Fr. Mario Conte with fr. Giuseppe Ungaro
Giovanni Voltan/Archivio MSA

IN 1971 I was going through a life crisis: I was unhappy with my love life, my job and, above all, my spiritual life. Something was wrong, and I didn’t know what to do.

It was in that dark moment that the good Lord made me meet an extraordinary Franciscan friar who was to revolutionize my life: Fr. Giuseppe Ungaro.

In the course of five years I got to know him well, and from him I learned to love St. Francis, religious life and selfless service to the poor. Through this encounter I entered the Conventual Franciscan Order in October 1976, exactly 40 years ago.

Fr. Giuseppe, who was baptized in the shrine of Arcella (the place where St. Anthony passed away), has always had two great priorities in life: preaching the love of God and helping the poor, which is basically our dear St. Anthony’s motto: Gospel & Charity.

Fr. Giuseppe has preached throughout Italy, and has formed various Franciscan groups, such as The Friends of St. Francis, to which I myself belonged in my younger days. In 1972 he created the Wardrobe for the Poor, a sort of charity outlet consisting of a large hall filled with shelves loaded with clothes, kitchen utensils and other home items, all free for the poor. This initiative receives its goods from private donations and from firms desiring to give away excess material.

In his long life Fr. Giuseppe has had the great privilege of knowing five saints: Padre Pio, Leopold Mandić, Maximilian Kolbe, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, as well as Blessed Pope Paul VI.

“I wanted to become a missionary,” Fr. Giuseppe recalls, “but it was actually Padre Pio, during confession, who predicted that my destiny was to remain in Italy. Padre Pio could be abrupt at times, but this was only with those who approached him out of mere curiosity; with people of genuine faith he was a gentle, fatherly figure. 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!’”

Fr. Giuseppe also has definite memories of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. He was impressed by the Polish friars’ meekness when he met him during his stay in the friary of the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. “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.”

Fr. Giuseppe was a novice when he met Leopold Mandić. “I was not allowed to go to him for confession because the novice master said he was too soft. 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. He used to come on foot, and sometimes he complained that youngsters would make fun of him because of his small stature (a mere 4 feet 5 inches) and his clumsy gait.

“Once Fr. Leopold absolved a man who had just been denied absolution. When the other confessor saw the man receiving Holy Communion he became furious with Fr. Leopold. The humble friar, however, replied, ‘You confess according to your conscience, I confess according to mine.’”

Fr. Giuseppe also had a personal relationship with Pope John XXIII. This occurred when he was parish priest in the famous Frari Basilica in Venice, and Roncalli was Patriarch of the city. “One day I was asked to confess an Orthodox priest I knew, who was dying. After confession that priest asked me to give him Holy Communion. Not knowing what to do I turned to the Patriarch, who told me, “Some things are done without permission because the sacraments are there to serve humanity. If you ask permission from Rome you’ll get a response in maybe three years from now. By that time the poor priest will be dead and the response from Rome may even be a negative one!”

Fr. Giuseppe also preached to and celebrated Mass with Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.

On 27 May Fr. Giuseppe will turn 97, and I, who sit on his right hand side in the refectory, will be the happiest friar in the community. I bless the Lord for having given me this very special man as a second father. Though he did not generate me physically, he certainly generated in me something of his great love for Jesus, St. Francis and St. Anthony.

Dear Fr. Giuseppe, you have blessed many lives in your faithful ministry, may you be blessed greatly in return. Happy birthday!


Updated on September 30 2016
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