19Apr Gerry O’Hanlon’s address to Milltown Seminar (abridged)


Broken Faith

Re-Building Trust: the Role of the Catholic Church in Ireland – April Friday 8, 2011, Broken Faith Conference, Milltown

Part One: The Crisis of Trust

In a recent document (From Crisis to Hope) from the Council of Justice and Peace, approved by the Irish Episcopal Conference (February, 2011), there is a strong critique of a significant failure of many of Ireland’s institutions. The document speaks of a ‘loss of trust in the banks, the regulatory agencies and many other state agencies, including even the Government itself’ (Part 4, p 11). It goes on to say that ‘in addressing this issue, we are acutely aware that the Catholic Church is one of those core institutions in which there has been a breakdown in trust in recent years’ (Part 4, p 12).

This breakdown in trust in the Catholic Church, and the crisis which has accompanied it, is due in the first place to the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse and its even more scandalous mishandling by Church authorities. However, as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has stated on so many occasions, the abuse issue has opened peoples’ eyes ‘to a much deeper crisis’ (Th e Irish Times, Nov 22, 2010).[1] At an institutional level this involves, among other aspects, an increasing impatience and anger with the distribution of power and the non-collegial exercise of governance at all levels within the Catholic Church, a sense that the continuing absence of the voice and perspective of women within most decision-making bodies within the Church is unconscionable, and that much Church teaching on sexuality and gender is foreign to the experience of many good believers and is received with incredulity.

The crisis  is also reflected in the many informal conversations taking place among the faithful, not to mention ‘outsiders’ and indeed among bishops, priests and religious themselves, peppered with phrases like: ‘Things will never change’; ‘The Church is a horrible place for women’; ‘They just don’t get it’; ‘the bishops themselves are the problem’; ‘what kind of parallel universe do they live in’; ‘get real’. Maureen Gaffney summed up the general feeling well:

‘…the Catholic Church is a powerful homo-social institution, where men are submissive to hierarchical authority and women are incidental and dispensable…it has all the characteristics of the worst kind of such an institution: rigid in social structure; preoccupied by power; ruthless in suppressing internal dissent; in thrall to status, titles and insignia, with an accompanying culture of narcissism and entitlement; and at great psychological distance from human intimacy and suffering (The Irish Times, Dec 2, 2009). In similar vein Dr Marie Keenan has written: ‘It has long been established by social scientists and theologians that a review of the Church’s governance structures, power-relations and sexual ethics are long overdue’ (Doctrine and Life, 60, October, 2010, 12).

Part Two: A New Vision for the Catholic Church

The Second Vatican Council, in particular its Decree Lumen Gentium, remains the most authoritative modern statement of faith with regard to what our Church should look like if it is to be faithful to the Jesus Christ of our bible. Many of you will be familiar with the broad outlines of the vision sketched in Vatican II. Still, it will be useful to recall both the main lines of this vision and, in the light of developments since, work that still needs doing.

Putting it briefly, the Second Vatican Council outlined a vision of the Church as the People of God, a communio of the baptized, based on that equality in diversity within the Holy Trinity of God, in which the hierarchy is the servant-leader of the people who have priority (Orsy, 4-5). While this communion among the ordained in particular has its own structure, including pope, bishops, priests and deacons, this is not a military organization where the highest in rank commands and the others obey (Orsy, 8). Rather, all have a common gift; and they must work to be of one mind and one heart. The lay faithful, in particular, share in the office of Jesus Christ as priest, prophet and king, and they also share through the ‘sense of the faithful’  in that infallibility in belief and indefectibility in right judgement (LG, 12) which the pope and bishops express authoritatively. It was this issue of collegiality or communio which John O’Malley describes as ‘the lightening-rod issue of the Council’ (163). In Vatican II collegiality centred mainly on the relationship between bishops and pope, but it implied also ‘the question of what voice others in the church, including the laity, rightly have in decision-making’ (Orsy, 7).

