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Letter to Women

Living with Authority

by Mary McAleese,

from Authority in the Church, ed. Seán Mac Réamoinn, Columba Press, 1995, p.11 - 25.

'Get that bedroom tidied up, this minute.' It's me. It's Saturday morning and my daughters are sitting in their pyjamas in the living room watching breakfast television. They have been up since cockcrow, the only day in the week when this phenomenon occurs, and their bedroom looks as if the entire Allied forces detoured through it on D-Day. My voice is a tone or two terseish. Well, yours would be too if this was the nth Saturday in a row that you had endured this rigmarole. These are not bad kids. They just aren't good tidier-uppers. Yet at the sound of my slightly infuriated voice, they jump up, race to the offending bed­room and commence slinging all manner of objects and items of apparel into drawers and cupboards. Some Saturdays I find myself giggling at the very ludicracy of this exercise of maternal authority. What on earth would I do if they said 'Sod off. Do it yourself Get a life.'?


Corporal punishment is banned in our house, grandparents' sniffiness notwithstanding. Capital punishment seems a mite over the top. But it is idle to speculate on the means of enforce­ment, for so far so good. My authority has never actually been challenged, at least not to my face. It has never been complied with in advance, in the matter of bedroom tidying, but once prompted by an unseemly roar from me, they crack to attention. So why on earth do they jump at my command? I asked them once and was humbled by the reply. 'Because I respect you.' 'Because you do everything for me and the least I can do is give you the tiniest bit of thanks.' God blessed them, as you can tell, with silver tongues and Jesuitical tendencies. They are all of course still pre-teenage. Bigger issues of authority loom a few short years from now. What I sow now I will likely reap!


All this is by way of prologue to a discourse on the subject of authority, a subject with a considerably more domestic and pragmatic relevance than its intellectual and philosophical pre­tensions might admit. I inhabit many spheres in which authority of one sort or another plays a role.


As a mother, I exercise parental authority, more benignly than the story above might indicate. As a senior executive in a univer­sity, I exercise a degree of authority over my area of control, though I in turn am subject to the authority of the Vice- Chancellor and Senate of the University. As a citizen, I am subject to the authority of the state, which in the case of Northern Ireland is not as straightforward a relationship as it might be elsewhere. As a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I am subject, notionally by baptism, in reality by both baptism and on-going choice, to the authority of the Church. In every sphere in which authority is exercised, either by me or over me, there is the assumption or at least the aspiration that it will result in voluntary compliance, but although authority is a recognizable facet of each of these sets of relationships, its shape and scope is also recognisably different in each. What is more, each of these sets of relationships has become much more complex and much more nuanced in this century with its developing jurisprudence on human and individual rights. You will note, for example, that I did not mention authority as an issue in the relationship with my husband. Ours was the generation which baulked at vowing to 'love, honour and obey', beneficiaries of the post Vatican II image of marriage in which partnership was stressed, and not patriarchy.


It is the subject of Church and authority which is the central theme of this book, but it is almost impossible to divorce it from the other sets of authority relationships alongside which it sits. So a series of forays into those other relationships may help to unscramble some of the elements of them which bear heavily on the dynamic of the Church/authority debate.


It is futile to discuss authority without locating it in both its past and its present contexts. Today's evolving debate on authority grew out of a historic and inherited consciousness about who should exercise power and how they should exercise it. What was valid fifty years ago in some sets of authority-based rela­tionships is no longer valid today. Roles which were previously crudely differentiated into the superior and the subordinate have become much less demarcated but, whereas in the past the larger part of the debate focused on the rights of the superior and the modes of enforcing compliance from the subordinate, today's debate has shifted focus to the rights of the subordinate and the constraints on enforcement. Much of what lies at the heart of today's debate on authority clusters around questions about the identity of the individual.


There was in the old, classical superior-subordinate relationship a clarity of identities which was as superficial as it seemed immutable. How a person was perceived and how she perceived herself were not necessarily the same. Today's debate can be seen as the voice of the inner person demanding a sophisticated recognition of her as complex individual and not as simplex cipher. The demand is for a two-way dialogue about authority in place of a one-way, one dimensional, top-down set of givens and commands. This is a dialogue the 'master' may resist enter­ing but only at his peril, for his self-identity is also crucially de­pendent on the recognition of the subordinate. A Pope without Catholics who recognise his authority may as well go whistle Dixie.


