CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 June 2019

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In memory of Father Fernando Galbiati a scholar and a missionary

Father Galbiati had great vision, a great capacity for work and managment, but found it hard to consider the human aspect of people under his leadership

On February 27, in the church of Our Lady of Good Counsel at San Po Kong, the Hong Kong Catholic community bade farewell to Father Fernando Galbiati, from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME).

The Mass was celebrated by John Cardinal Tong Hon, who himself was a close friend of Father Galbiati, and a large group of people and concelebrants from PIME and the diocese joined him.

One among them, Father Moses Ngai Tak-man, the parish priest at St. Jude’s in North Point, spoke with fondness of Father Galbiati, remembering how his good example positively influenced his own priestly vocation.

Father Galbiati, the 12th superior general of PIME, died at the age of 84 on 18 February 2017. It was the feast of St. Alberico Crescitelli, a martyr in China and the only saint of our PIME institute.

Father Galbiati had been sick for some time and towards the end his condition had worsened.

Father Franco Cumbo, the rector of the PIME Rest House at Lecco in Italy and a missionary companion from Hong Kong, said that he died in peace, conscious of his condition and without much suffering.

It is comforting to know that he died peacefully, because Father Galbiati was an exuberant character and a strong personality. It was not for nothing that his confrères in Hong Kong jokingly called him Number One.

Those who met him were fascinated by his cultural demeanour, intelligence and generosity. At times of great enthusiasm and when displaying his great leadership skills, he could alternate between the couth and the uncouth, sometimes expressing himself without the cultural sophistication of his charming side.

He could be hard on people and about some situations. Meeting him was not always a pleasure. But we must recognise that he knew his shortcomings and held regret for them.

As soon as it was feasible, he would do something to take back what he had done with an elegance and kindness that did him credit and transformed the unpleasant into a charming relief.

Father Galbiati ministered in several parishes around Hong Kong and Our Lady of Good Counsel in San Po Kong, where his memorial Mass was celebrated, was one of them.

In the early 1960s, he struck on the idea of hiring a cameraman to mingle among the parishioners and collect candid shots of the life of the people and the parish. Today this is precious and historical material.

After the Mass on February 27, a short video edited by the Diocesan Audio Visual Centre, was put on a big screen, touching all present. 

The video, carrying images of Catholic life in early 1960s can be viewed online at

Father Galbiati’s greatest passion was higher education and academic studies. In 1975, at the Yu Chun Keung College, he inaugurated new approaches into religious studies and the running of the school.

In the same years, he made a detailed investigation into the feasibility of a Catholic university in Hong Kong. His dream was not realised then, yet his intuition is now a reality with the university recently having been established by the diocese at what was known as the Caritas Institute of Higher Education in Tseung Kwan O.

Father Galbiati was fond of study. He became a qualified teacher with the Hong Kong Department of Education in 1960; a doctor of Political Science from the University of Rome in 1976; and above all, a Doctor of Philosophy at Oxford University in England in 1982.

He was particularly proud of reading at Oxford and with good reason. His thesis on P'eng Pai, a Communist leader of the first hour and a possible alternative to Mao, is really important for a balanced understanding of the origins of the Communist revolution in China.

His research was appreciated by historians and published by the prestigious Stanford University, California (1985). Then in 1998, Father Galbiati was made a member of the Academy of Science of New York.

His election as superior general (1983 to 1989) as successor to Father Fedele Giannini who had refused to run for a second term, surprised many and, perhaps, even himself.

Father Galbiati had great vision, a great capacity for work and management, but found it hard to consider the human aspect of people under his leadership.

However, his tenure as superior general was significant. They were difficult years and he governed the institute with a firm hand. He paid attention to China’s development, hoping, like many others at the end of the 1980s, that this great country would open up to missionary activity.

For this reason, he decided, against the advice of many, to start a mission in Taiwan and to prepare some missionaries linguistically and culturally for China.

He chose me too, and I remember well when the news came to me in May 1989, at the time the students in Beijing were demonstrating in Tiananmen Square.

It was a time of great hope and emotion that touched the whole world, and me too. 

Father Galbiati explained to me that I would have to study the language and prepare for China. He did not want to underestimate the prospects that, at that time, were opening up.

Unfortunately the June 4 massacre of students burned those hopes. But Father Galbiati did not stop promoting attention to China in other ways.

It was also during his tenure of office that the AsiaNews agency was established in Rome in 1986 giving worldwide Catholic news on a daily basis.

When his term was over, Father Galbiati, despite being no longer young, went to Taipei to study Mandarin, conscious that mainland China had a significantly increasing power and influence in Hong Kong.

Cardinal Tong, the incumbent bishop of Hong Kong, who holds him in high esteem, appointed Father Galbiati to the board of governors of the Holy Spirit Study Centre, a most important institution for research on the Catholic Church in China.

I worked there as a researcher and I have personally experienced Father Galbiati’s broad-mindedness.

His interest in China also continued in the tasks assigned to him by the Holy See at the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples (Propaganda Fide) from 1999 to 2007.

He certainly gave fair-minded attention to all the needs of the missionary world, but I can testify to his dedication to the Church in China.

He initiated a magazine in Shanghai for the formation of the laity, religious and priests throughout China. Father John Baptist Zhang, the leader of Jinde Charities in China, recognised the support he received from Father Galbiati in a message to the PIME regional superior.

“The Church in China has lost a faithful friend. We Chinese clergy and faithful will not forget him, as he had done so much for us. We now have a patron in heaven,” Father Tsang said.

In Rome Father Galbiati did excellent work and this has been acknowledged.

He often dismissed generic judgments describing the Vatican as a place of corruption and disengagement.

He said that he met many conscientious and hard-working people there. And certainly he was one of them.

He spent his last years in the PIME House in Rome. His attempt to write a history of the PIME missionary activity in China was frustrated by his sickness, which he accepted with resignation.

Fernando Galbiati was born at Bussero, Milan, on 14 November 1932. In 1943 he entered the PIME Seminary in Monza and was ordained a priest in the Milan cathedral by Giovanni Cardinal Montini on 28 June 1956.

The following year he left for Hong Kong, where he devoted himself with intelligence and generosity to the work of mission, the primary and only dedication of his life here on this earth.

May he rest in peace.



              • Gianni Criveller PIME