The ‘Two Thirds’ Rule

The late Bishop Untener warns homilists not to tell stories just for laughs. I suppose we’ve all done it. We hear a good joke and feel the need to pass it on to others. The Sunday congregation fits that bill nicely. Even if the story somehow dovetails with the readings, it’s probably too colourful or too hilarious. Thus the congregation’s attention remains anchored right there and is unable to move on to more serious ground. The point is well made – dogs should wag tails, not tails dogs; the story should serve the homily, not the reverse. Just throwing a story, any story, into the homiletic mix at any point, will not turn a preacher into a Bossuet. Au contraire! The ’Two Thirds Rule’ is an application of the right-use-of-story principle. How, you might wonder, do fractions get into homiletics? In his alliteratively entitled book, Handy Hints for Hesitant Homilists, the late Paul Edwards S.J., having attributed the rule to his confrere Tony Horan S.J., renders it thus: "Two-thirds the way through any sermon, speech etc, with the midpoint clearly past and the ending now on the horizon, the concentration of both speaker and audience tends to slacken. The speaker, to compensate for this, must deliberately gather himself, and by some phrase, touch of humour or unexpected gambit, rally the listeners and lead them on with revived interest into the final third." The rule reverses a popular misconception among homilists, mentioned by Bishop Untener, that the point in the homily at which the congregation needs waking up is the beginning. Not so, says Untener – that is precisely the moment when they are listening, hoping (sometimes against hope) for something of value. Where the hearers do need an attention-booster is actually on the home run. It’s not just how we tell stories but when. Chris Chatteris, S.J.
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10 years 5 months ago
One could compare the rule to a common musical style - a piece in 3 movements. The first movement captures the listeners' attention and promises good things to come; the second movement is slow and reflective; the third ends things with a zestful bang.

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