The outcome of the dialogue is, or should be, a new set of rela­tionships in which the master-subordinate role achieves both a new equilibrium and a new legitimacy. A master who resists entering the dialogue, who insists on wielding the old rule book, on reining in the slackening rope, simply postpones the dialogue and risks talking largely to himself when eventually he submits to the inevitability of change.


The Church is currently engaged in just such a debate, with the upper echelons of the pyramidal structure apparently resisting entering the dialogue, the lower echelons stubbornly refusing to quit talking among themselves and to the media, and a growing body of deserters from the upper echelon seeking political asylum within the lower, thus blurring the normally thickly etched lines of demarcation. That the upper echelon in under pressure is evident, nowhere more so than on the vexed question of the role of women in the Church, where three papal pronouncements in this year alone testify to how closed the debate is not. How many of us remember that phrase, delivered somberly in the seventies, 'The debate is closed.' Unfortunately, it has taken the best part of a quarter century, reams of paper filled with imperturbable feminist critique of impenetrable dogmatic theology and vice versa, for the response to filter upwards. Roughly it translates as, 'Sod off, get a life, watch this space!" The demands for dialogue on priestly celibacy have similarly proved to be im­mune to the wielding of the papal mallet. The more aggressive the attempts from above to silence the debate below, the more perverse those 'below' seem to get. Petitions are more likely to be addressed to the Pope on the subject of women priests or clerical celibacy than addressed to the Mother of Perpetual Succour for help with exams or 'that the aunt may remember us in her will!'


When an institution the size of the Catholic Church finds itself embroiled in a major debate, its global reach which is the envy of other denominations, becomes both its strength and its weak­ness. Immediately the world is agog. Mass communication delivers the message from one continent to another. Contagion is, if not quite instantaneous, at the very least inevitable. The geo­graphic spread of the debate lends it a feverish quality. Equally, of course, once the debate is fully engaged and as it moves to­wards a resolution, the scale of global change it can accomplish is quite staggering. Imagine the consequences for women worldwide if the Catholic Church was to make a serious com­mitment to eradicating sexism. So far, the papal pronouncements are on the one hand encouraging and on the other hand difficult to reconcile, when viewed against the determined opposition to ending the two thousand year old tradition of excluding women from the ministry of priesthood. Taken alone, that issue is not the passionate priority for every woman. Taken in the context of a Church overwhelmed by the cancer of sexism, it is the icon, the symbol which is the litmus test of the actuality of change as op­posed to the mere promise of change. In challenging the Church's stand on this vexed question, proponents of the female ministry have pitted themselves firmly against papal authority. They rest their case on Christ's authority. The Pope does like­wise. They can't both be right, Galileo, can they? Someone is going to come out of this as the loser and recent history within the rest of the Christian family of churches, whatever about theology, stacks the odds against the Pope.


When Cardinal Ratzinger pops his head above the parapet and announces grimly that those who do not accept the Church's teaching on women and priesthood are out of communion with the Church, the response from the partisan faithful is to ignore him and continue on regardless. The days of lying down and rolling over dead because a Cardinal in Rome has roared are fading fast. The nature of authority is changing unilaterally, from the bottom up. Like a wave it is gathering momentum and, defying the usual laws of gravity, it is flowing upwards towards a shore where a line of Canutes await. What is profoundly intriguing though is that this Church, caricatured as autocratic, centrist and anti-individualistic, has within its boundaries suffi­cient intellectual latitude, integrity and sticking power to initi­ate, sustain, and drive forward such a debate from its outer reaches, the very place where autocracy is accused of suppress­ing, if not entirely shattering, the voice of dissent. Given today's freedom to walk away, to reject the church without significant adverse consequences, it is extraordinary that so many are en­tering this energetic debate with so firm a commitment to the Church and its future. Whether that is because of, or in spite of, our education as Catholics is a riddle, but significantly it is occur­ring at a time when many other authority relationships are also mutating.


