task of drawing up a new statute for the four Pontifical Missionary Societies.

At the completion of his work, Ivan Cardinal Dias wrote to him saying, “I feel the need to express to you the most sincere gratitude for the work done in the recent years in a number of positions you held at our office. 

“A work characterised by fidelity, competence and zeal for the pursuit of the high purposes that the missionary activity of the Church requires in our time.”

At that time Father Galbiati called a halt to his colourful public life and lived quietly at the society’s general house in Rome.

In 2015, with failing health, he retired to its home in Lecco, near to the cemetery where the body of the brilliant, yet unassuming missionary priest was laid to rest on February 20.

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