January has been a busy month. I was in Hungary doing communications/public speaking workshops each Tuesday and then doing the same in Ireland each Thursday. My brain is addled. I’m now in Malta gearing up for more of the same. I’ve been preaching the importance of vocal variety, eye contact, body language, facial expressions, gestures, pauses, voice projection and the myriad other elements that go into good communication and watching participants improve week on week. All very rewarding.
In my layperson’s capacity, though, I’ve marvelled at how professional preachers don’t do justice to the time they’re given. Each Saturday or Sunday, they have anything from 3 to 15 minutes in front of a captive audience – and for the most part, in my experience, that time is wasted.
A few years back, I got so teed off by this criminal waste of face time that I recorded sermons I’d have given were I a priest or a vicar or a pastor. No longer than three minutes each contained what I liked to think of as relevant stuff.
I’m a regular mass goer. I’ve had mass in a host of different languages. And while I might not understand what is being said, so much can be gleaned from said eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, body language, and so on. But it would seem that it’s my lot to be constantly disappointed. Apart from a mass in Geneva some years ago, one in Bangalore a lifetime ago, and one in the village late last year, I can’t recall any that have been close to riveting, let alone relevant.
When in Malta, I stay in St Julian’s. It’s handy for pretty much everywhere. I stay in the same hotel close to Paceville. I have three churches to choose from and on Sunday, I chose Imqaddsa Marija, Omm tal-Parir it-Tajjeb (Our Lady, Mother of Good Counsel) as 11.30 mass was in English.
They had an MC, a chap who came out on the altar and explained that the large screens would show the order of the mass so that people could follow along. It was a very international congregation and I noticed more than one person glued to the text, perhaps, like me, having difficulty quickly spoken Maltese-accented English. He pointed out the crying room and suggested that parents with young children, parents who were concerned the children might disturb the congregation during mass should use is (a relief).
The priest, an energetic man in his eighties wearing a headset mic, owned the altar. He asked us all to say hello to those around us before he began. He then talked briefly about how it’s enough to want to be a better person, to try to do good, to be kind. In two short minutes, he nailed the rapport, established who we were, and gave us a reason to care.
The second reading was from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, one you’ve no doubt heard if you’ve ever been to a church wedding. This he focused on his sermon.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
I’ve heard that passage a million times but until Fr Hilary Tagliaferro re-read it in his sermon, its meaning had never quite sunk home. I’d always equated it with romantic love – not the commandment of love, not how I treat everyone I meet, every day. In an arresting performance, he asked if we were ready to live it. To try at least. He made it all so relevant. He spoke with a passion and enthusiasm that’s been missing from my church experience for a while.
Fr Hilary Tagliaferro
I was so taken with this model of excellence when it comes to public speaking – he had form, content, engagement – that I asked the lady next to me who he was and then I went to Google. I discovered that Fr Hilary Tagliaferro used to be a sports journalist and was a great friend of Brazilian footballer, Pele. And that he ministers at my favourite church in Malta, The Millennium Chapel, open 24/7 in the heart of Malta’s nightlife (Paceville) – known locally as a pit stop for inner peace. I can see why he’d be popular with the younger contingent. This wasn’t a rote performance. He wasn’t going through the motions. Every word he spoke during the entire mass was imbued with a faith that was palpable.
At the end of a long month, I’m grateful that I got to hear Fr Hilary Tagliaferro in person. He was quite the tonic.