Take the role of parental authority or that which is exercised in loco parentis. The schools of my childhood were heavily dependent upon a regime of fear induced by the strap or the cane. Not every teacher in my experience used such props but those who used them liberally and those who persistently overused them were largely protected by a shield of societal tolerance. The fact that little children were regularly beaten at home and in school struck few as seriously odd or problematic, coming as we did from a culture in which it had, not very much earlier, been deemed acceptable for a Master to beat his wife, servants, children and animals in order to reasonably chastise them. That culture was evaporating as I grew up, but the overhang from its strongly male, authoritarian ethos had tentacles which reached well into the latter end of the twentieth century. Today corporal punishment of wives, employees, even dogs has been outlawed. The use of violence in the so-called reasonable chastisement of children is the last to go. It has virtually disappeared from schools and already there is a growing debate about its acceptability in the home. Personally I despise corporal punishment. For me it is a gospel issue. I am a shop-window for Christ where my children are concerned. Would a loving, forgiving God really stand five feet over a terrified child, snarling and wielding a stick, belt, wooden spoon? I don't think so, somehow.


I know the contra-arguments of justification, in particular those rehearsed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church where the old adage, 'He who loves his son will not spare the rod,' is depressingly recited alongside the injunction, 'Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.' The absence of any psychological or intuitive understanding of the provocation to rage induced by vio­lation of one's bodily integrity, particularly where that violation is repeated persistently and without redress, is regrettable in such a recent document. I can still feel the smallness of soul, the totally devastating sense of personal insignificance, as Mother Brendan of the then, it seemed, inaptly-named Mercy Order, face contorted with rage, walloped, ranted, threatened and terrorised in that lather of unself-critical, undoubting certainty that the exercise of authority without might would produce chaos. Where two or more former pupils are gathered, the rawness of wounds is still evident, even decades later.


The implausibility of comprehending the central message of the gospel, the message of love, when those entrusted with its transmission were themselves caught so irredeemably on the hook of authoritarianism rather than authority, lodged deep in the psyche of many of us children. Our fight for faith, our struggle to believe in a loving God, was ironically often subverted by the very agencies whose function it was to transmit the faith and witness to it in a very special way.


Equally there were, thank God, those whose witness empowered us to believe in a God who knew our names from before we were formed and loved us even 'in our leprosy'. While we have come a very long way from those days of faith by diktat, I remain unconvinced that there has yet been a significant debate on the nature of Catholic education, whether in the home or school, and how in the interface between child and parent, child and school, the nature of Christ's authority is to be translated into a practical protocol governing day to day relationships. When were you or I, as Catholic parents, asked what we expected of our Catholic schools? Where is the questionnaire which follows the event, asking for our assessment of the value and authenticity of vision of the school experience? And as for the kids, their judgment remains in the realm of schoolyard anecdote.


Instead of a modem debate using all the modem modes of insight from empirical research, market testing, consumer feedback and the like, we have had imposed on us a vision designated by the Church authorities, designed exclusively within a celibate male paradigm, a rigidly hierarchical structure which is monarchical in tone. It is a Church which has yet to come to terms with Newman's educated laity, with its consumer rights ethos, its burgeoning jurisprudence on individual rights and remedies for their infringement. It is a Church which is currently in a crisis over authority.


be rather impatient with the Christ who has the gospel in his safe and the Code of Canon law on his desk. There is an image of love I once read which gives some sense of what it is that many of the disgruntled laity are saying about the nature of authority and, in a real sense, about the nature of love. Love is like grains of sand. Hold them openly in the palm of your hand and there they will stay. Grip them tightly in your fist and they will trickle through your fingers. The tighter the grip the faster they will fall.


In a sense we are and have been in the grip of an authority struct­ure with its fist tightly closed. What it seems many of us are de­manding is the open palm model. What is more, this demand is not based on some perverse selfishness or egoism, or some (as is often alleged) hostile bid for power; it is founded on an intrinsic belief that the true dignity of the person is only acknowledged in a system which does not enslave or dominate by intellectual, spiritual or physical force. The promise of an open, less authori­tarian Church seemed within reach in the Vatican II climate and in the indulgent avuncular papacy of John XXIII. Thirty years later, the promise has evaporated but the demand has grown more strident.


