He died earlier this year, but not without passing on their witness of holiness in his words and deeds.
Fr. Giuseppe Ungaro died in May of this year. The Italian Franciscan was 99 years old, according to the conventional reckoning, but he liked to point out that he had already been alive for 9 months before he was born. By that count, he was 100 when he passed away. In 2018, he had received the seal of the city of Padua in recognition for dedicating his life to helping others. Throughout the 10 decades of his journey through this world, Fr. Giuseppe got to know no fewer than six saints in person, and shared his memories of them with Fr. Mario Conte, one of his confréres, who wrote about it in 2016 (although another saint has been added to the list since then, with the canonization of Paul VI).
Of the saints he met, three were popes. He met St. John XXIII while he was still the Patriarch of Venice, where Fr. Giuseppe had been assigned to work at the Frari Basilica. He spoke of the saintly pope in an interview in the St. Anthony Messenger: “We knew each other well. He often came to lunch at our convent in Venice.” St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II both visited the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, where Fr. Giuseppe lived for nearly 50 years.
He also met three great Franciscan saints:
St. Leopold Mandic is a Capuchin saint from Croatia, famous as a particularly kind and gentle confessor, and described by Fr. Giuseppe as “a man of great humility, sensitivity towards others, and great wisdom.” Fr. Giuseppe was impressed by the time they spent together: “He used to come to the Basilica every Wednesday. He would first pay his respects to St. Antony at the Tomb, and then head straight for the confessional, where he used to administer the sacrament for hours on end.”
St. Maximilian Kolbe is a well-known martyr of Nazi Germany, killed in the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Since he was also a Franciscan, Fr. Giuseppe and he crossed paths on various occasions. Fr. Giuseppe described one of those encounters: “He had just returned from Japan, and was very sad because of a humiliation he had experienced there. Despite this, he still had great faith and a great love for Our Lady. It was Maximilian who encouraged me to make a vow to Our Lady: that of giving up smoking, and from that day I quit forever.”
Perhaps the most famous of the Franciscan saints that Fr. Giuseppe met is St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. Fr. Giuseppe met him during World War II while serving as the pastor of a church in Sabaudia in central Italy. He developed a personal relationship with the saint, to whom he went for confession. Fr. Giuseppe said, “I remember that I once took his hands and kissed them, asking if the stigmata were painful, and he replied, ‘Well, God didn’t give them to me as an enjoyment!’”
Might Fr. Giuseppe end up being recognized as a saint as well?
He certainly worked hard enough; at the age of 99, he continued to wake up every day at 3:30 a.m. for prayer and adoration, followed by celebrating Mass and then visiting families in need of spiritual or human assistance, including former convicts. In the words of the saint, “Every man and woman has their own dignity. And it must be defended. And in every person, Jesus is present.”
The mayor of Padua described Fr. Giuseppe in the following terms during the ceremony awarding the friar the seal of the city:
“I was fascinated by him when I met him. During this time when we are all in difficulty humanly speaking, he reminds us that each one of us can be a missionary in his own land; that to do good, we don’t have to rule the world, and that here around us there are so many people who need our help. He tells us that we can do good discreetly and humbly, not because poverty should be hidden like something offensive, but because above all we must respect the dignity of those who experience poverty in their own skin.”
The gentle and devout Franciscan friar left this life on May 22, 2019, five days before celebrating his 100th birthday, but nearly nine months after celebrating 100 years of life, time in the womb included. May he be granted eternity in heaven, where he can intercede for us and inspire us to recognize both the saints around us and those who need us to become saints!