In Greek, “poly” means multiple, but for many Catholics in Ilocos Norte, the word is more associated with “long.” Uncomfortably, unnecessarily, unbearably long.
Fr. Policarpio “Poly” Albano, currently rector of St. William’s Cathedral in Laoag and former parish priest of Batac and Dingras towns, is known in all the parishes he has served for his kilometric homilies that are desperately wanting in coherence and organization.
Maria, a Batac parishioner who is now based overseas, laments, “Kapag nagsesermon siya, natutulog ako. Paggising ko, nagsesermon pa rin siya kaya matutulog ulit ako. Mga lagpas kalahating oras siyang salita lang nang salita. Halos wala na nga talagang nakikinig sa kanya. Napaka-monotonous niya at paulit-ulit-ulit-ulit-ulit talaga. Ang boring boring. Walang emosyon. Going around the bush. Walang pinatutunguhan ang sermon niya.”
Magenta, a Cathedral churchgoer, says she would rather skip mass than listen to Fr. Poly deliver a homily. “Kapag nalaman kong siya ang magmimisa, hindi na lang ako tumutuloy. Kasi lalo akong magkakasala kung nakaupo ako sa simbahan pero naiinis ako dahil ‘yung pari ay nakakaubos talaga ng pasensiya dahil sa napakahabang sermon niya na paikot-ikot. Torture talaga!” Magenta, not her real name, is a teacher, and thus knows the necessity of proper lesson planning and class preparation. Surely, Magenta knows that quantity never compensates quality, that length of delivery never makes up for lack of preparation.
I really can’t imagine, dear karikna, how insensitive a speaker one could be to continue to blabber and not notice that the faithful are either sleeping or squirming in their seats.
What many churchgoers lament is that Fr. Poly’s sermons just go around in circles. For instance, when he gives the cue “Kamaudiananna” (Lastly) it does not mean the homily is anywhere near its end. “Lastly,” in Fr. Poly’s case, means the homily is around one half delivered. He would proceed to repeat the same things he has tackled earlier in the homily, not for style nor emphasis, but simply for evident lack of structure.
Some well-meaning parishioners have mustered enough courage to provide Fr. Poly feedback regarding his uber-long homilies. But the good priest dismissed the comments simply by saying,
“Ammuyo, no atiddog ti sermonko kayat na a sao-en ket nasalun-atak.” (When I deliver long sermons, It means I am healthy.) But what if one’s indicator of health makes other people sick?
When I was still working in Manila, I chanced at a mass at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City. I got hooked with the priest’s homily so much that I decided to attend masses there every Sunday. And why? At the end of his discourse, you feel loved. You realize that the world can be a better place. You feel assured that healing, in its various forms, is really coming your way. That you never have to suffer alone. And that the coming of God’s kingdom is one exciting event all Christians should eagerly await and look forward to. The Sunday mass at the hospital was in its barest form. No choir. No altar boys. No lectors and lay ministers. No pomp and pageantry at all. The priest would do all the readings and perform all the rituals without help. After some months of attending mass there, I volunteered to do the first and second readings and the responsorial psalm in between. I felt honored to help the priest whose name, I later learned, is Fr. Joe.
Only after two years of attending masses at St. Luke’s did I find out that Fr. Joe is not Catholic, but Episcopalian. It’s not that he hid it, it’s that I never asked. It, in fact, did not matter. He touched my life and enriched my soul. By his carefully crafted sermons, he became to me a true channel of God’s grace. I would listen to anyone from any religion who could accomplish that.
I agree that priests may bear various charisms or gifts—that some may have better communication skills than others—but that is not an excuse for delivering poorly crafted, overextended sermons. Not now in this age of rapid advances in technology and communication and of short attention spans and intetactivity where priests should all the more exert effort to make their homilies both relevant and interesting.
One of the many things I admire about Pope Francis—in addition to his simplicity and out-of-the box thinking that gives primacy to love over dogma—is his ability to clearly get the message across. In posing for the historic first papal selfie together with a group of teenagers, the Holy Father delivered a very strong message: the Church must reach out.. it must touch base.. it must adjust if it were to survive.
In fairness, Fr. Poly is considered by many as one of the better priests in the Diocese. His around four decades of priestly service is untainted by scandals other priests had to face, mainly on money matters and sex. “Straight na straight ang paring ‘yan,” attests Prof. Fides Bitanga, who teaches Sociology of Religion in a state university. No doubt, Fr. Poly is well respected, and for that he deserves much credit. But an important part of being a good priest is delivering God’s message in effective ways… and within the limits of human patience. Penitensya can be good for the soul, but it does not have to come in the form of lengthy sermons, and all year round.
Another priest at the Cathedral is said to deliver shallow homilies that neither appeal to the mind nor to the heart. If only he could have even a tenth of the brilliant mind and speaking prowess of his Uncle, a former parish priest in the Cathedral who now serves in a higher capacity in another Diocese, it would be enough, Laoag parishioners say.
I decided to write about this only after Magenta and other readers shared that they’d rather skip mass upon knowing that it is Fr. Poly who is officiating mass. If a priest’s homilies start driving people away instead of drawing them closer to God, should not some rethinking be done?
Curiously, priests took up during their seminary formation a course called homiletics. In theology, it is the application of the general principles of rhetoric to the specific department of public preaching. Seminarians spend at least an entire semester just to learn how to craft homilies. There is no way we could know what Fr. Poly’s grade was in that subject, but there is no doubt now that he needs a refresher course. Meanwhile, Bishop Renato Mayugba must encourage his priests to continuously improve in both manner and method in their mission to spread God’s word. And God’s word, dear karikna, must not be clouded by a homilist’s own doing or remiss. When people go out of the Church after the mass, they must remember something, a golden lesson, something they should strive to live by. Yes, something meaningful must be imprinted in their consciousness. It is really sorry if all they could remember is that the homily was very long and unengaging.
Length, dear karikna, is relative. You can listen to a great speech for an hour and still feel bitin and wanting for more at the end. In the same breath, you can listen to a lackluster homily for a few minutes, with every second feeling like years leading to eternity. Fr. Poly’s sermons are both lengthy and lackluster, and that surely spells disaster.
My mom, a devout Catholic and church volunteer, strongly requested me not to write about this, reminding me that “priests have offered their whole lives for God.”
But if indeed priests have have offered their whole lives for God, then surely it would not hurt them to spare a few hours to sit down and carefully craft homilies that make their thirsty flock realize the joy and meaning the gospel brings in our time.
As it is, the world is already experiencing more suffering than humanity could bear. No need for priests to compound it further by their uncomfortably, unnecessarily, unbearably long and aimless homilies.