There has of course been an equal and opposite reaction, as those who occupy the high ground in terms of power have sought to sandbag their positions and to increase their control. If ever they needed proof of the argument that the tighter the grip the more likely they are to fail, the evidence from around the world is overwhelming. The rate of rejection of the Church is on a steeply upward curve. Those who remain are not characterised by quiescence. Among them are, of course, those who are determined to man the barricades, to defend an unchanging Church, but equally there are those who are determined to stay and live out the famous challenge of John XXIII - to cultivate a garden, not guard a museum.


In the world of work, the master and servant relationship, at least in the Western world, is no longer the straight line from authoritarian control to automatic if grudging compliance. Today a raft of statutes, directives and contracts of employment circumscribe the power of the employer and enhance the rights of the employee. The employer who roars dog's abuse at staff in order to force compliance is probably working in a non-union enterprise of which he or she is the sole owner. Such behaviour is virtually outlawed in major private industry and in the public sector. Litigious employees and ex-employees have had their rights to dignity in the workplace vindicated through the courts, and it is now commonplace for training to be offered to managers to sensitise them to the need to motivate staff by methods other than threats and scolds. Anyone who has ever been to one of these training sessions will verify that they bear more than a passing resemblance to a charismatic prayer meeting. Buzz words and phrases abound, like 'affirmation', 'encouragement', 'our staff are our best asset', 'staff must have ownership of the disciplinary code', etc. Managers have team briefings nowadays which are much more like panel discussions among equals than generals uttering commands to the troops. Staff motivation is a key to success, and there is a widespread acceptance that effective motivation is not induced by wielding power like a terrorist with a machine gun.


The hierarchical structure which characterized much of indus­trial and commercial working relationships has given way to the culture of the worker director, and to powerful trade unions. The boss is now circumscribed in how he deals with employees. He says 'jump' and the employee can say, 'It's not in the contract. Try to make me and I'll take you to an industrial tribunal.' True, it is a Western phenomenon, but economics are global, and the abuses of workers in other parts of the world are dealt with now on an international stage where spotlights can highlight, and intra-govemmental as well as non-governmental agencies can promote the need for, and direction of, change.


Today the person on the receiving end of the authority-based relationship also has a balancing set of rights which limit and define the texture, feel, expression and extent of that authority. Power is no longer a one-way traffic.


In David Thompson's delightful book, Woodbrook, which de­scribes life in the one of the last of the big Anglo-Irish ascendancy houses between the two world wars, he explores the fundamental tension between subservience and self-respect. The servants in the old house were now citizens of a new, free state. Their Master's lifestyle was disintegrating before their eyes, a relic from an impossibly bygone era. His ancestors had stolen their ancestors' land. The folk memory of an oppressed people was a strong leitmotif in their lives. Yet they needed work, and work was available on the master's terms. He was a decent and humane man, but when they came to work for him they gave him only their hands, never their hearts, and never their souls. Hearts and souls continued to inhabit a world which yearned for their day to come. The failure of even the warmest relationship between the master and his servants to develop much beyond the purely utilitarian is one of the central tragedies in the book. Outward compliance, built on inherited injustice, is an edifice built on shifting sand, doomed to fail.


The story of the Big Houses could just as easily be a metaphor for the Church - with this difference: that in believing Christ to be with his Church through all time, the prognosis for its future is more hopeful, despite much doom-laden prophecy to the contrary.


That tension between conforming to authority and simultaneously having doubts about its legitimacy is a very strong undercurrent in relation to the exercise of political authority in Northern Ireland, particularly among the nationalist population which is, of course, predominantly Catholic. There is an irony in the fact that Northern Catholics are perceived to be more religiously conservative than their Southern counterparts who have had the privilege of living in a decolonised democratic state for over seventy years. The parlous constitutional position of Northern Ireland has been an ongoing phenomenon since its creation, and each generation has had to adapt to the inherent instability which that phenomenon generated, by coming to terms in some way with the de facto and/or de iure authority of those governing the State. Perhaps the strong authority of the Church was the perfect scaffolding for a people whose social, political and cultural environment was never truly theirs. Catholics were not members of the government, they occupied no positions of power, they were for many years denied the right to vote, they were excluded from jobs, the police and military were drawn virtually exclusively from the Protestant/ Unionist community and saw themselves as defenders of both Protestantism and Unionism, rather than peacekeepers in a het­erogeneous democracy.


