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As he approaches his 90th birthday, Fr Hilary Tagliaferro welcomes Mark Laurence Zammit into a Millennium Chapel buzzing with life. He recalls his friendship with Pelé, the time he unknowingly gave a lift to an escaped prisoner and the occasion he eulogised the wrong person at a funeral.

“When you’ve lived as long as I have, you’re bound to have made a few gaffes,” Fr Hilary Tagliaferro jokes as he reminisces on his 65-year Augustinian vocation and illustrious football career.

 

One of his stories people love to hear is about the time he unknowingly gave a ride to a man who had escaped from prison.

It was in the 1990s, when Melchior Spiteri, notorious for his ability to break out of jail, had been on the run for three days.

Fr Hilary had a job at Ta’ Qali as a technical director with the Malta Football Association. Three times a week, after work, he would go to the prisons to spend some time with inmates as part of his pastoral work.

One day he was driving out of Ta’ Qali and heading towards the Paola prison when a pedestrian thumbed a lift and Fr Hilary took him aboard. It was Spiteri.

Fr Hilary did not recognise him and they struck up a conversation. Spiteri played it cool – until they arrived in Ħamrun, where he asked where Fr Hilary was going.

“To prison,” Fr Hilary said.

“Oh, ok... you can drop me here then,” Spiteri was quick to reply.

“Of course, he wanted to get out of that car immediately,” Fr Hilary recalled with a giggle.

“I would have driven him back to prison.”

Still unaware of the man’s identity, Fr Hilary arrived at Corradino.

“As I walked into the prison, some guards were watching the news. And there it was, Melchior’s face, with the newscaster saying he had not yet been found.

“I gasped and told the guards, ‘I just gave that man a lift!’”

He says that had he recognised Spiteri, he still would not have driven him to prison but would have tried to persuade him to turn himself in.

“I’m not the police and I don’t agree with the way prison works anyway because it’s merely vindictive,” he said.

“I don’t believe anyone should be in prison. Some people must be kept away from society because they are harmful, but the majority must be rehabilitated, and prison doesn’t do that.”

When funerals go wrong

Two of Fr Hilary’s more embarrassing gaffes happened at funerals.

As he gave his eulogy during the funeral of a beloved football player from Birkirkara, he praised the town for producing great players over the years and listed several club players who had previously passed away.

“I mentioned one player by his nickname, saying he had unfortunately also left us, only to see someone from the back of the church waving and yelling, ‘Ey! I’m here, I’m still alive!’”

Even more embarrassing was the mix-up he made at another funeral.

“I got a call from a woman who informed me that someone we knew had died. She told me who he was and I pictured who I thought this man was, and was truly sad to hear about the loss,” he said.

“It was clear in my head who she was referring to, and when they asked me to say the funeral mass for him I made sure I spoke highly of him. During the eulogy I spoke about his character, his values and qualities, all the while picturing this man who I thought had died.

“At the end of the mass, this man walked up to receive communion. I froze. I didn’t even have the strength to hand him the host. To this day, I still don’t know who actually died.”

Friendship with Pelé

The 89-year-old has done it all in sports, and he thinks he is probably the first friar in the world to also become a football coach.

He was a sports commentator, a technical director with the MFA and a sports journalist. He opened an educational sports complex and was the coach for Hibernians FC. On occasion, when the team did not have enough players to make up a reserve team, he even doubled as a player.

His rich career also saw him forge an unusual friendship with the legendary Pelé.

They first met when Fr Hilary flew to Mexico as a sports journalist for the 1970 World Cup. He was introduced to Pelé by a fellow journalist after one of the Brazilian team’s training sessions.

“Pelé was a very religious and devout man, so when I told him I was a priest, we instantly became friends.”

Pelé, who was at the peak of his career at the time, respected the priest so much that when he visited Malta in 1975 he knelt before him to ask for his blessing.

“I adored the man as a player, so I couldn’t believe it when he knelt before me in his hotel room before he left Malta.”

Hibs v Man U

During his tenure as Hibernians FC coach, Fr Hilary led the team against footballing giants Manchester United.

The historic match, played on September 27, 1967, at Gżira’s Empire Stadium in front of a crowd of 25,000 people, ended with a 0-0 score – a remarkable feat for the Maltese minnows.

It was the away match a week earlier, at Old Trafford, that turned out to be the scary one for Fr Hilary.

“Fans of these big teams traditionally welcome their players onto the pitch with a huge roar, and that’s what they did as our team and Sir Matt Busby’s team walked out of the tunnel.

“It was so loud I was petrified. It made me feel so small.”

Hibs lost that game 4-0 but Fr Hilary came away satisfied that it wasn’t a humiliation.

Too excited

Fr Hilary’s passion for football was the very reason he had to cut back on it. During his commentaries, he would get so hyped up and absorbed in the game that it was overwhelming him.

One time, during a national team match, Carmel Busuttil (Il-Bużu) was very close to scoring.

“I got so excited that I started yelling ‘goal, goal, goal’ before the ball had even hit the net,” he said.

“That day I scored before Il-Bużu did. Eventually I stopped commentating because I was getting too excited.”

‘Overcoaching’

Still brimming with passion for football, he says two factors have impacted the game negatively.

One of them is that young children are being overcoached.

“Children should be trained to be physically fit but we’re giving them too much training in how to play, and I see this everywhere in the football world.

“Sometimes we just need to give children a ball and let them shoot it around and explore their creativity with it, because we’re stifling their natural talent by constantly telling them how they should be playing.”

The other factor is money – there’s just too much of it and football has become just another capitalist enterprise, he says.

