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Homilies: A Means for Spiritual Development

In an article posted by Jane Harriman of the Catholic News Service last July 20, 2004 entitled "Homilies: What makes for a good one?" there was a reference to a survey done in the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware which showed that the number one way adults get information about their faith is from homilies. Edmund F. Gordon who wrote about this survey added, "Homilies are far and away the single most important source for like 97 percent of our adults."

If this is so homilies are very crucial for the spiritual development of Christians. If they are fed with good spiritual food by the homilies and sermons they hear they will grow spiritually. If they are fed with rubbish their spiritual life will also be rubbish. Since most depend only on the homily for their spiritual growth, it is crucial that life-giving and growth-developing homilies be prepared and given to the church attenders so that they may grow spiritually.

Homilies can be a means for spiritual development if they contain both these two qualities.

Transformative, Not Just Prescriptive

The first quality of a homily that can further spiritual development is that it is transformative, not prescriptive. This means that it is a homily which does not just tell the listeners what to do, but right there and then as they listen the Holy Spirit does something in their lives to change them for the better.

Most of the time the impression given us by homilies and sermons is that the homilist or preacher is trying to enlighten us about something and as a result of this new knowledge we will do something about our life when we leave the church or after the sermon or church service. For example, a sermon about single parenting teaches us about the difficulties of this kind of parenting so that we bear it patiently or help others to bear it patiently.

I like the story of how Giovanni di Pietro, nicknamed Francesco, Bernardone listening to a preaching on Matthew 10:9 was transformed to live a life of poverty proclaiming the kingdom of God. Right there and then as he listened to this sermon he was changed, transformed, determined to become a beggar for Christ and eventually became St. Francis of Assisi.

Another example is that of John Wesley who while listening to a commentary on the Letter to the Romans on May 24, 1738 felt that his heart was strangely warmed and moved on with Christian revivals founding an evangelical movement known as Methodism. There and then John Wesley was transformed from being a good Anglican priest to a saintly preacher of God's Word.

Biblically Oriented, not Just Biblically Based

A homily that can help in spiritual development is one that points the listener to the Word of God. There have been many books and articles which teach us that our sermons or homilies should be based on the Bible. This is essential. But they do not emphasize another important aspect of a homily or sermon. It should move the listeners to pick up their Bible and eat for themselves the Word of God.

The story in Acts 17:10-14 contains a very good example of the profitable effect of a homily. The listeners who were inhabitants of Beroea went to the Scriptures to study more about what Paul preached to them.

Most of the time after listening to a homily the listeners feel satisfied or not satisfied with it. If they feel satisfied they think they know the topic already. If they do not feel satisfied they may express ways how the homily should have been given.

If the homily does not lead the listeners to eat from the Word of God themselves it is like telling people about a tasteful, nourishing food but they are not led where or how to eat this food. An effective homily is one which lets the listeners taste the spiritual food and moves them to eat it by themselves.

Eating is necessary for development. Eating God's word is necessary for spiritual development. Without meditating on the Word of God and relishing its sweetness there is no spiritual development.
These two qualities of a homily, transformative and Biblically-oriented, are the ones needed in order for it to contribute to spiritual development. Otherwise it may be only a speech full of sound and fury signifying nothing, as Shakespeare expressed it.