This notion of church is a far cry from the belief of Pius X that the church is ‘a society comprising two categories of persons, the pastors and the flock’, the duty of the former, which holds all authority in the church, being to direct the ‘multitude’, so that it follows that ‘the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led and, like a docile flock, to follow its pastors’ (1906). However, it is much more consonant with the biblical vision of local communities with many individual charisms shared by men and women, where leadership can take many different forms and where churches felt free to develop their own style and structure in response to particular situations and pastoral needs. This biblical vision included of course a respect for what had been ‘handed on’ by Jesus Christ, including a respect for the role of Peter as primus inter pares among the Twelve. And so it happened that through the early centuries of the Church, indeed throughout the first millennium, there was great autonomy of local churches, local councils and synods were frequent, while the different Metropolitans and Patriarchies balanced the power of Rome. In this context ecclesiologist Michael Fahey, speaking about the second and third centuries, note that  ‘What needs to be explained about the early church is not how a local, city-based church came to see itself as autonomous, but rather how a local church came to choose various modalities for wider fellowship. For mainline Christian churches being autonomous never meant sterile isolation’ (349). The default position, in other words, was autonomy in communion.

We know that, for all kinds of good and bad reasons,  over the second millennium the Catholic Church became increasingly centralised and hierarchical. The peak of this development occurred in the definitions of papal primacy and infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870. Newman saw no need for these definitions but was relieved that the definition on infallibility was couched in such relatively moderate terms and that it rejected the position of the more extreme infallabilists. He tried to reassure his worried contemporaries that in time what was now unbalanced would be put to right: ‘Let us be patient, let us have faith, and a new Pope, and a re-assembled Council may trim the boat’ (Mansfield, 164). However, in the meantime it did seem that the more extreme version of primacy and infallibility  took hold in the church- Congar’s phrase ‘creeping infallibility’ describes the operative culture well. So much so that in 1939, a few weeks before his death, Pius XI in an address to a group of young Canadian seminarians who were completing their studies in Rome, said something like this :

‘I want you to take away this message with you. The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, has become a monstrosity. The head is very large, but the body is shrunken. You, the priests, must rebuild that body of the Church and the only way that you can rebuild it is to mobilize the lay people’ (Orsy, 36).

This is the background to the new ecclesial vision of Vatican II. For the most part, despite some welcome change, it has not taken hold. Why?

I think O’Malley’s judgement is correct on this matter and is cautionary in advising what route we should now take. He says that the majority side in Vatican II, who favoured a strong form of collegiality, ‘assumed an easier translation of ideas from the scholars’ study to the social reality of the church than proved to be the case’ (292). The tenacious minority never really lost control on the issue of the balance between the centre and the periphery. The contest was unequal – the council was held at the centre, organized by the centre, to be implemented by the centre (by the Roman Curia, the reform of which Paul VI took off the Council agenda). In particular the Synod of Bishops, as established unilaterally by Paul VI, ‘severed collegiality…from institutional grounding’. And so collegiality ended up as an abstract teaching without point of entry into the social reality of the church – it ended up an ideal, no match for the deeply entrenched system’ (313). We need, then, new structures to embody the notion and policy of collegiality at every level of the church’s being, and new laws to enact this policy and to counteract the centripetal forces which have left us since the Second Vatican Council with an even more centralized church and a deeper culture of deference, the many aspects of which Ladislas Orsy has so well demonstrated.

Our operative, common-sense model of church, despite the intentions of Vatican II, is excessively clerical and hierarchical, with all the defects of such a model that are apparent to us now. Orsy puts is well, connecting our discussion again with the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse which, he observes, has revealed an ‘organization that lacks a vigorous “immune system”;…in the West, people, especially young people, keep drifting away from the “institutional church” (as they say it), hardly realising that to abandon the visible body is to lose touch with its invisible soul, the life-giving Spirit of Christ’ (2). But we are not simply ‘stuck’ with this seemingly commonsense model. As Lonergan notes, commonsense is useful but limited: it is subject to bias, and, unless critically questioned and examined, can in fact be common nonsense – ‘…common sense commonly feels itself omnicompetent…and commonly is unaware of the admixture of common nonsense in its more cherished convictions and slogans’ (Method, 53). Our current model of church is, in large part, a nonsense, the nonsense referred to by Pius XI when he spoke in terms of the church as a ‘monstrosity’. We have an important and urgent responsibility to address this nonsense. Orsy puts it at once more elegantly and more irenically: ‘We are at a groundbreaking stage…Our aim is to search for better balances without damaging vital forces’ (12).