As someone who stood and watched helplessly while uni­formed members of the auxiliary police force, known as the B-Specials, deliberately and systematically burnt down Catholic homes in my parish in 1969, shortly before I was to take up law studies at University, I have experienced great difficulty in re­solving the issue of the legitimacy of State authority and the dilemma of compliance. The complexity of the issue was simplified for some by rejecting the legitimacy and resorting to force of arms, and resolved for others like myself by appeal to the gospel and its tough command to love and to forgive. The sceptics might also say that the formidable power of the State did much to quieten protest about its legitimacy. There is some truth in that view.


The State of Northern Ireland probably has more to thank the Catholic Church for than it imagines, for the Church's structure, its discipline, its voice, provided a framework of reference in an almost surreal world where the law was 'their' (i.e. Unionist/Protestant) law, order was 'their' order, the State was 'their' State. Without that frame of reference, many more people would inhabit the world of spiritual freefall where violence appears justifiable in pursuit of justice. Faced with a stark choice, many chose the gospel - though the choice was not always clearly articulated in gospel terms. Some braking mechanism would not allow them to choose violence. Instead, they chose a role not unlike that of the servants in David Thompson's novel, out­wardly law-abiding and compliant, inwardly waiting for their day to come. They shared a sense of injustice with those who chose violence, but its expression was differently manifested, sometimes in constitutional politics but more often in a festering silence, which was the subject of considerable scorn from those who had embraced paramilitarism.


Living with these unresolved tensions, and coping with the daily downstream consequences of a hate-infested and violence-infested society, it is little wonder that the debate about church authority was slow to arrive in Northern Ireland. But the case of Fr Brendan Smyth, the priest convicted of a litany of paedophile offences in 1994, brought the issue foursquare onto the agenda for Northern Catholics. An authoritarian Church, ever ready to speak out on matters of faith and morals, always able to reach into the Catechism for the ready-reckoner answer, was for once well and truly stumped. The laity waited for the voice of authority to speak. All they heard was the thud of rapidly closing bunker lids. They filled the silence with their own words, and mostly they were questions. Almost overnight, an autocracy became emasculated.


In the battering the Church is taking on protected child abuse, on priestly celibacy, on sexism and insensitivity, those who wish to see the authority structure mature scent the whiff of victory not far off. Not a bishop or priest can be found who is willing to go on national television to debate the issue of the female priesthood. No counselling service for the victims of clerical abuse exists within the Church, though the occasional bishop says nice worthy things about seeking forgiveness from victims and offering them support, too often as a result of a question from a journalist after the most recent trial of a priest for scandalous abuse of children. Hard evidence of practical support is not very forth­coming.


Police, courts, secular agencies and the media have all filled the vacant spaces. They will be hard to shift. The seven-hundred- page Catechism, the three-hundred-page Code of Canon Law are of little assistance. A bishop speaks off the cuff in favour of a debate on celibacy. The heavens open, deluges fall and he is summoned ominously to Rome. A priest systematically abuses children for four decades, is quickly shifted from parish to parish as each new accusation surfaces. No call to Rome, no deluge - until investigative journalists scrape the surface, and then there is a deluge of a different order entirely. No one in authority appears to be appalled by this curious differential in approach to deviance. Everyone else is catatonic with incredulity!


Under pressure, the holes in this once firm edifice of hierarchical authority are shown up in sharp relief. Like the kissing of bishop's rings and automatic deference, the old ways have mutated under our noses. Consent to the processes of authority, rather than to the authority itself, is intensely problematic. The roar from behind the barricades in Rome is a bluff, and it is being called. Importantly, it is not being called out of spite, nor out of gratuitous mischief-making. It is being called out of an impulse which is Christ-centered and which is determined to shift the gravitational pull of the Church back to an authentic vision of Christ, and away from narrow clerical institutionalism. It is of course informed by a model of Western democratic authority, in which legitimacy stems from approbation by the subject expressed through the ballot box. Authorities big and small are now held accountable, by reference to the subjects' evaluation of their performance or the evaluation of an agency acting on the subjects' behalf. No such forum exists within the Church, neither ballot box nor ombudsman. In their absence and in the ab­sence of anything equivalent, the newspaper pages and radio and television greedily, ravenously fill the void. Megaphone diplomacy conducted over the airwaves is no substitute for getting one's house in order.