Corruption in football does bother him but he acknowledges it is everywhere nowadays, not just in sports.

He also agrees that Ħamrun club president and construction magnate Joseph Portelli should not have been allowed to play with his team last year, as it would have denigrated the game.

“Businesspeople can help football greatly but they must understand their place. You cannot bring the game into disrepute,” he said.

“Having said that, as a coach, I did play for Hibs, but only in the reserve team and only when we couldn’t manage to find enough players to make a reserve team.”

Another thing that bothers him: politicians should not meddle in the game and “politics should stay out of football”, he said, stopping short of mentioning Joseph Muscat’s involvement in the game as chairman of the Malta Professional Football Clubs Association.

Politico-religious controversy

As a priest and a sportsman, Tagliaferro also needed to navigate the politico-religious struggle between the Church and the Labour Party in the 1960s.

They were tough and ugly times, he said, and both sides made mistakes.

“I never felt any Labour supporter was sinning by reading the Labour newspaper, for instance. It was a tough time being a priest and trying to bridge the gaps and be of service to people.

“I would spend a lot of time in clubs, however, and I was accepted by everyone there, because in their eyes I was a sportsman more than I was a priest. That’s how I managed to live my calling in those days.”

He said the Church wronged people in many ways but only the Church was then courageous enough to apologise and ask for forgiveness.

“No other party ever asked for forgiveness or ever acknowledged they also wronged the Church,” he said. “That must also be said.”

Fr Hilary was involved in so many projects that were not synonymous with the Church that he would sometimes doubt whether he was ever meant to be a priest.

“I think I caused some worry to my parents about this, because I don’t think they expected me to choose the priesthood and then do all these other things on the side.

“But Archbishop Gonzi never ever stopped me from doing any of it.”

Fr Hilary was not very keen on asking for permission either. If he feels something is right in his conscience, he will go ahead and do it.

“Why do I need to ask for permission if I feel it’s the right thing to do? My conscience is my guidance, and that’s enough,” he said.

“This is why I drove a Lambretta, for instance. Priests didn’t drive them back then, but I did.

“One priest asked me what he could do to drive one as well and I just told him to buy one and drive it. He thought he needed some kind of special permission.”

The Lambretta did get Tagliaferro in some hot water though when someone reported him to Archbishop Gonzi for giving rides to young blonde women.

“I did give a ride to a young blonde but it was a man,” he clarified. “He had let his hair grow and people thought he was a woman.”

Wife and children

The Augustinian friar is turning 90 this year and there is no stopping him. He still runs the Millennium Chapel, which is full of activity throughout the day.

“Sometimes I think to myself... how is it possible that I lived this long?” he said.

He has no regrets. “I do sometimes get doubts whether I should have become a friar – whether this was what God really wanted of me.

“Sometimes I miss not having a family – a wife and children, because I love the family. That is the only doubt I have, and that’s why I agree with the Archbishop when he says there should be the option for priests to marry.”

Friars should still not be allowed to marry, he said, as part of their calling is living in the community with other friars, but maybe God is signalling to the Church that it is time for priests to have the option.

He admits, however, that had he married and had children, he would certainly not have had enough time and energy to create the Millennium Chapel and all the projects connected to it.

“Anyway, the Church will certainly open up that option. Things are naturally going in that direction. It won’t happen in my time, but it will certainly happen in yours.”

A better Paceville

Fr Hilary believes the state of Paceville is now better than it was in the 1980s. Excessive alcohol consumption, drug abuse and fighting were worse then, when all of Malta’s youngsters would congregate there and disrupt the peace and quiet of many residents.

“Residents have now left, and hotels and restaurants have largely taken their place, making Paceville less disrupting for residents and creating an overall better atmosphere than the one I remember.

“That is when we should have built the Millennium Chapel. We were already late in 2000.”

Fr Hilary is often invited to bless new clubs in Paceville before they open their doors. He does not feel this jars in any way.

“Who am I to refuse to bless a club if they want me to? Who am I to judge what will happen there?”

Paceville is Malta’s showcase because most people who visit Malta go there, he said, yet the authorities have abandoned it for decades.

“To this day, there isn’t even a police station here. Not even a public convenience.”

Poverty

He was recently quoted comparing today’s poverty with the kind of poverty he saw as a child during the war, but says his comment was slightly misinterpreted.

It is not that poverty nowadays is as widespread as during the war – many people are not poor nowadays – but the situation for those who are poor resembles wartime poverty.

“We haven’t seen people beg for food in decades but this phenomenon is happening throughout the capitalist world.

“Having said that, the situation is balanced by wealthy people who are generously keeping our food programmes going.”

The Millennium Chapel is open every day from 8am till 11pm, offering a sandwich roll and a hot drink to whoever needs it. Thirty people – Maltese and foreigners from all over the island – show up for that every day, he says.

He and his team also host a weekly lunch for around 25 people and provide a monthly box of groceries to around 200 means-tested families.

“Some families genuinely don’t have enough food to make lunch for their children, and others cannot afford to pay €10 for their child’s school outing,” he said.

The team helps some families to buy medicines, offers free professional counselling, hosts alcoholics and narcotics anonymous meetings and organises programmes for school students.

Not bothered by death

As he approaches his 90th birthday, Fr Hilary acknowledges that death is impending.

But it doesn’t bother or scare him, and he doesn’t think about it. He expects to go to heaven, anyway.

“Of course I expect to go to heaven! Everyone goes there anyway, that’s what I believe.

“I think hell will be empty in the end, because God loves us too much not to allow us into heaven.”

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