Part Three:  At Pentecost, after hearing Peter’s sermon, the crowd was ‘cut to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles: ‘Brothers and sisters, what must we do?’ (Acts, 2:37)

Given the loss of trust in the leadership of the Church, given the gravity of the crisis, given the till-now failed vision of Vatican II involving the more active participation of the lay faithful, it would seem that the obvious response of our church ought to be an openness to conversion to an up-dated version of Vatican II at both individual and corporate or structural levels. This conversion would involve a prayerful consultation of all the faithful (lay, religious, priests and bishops) in Ireland at parish, diocesan and national levels so that together we could face into the future with hope. Strong leadership at this point would not mean ‘going solo’, in however an enlightened manner, but rather facilitating the voice of others, stepping back a little so that there is a real sharing of  power, allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us through the kind of ‘structured dialogue’ spoken about by Bishop Seamus Freeman. We need to sit down together, dream of the church we want for the future, and put in place mechanisms for realizing our dream.

People want to be part of the solution; they are no longer content to simply accept solutions given from on high. Interestingly this was the kind of participative approach proposed by Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich at the 1987 Synod of Bishops when he advocated that his fellow bishops needed to set about ‘awakening the sleeping giant’ that is the laity, going on to note that ‘feminism can no longer be considered middle-class madness or an American aberration’ (Fahey, 334). Well, the laity are well and truly awake now, thanks, sadly, to the crisis we are undergoing: and many of them, especially among young people who are indifferent  and among women who are alienated, are increasingly inclined to walk away from the kind of church that still, despite real improvements in the area of safeguarding children, seems stubbornly resistant to a more collegial manner of proceeding. There is, then, a mostly silent haemorrhaging of trust, of a sense of belonging or support. But it is still not too late to hope that this crisis has given us a real opportunity for the kind of ecclesial renewal that can be enormously beneficial not just for the Church in Ireland but for the Church Universal, issuing in something like a Third Vatican Council.

It is in this context that I wish to examine the key contribution of the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin.  I have already noted that Dr Martin, far from being in a state of denial about what is happening, has again and again alerted us to the reality of the ‘much deeper crisis’ in the Irish Church, wider and deeper than the terrible scandal of sexual abuse. In his extremely interesting and wide-ranging address in Cambridge last February, he notes the inadequate response of the Irish Church to secularisation, intent on simply ‘keeping the same show on the road’. He refers to the fact that while Vatican II was well received in Ireland it was done so within the conformist culture of the Archbishop McQuaid era so that changes were introduced into a structure that was not healthy, that was faulty. Dr Martin observes that ‘structural change will not be sustained if it is built on faulty foundations’.  Regrettably he does not explicitly address the nature of these faulty structures and it is interesting that his focus is on The Church in the Modern World from Vatican II and not on Lumen Gentium – the latter has much more to say on structural renewal within the Church.

Dr Martin goes on to predict that the Catholic Church in Ireland ‘will inevitably become more a minority culture – the challenge is to ensure that it is not an irrelevant minority culture’. In this context he notes the challenge to the Church around the issue of patronage of schools, calling for a National Forum to debate the issue (a form of which has since been promised by the new government and welcomed by Dr Martin. In fact there has since – April 6th- been the announcement that there will be four regional assemblies organized by the Catholic Church to debate this issue before June- our Church can move quickly when it wants to!).

He notes that ‘much of the leadership in a new sense of mission in the Irish Church will come through lay men and women’ and outlines his training and formation programmes for an initial cohort of lay pastoral workers. He identifies the need to take a radical new look at the formation of priests in order to create a better culture of collaborative ministry and to eliminate the ‘narrow culture of clericalism’.  He notes that the Church in Ireland is very lacking in ‘keen intellects and prolific pens addressing the pressing subjects of the day’ (Newman). It needs to learn to foster a better interaction between faith and culture, to go beyond the ‘non-intellectual streak in the religious culture of Ireland’.