Where are the examples of the structure we could have and should have? As the Catechism says, authority does not derive moral legitimacy from itself. It derives from God. Looking afresh at Luke's gospel, I was stunned by the story of the encounter between Mary and the Angel Gabriel. As the story was taught to me, it was the classic expression of the authority relationship between the individual and God. Mary's words were portrayed as evidence of a humble submission to God's will for her. Those words, 'Be it done unto me according to thy word,' have rung down through the centuries as the template for instant and unquestioning submission from us lesser mortals. But this edited and collapsed version of the story is ingenuous, and misses the point. In the first place, the all-powerful God, who could have dumped Mary right into it without as much as a by your leave, sent an emissary to her to set before her the Master's plan. Gabriel's opening words are a wonderful endorsement of the loving respect in which God holds his people. He salutes her, for 'she is full of grace and blessed among women!' Mary is not, however, seduced by what could pass for flattery. Instantly she is questioning and sceptical. What on earth is this whole thing about? 'She was much perplexed at hearing him speak so, and cast about in her mind, what she was to make of such a greeting. The angel saw her fear. He could have ignored it, told her to knuckle down to the Lord's will. 'Anyone who doesn't do the Lord's will is out of communion with the Lord,' he could have said. Instead, holding her metaphorically in his open palm, he allayed her fears: 'Mary, do not be afraid’ he says gently, as he sets out God's desired, but not mandated, schedule for her' life. But still Mary is unconvinced. 'How?' she asks, and 'Why?' It is the angel's next reply which is crucial. Something in it, something in his demeanour, strikes a chord in her. Now she believes that this is truly God's will. Now she decides that she will make God's will her will. It is her decision, freely made, in faith. Would God have huffed if she had said 'no'? Would he have said 'The debate is over'?

Later, when Mary meets Elizabeth, she is radiant with joy, not just because she is to bear the Christ child, but because she has fully comprehended the relationship between God and his people. God has looked graciously upon the lowliness of his handmaid. He is Master, she is servant, but this is an open relationship with a depth of mutual respect so profound it is hard to accept, but a liberating joy to experience He does indeed have mercy on us.


Authority without mercy fails the test of Christ-centredness. The absence of mercy is a fair indicator that authority has become over-concerned with power. Its veins have become clogged up with bureaucratic endeavour, with head counting rather than heart counting. The debate about authority in the Church is a cry for mercy, the authentic mercy of God himself, the self-same mercy offered to Peter, the rock on whom the Church was founded - a coward and a liar, who failed Christ in Gethsemane and failed him again outside the High Priest's palace. The days of the head count are ending. Courting of the heart and mind, patience in the face of dissent and scepticism, openness to the voice of challenge and question, mercy in the teeth of rejection and hurt, humility and reparation in the light of mistakes and injustices, these will be the hallmarks of the authority structure which will serve the Church of the next millennium. As the Catechism says, 'The duty of obedience requires all to give due honour to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good will.'


But there is another duty which transcends the duty of obedience to authority, and that is the obligation to promote the common good, to participate in the public life of the Church and to contribute to its wellbeing. The Catechism recognises that the dignity of the human person needs to be supported by institutions which protect and improve the conditions of human life in all its spheres, whether spiritual or temporal.


The cloak of Christ has never prevented his Church from making grievous errors. It has simply ensured its survival despite them. To those who believe authority is entitled to unquestioning obedience, check the text. Respect and honour do not come automatically with the job. Obsequiousness is a poor imitation of them, though often mistaken or substituted for them. Today they are earned the hard way. As we sow, so shall we reap.


Someday, God willing, my children will have their own houses and the state of their bedrooms will be their own business. Will they have their faith? Will they still be members of this great and exasperating family which is the Catholic Church? I trust in God they will. Trusting in man is not a comforting thought for, while our Church flagellates itself, consuming its vast energy in a de­bate about itself, the world of mankind is marching on. Tech­nology is outstripping ethics. Total power over life and death on the entire planet rests in the hands of a tiny number of world leaders. We need a strong Church, we need a united and re­freshed Church, we need an intellectually and spiritually credible Church. There may, in the future, be other authorities issuing orders with whose consequences no human being should be asked to live. Then we will need men and women who can say no', clearly and firmly.

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