In particular – and this is a theme frequently revisited in Dr Martin’s addresses – Christian faith ‘is not just about reforming structures, it is about the ability to preach and witness to the message of Jesus. The leader of the Church is not just a manager, but a witness and a prophet. Reform in the Church is not in the first place about the redistribution of power, but about the redefinition of power in terms of the way in which Jesus revealed who God is’. This emphasis on the primacy of personal renewal and conversion is reinforced in his conviction that ‘one of the principal ways in which the Church can reform itself and bring its message more incisively to society is through developing a renewed biblical apostolate’, so as to introduce people ‘into a real relationship with Jesus and his life and teaching’.

He concludes with a very interesting reflection on those, like himself, with leadership roles in the church: ‘Faith is not about establishment. It is about taking the risk of abandoning one’s own security in order to be like God who did not cling to the trappings of power and authority, but who gave himself totally for our sakes. This is a message which is difficult to comprehend and realise especially by those of us who have a leadership role in the Church and who are open to the perennial temptations to defend and even to abuse the power which was given into our hands to be servants’.

This is a powerful address, permeated by a desire to witness to Christ’s message and with the humility to imagine that leadership can get it wrong. I think that Dr Martin is absolutely correct in locating the project of church renewal in the context of our personal and communal relationship with Jesus Christ. Put in Ignatian terms, we need a culture of prayerful discernment if our renewal is not to descend into a mere power struggle or an exercise in change-management that forgets the essence of our raison d’être.

However I find it curious that Dr Martin gives so little attention to institutional and structural ecclesial reform. He does advert to these, but he does so in a vague way (what, for example, were the faulty structures of the conformist culture in Archbishop McQuaid’s day? What decision-making powers do laity have with which to exercise leadership today?) and often in a negative way (for example, reform and renewal will come about ‘not by media strategies or structural reform’ but by the ‘community of men and women who listen to the word of God, who come together to pray, who celebrate the Eucharist and are called to share the very life of Christ himself’[2]) This is curious because he is much too well aware of Catholic theology and doctrine to imagine that conversion involves only the personal or even the interpersonal: Catholic anthropology, ecclesiology, Social Teaching are all full of reference to the intrinsically social dimension of human kind, the notion of social sin and grace is commonplace, the vocabulary of structural justice and injustice is now taken for granted. Why, then, no serious engagement with the structural elements of ecclesial renewal, with the  balance between collegiality and primacy at all levels, to complement the intelligent and passionate advocacy of the importance of a real relationship with Jesus Christ? Surely these are not alternatives – either personal or institutional conversion – but rather a matter of ‘both/and’? This is all the more curious since Dr Martin was the one to insist on Parish Pastoral Councils, he has a programme for training laity, and has been successful in calling for a National Forum to debate the issue of educational patronage- all indicating an awareness of structural issues. It would be helpful if he could share with us his views on church reform at the structural level, in particular on the desire among so many for a National Forum or Consultation of the Church in Ireland, a serious issue that ought not to be disparaged or dismissed as a mere ‘talking shop’, without serious engagement with what is proposed.

I think all this is a great lack not least because Dr Martin, through his own ‘keen intellect, prolific pen and ability to address the pressing issues of the day’ has great credibility with both the media and the general public. It would be enormously beneficial if he lent his encouragement to the issue of ecclesial structural reform so that the voice of all could be heard. Somewhat disarmingly he himself has of late noted his own deficiencies. So, for example, in the Cambridge address he says: ‘The change that has taken place in Irish culture requires radical change in the life of the Church of such an extent that in the face of it even experts in change management would feel daunted. Certainly I would have to say that despite all my efforts I am failing in my attempts to lead such change. Change management has to have the patience and the strategy to bring everyone along with it and that may not be my talent’. But is Dr Martin not perhaps asking too much of himself by asking the wrong thing of himself? I mean, it may well be that, among all his many strengths, he has accurately described a weakness (a difficulty with team-work) and, if so, we do well to thank him for being so frank and to continue to express our enormous appreciation for the great blessings he has brought to the Church in Ireland. But surely he is not being asked so much to suddenly develop new talents as rather to allow others to express theirs, in particular to exhibit ‘strong leadership’ not so much by wanting to always lead from the front himself (and then be discouraged when people do not follow) as by encouraging the rest of us – the lay faithful, those on the edge of church or even ‘outside’, the survivors and victims of abuse, religious, priests, theologians, other bishops- to have our say and then to use his own considerable gifts to articulate this new reality?[3] Might this not be the way of leadership today, ‘abandoning one’s own security’, and refusing to ‘defend the power’ which has been given to leaders as servants? Is this not what he himself did by involving survivors and victims of clerical child sexual abuse in the design and execution of the liturgy of Lament and Repentance on Sunday February 20, 2011 which won such acclaim? What an even more wonderful contribution Dr Martin would make to the Irish Church by lending his voice to the more formal establishment of that ‘structured dialogue’ to which Bishop Freeman referred.


Dr David Barker (Report of the Church in America, 2004: 28) refers to the ‘perceived wisdom that culture change takes 200 years in the church’ and goes on to say ‘that is no longer an acceptable point of view; it is an excuse for inaction’.  Archbishop Martin agrees with Barker: in his Cambridge address he goes so far as to quote the alleged remark of Cardinal Sean O’Malley, conducting the Apostolic Visitation in the Archdiocese of Dublin, that the Catholic Church in  Ireland has only five or at most ten years before it could fall ‘over the brink’ and be reduced to being a tiny minority Church irrelevant in society. Without change, indeed, we will continue to experience the demoralizing effects of the same kind of excessively top-down leadership which presumes, without adequate consultation, to know best about such issues as the most appropriate English translation of the missal and Ireland as the most suitable location for the next Eucharistic Congress.

Some other bishops are aware of all this and there are hopeful developments around consultation in Down and Connor, Armagh, Kerry and elsewhere. There is, in particular, the suggestion by Bishop Freeman as Chair of the Episcopal Council for Pastoral Development and Adult Faith Formation that we are at the start of a ‘structured dialogue’ that needs to happen. At parish level too there is evidence of energy around this project, as in some other lay groups. Theologians too have their own important role to play, not least in ongoing research of the issues identified earlier in this paper, but also in a greater recognition of their ecclesially political role at this crucial time of change. It might be hoped that media might look beyond the reporting of latest scandals and engage in a deeper analysis of what is going on. There is need then for conversion all round.[4] There is a wonderful opportunity for bishops above all – and I have indentified the crucial role of Archbishop Martin in particular, given his high profile and considerable influence within the hierarchy and further afield- to galvanize this momentum into something organized and cohesive that could release the healing and creative energies being stirred up by the Holy Spirit.

Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J.

Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice,

April, 2011

[1] The quotation is taken from a homily given by Archbishop Martin at the 30th anniversary Mass on Nov 20, 2010 to commemorate Frank Duff – the Archbishop insists that the abuse crisis has opened our eyes to a much deeper crisis in the Catholic Church in Ireland which has ‘lost its way’.

[2] Homily at 30th anniversary mass for Frank Duff, Nov 20, 2010.  See also January 5, 2011 address by the Archbishop at the launch of Share the Good News in which he states that ‘renewal is not just a question of renewing structures and developing new structures’ and March 17, 2011 report by Michael Kelly (Catholic News Service) where the Archbishop notes that ‘a renewal of structures alone would be sterile’.

[3] As indeed Archbishop Martin seems to agree himself when, in response to a query about his own comments on the inadequacy of his talents and abilities where renewal of the church in Dublin was concerned, he said, according to a report in the Irish Times (Tuesday March 8, 2011), such talents and abilities were available among ‘the people who work with me’ in the archdiocese: it was not just a question of being reliant ‘on one’s own abilities’.

[4] The words of Ladislas Orsy are apt: ‘the bishops who shun personal decisions and turn to Rome for guidance, opportune et importune, contribute as much to centralization as any Roman office can. Theologians who exalt the personal theological opinions of the pope into Catholic doctrine (which he never intended) are destroying intellectual diversity in the church. The faithful who distort the respect due to “sacred pastors” (cf. Canon 212) into a cult of personality are hurting Christ’s body – the church’ (note 13, 11-12). See too the comments of Brendan Callaghan with respect to complicity in a clericalist culture: ‘…the ‘gains’ for laity included avoidance of responsibility, a clearly defined role, the avoidance of the costs of adult faith, and the security and ‘reflected glory’ that derive from dependence on another’ (351).

5 Responses

  1. Jeffrey Owens

    I too long for the day when Vat II and especially Lumen gentium will be accepted by all
    particularly this part

    25. Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place.(39*) For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old,(164) making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock.(165) Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

    Lumen Gentium 25

  2. Joe O'Leary

    Abp Martin means well, but I do not believe he is really aware of how much metanoia is needed. What leads me to think this is the production of an edition of St Luke’s Gospel distributed to the faithful in an effort to galvanize scriptural culture among Catholics. The gospel comes decorated with the sickliest stain-glass images, redolent of the clerical churchiness and spineless piouciousness that has emasculated Irish Catholicism for so long. Second, his remarks on the lack of theological culture in Ireland fail to advert to the bishops own role in discouraging such culture — for example by blocking theology as an NUI degree subject in Maynooth. Now I hear that Maynooth seminarians are not to study theology with lay people in the class. What does this mean? What kind of theology do the bishops want them to learn? Could it be that they want priests to have just a higher catechesis, a sort of brainwashing, insulated from the questioning of the modern world? Thirdly, I don’t really see Abp Martin as cultivating the ethos and practice of open discussion that is so necessary to heal our broken church. In handling the abuse crisis he responds to pressure from victims and the media, but he refrains from any critique of church teaching on sex, any open discussion with women, gays, even priests on this front. When he nags at seminarians and young priests for their alleged clericalism, he produces only a depressing and disheartening effect. He really needs to put himself on the same level as his fellow priests whose servant he is, and get us started again on a humbler, plainer footing.

    I admit that I know almost nothing about Abp Martin and that these are only fleeting impressions.
    Episcopal authority is real only in its proper exercise. In a dysfunctional church gestures of asserting divinely-guaranteed authority are only a sign of weakness and disaggregation.
    The bishops need to admit that they are “in crisis” (pace Abp Dolan), and seek to restore the fabric of a Church that is functioning properly on the social, liturgical, theological, and spiritual fronts. They cannot do this except in open discussion with all other members of the community.

  3. Joe O'Leary

    In the debate on the new translation bishops worldwide have again come across as a club who speak their own language and who close ranks, curling up like a hedgehog, when faced with criticism. Are they really so psychologically vulnerable and fragile, so unable to engage in debate? Or are priests in the same condition, to a lesser or less public degree? Is the Pope himself a monument and icon of this weakness, rather than a leader? Is the Church a headless horse? Has it been weakened by the lack of active participation and discussion throughout its membership, with so many signing off?

  4. Benny

    Having published this, the ACP is presumably calling for the ‘root and branch’ changes called for in the article. You should wake up to the fact that it is never going to happen. Any chance that it might is gone, the Church is being reclaimed by those who agree with SAINT Pope Pius X, who warned about what was going to happen. The joke is that if the ‘democracy’ advocated were to be introduced, the ‘traditionalists’ would get their vote out to get you laicised.

  5. Joe O'Leary

    Benny, you are right enough — but history does provide examples of the unexpected. Louis XVI was very secure on this throne, and his country was even going through a prosperous period, when calamity overtook him. But the beatification of JP2 and Cardinal Sodano’s confident dismissal of the Maciel scandal as a “peripheral issue” certainly point to a continuation of the restorationist Catholicism of the last three decades rather than anything like a retrieval of Vatican II. That’s the way the people want it.

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