Benedict XVI’s Letter to SEMINARIANS!

His Holiness of Our Lord, the Vicar of Christ Pope Benedict XVI has issued a letter penned to seminarians.

Let us have a look, with my emphases and comments.  I add observations at the en as well.


Dear Seminarians, [NB: this is not to bishops, or priests, or just any ol’ religious or lay person.  They, along with prospective semarians, form the important peanut gallery.]

When in December 1944 I was drafted for military service, the company commander asked each of us what we planned to do in the future. I answered that I wanted to become a Catholic priest. The lieutenant replied: “Then you ought to look for something else. In the new Germany priests are no longer needed”.  [Not so different from today.] I knew that this “new Germany” was already coming to an end, and that, after the enormous devastation which that madness had brought upon the country, priests would be needed more than ever[NB: I often describe Pope Benedict’s prime project for his pontificate as being much like the Marshall Plan, which helped to rebuild Europe after the devastation.] Today the situation is completely changed.  In different ways, though, many people nowadays also think that the Catholic priesthood is not a “job” for the future, but one that belongs more to the past. You, dear friends, have decided to enter the seminary and to prepare for priestly ministry in the Catholic Church in spite of such opinions and objections. You have done a good thing. Because people will always have need of God, even in an age marked by technical mastery of the world and globalization: they will always need the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, the God who gathers us together in the universal Church in order to learn with him and through him life’s true meaning and in order to uphold and apply the standards of true humanity[A supernatural objective and a natural objective informed by the supernatural.] Where people no longer perceive God, life grows empty; nothing is ever enough. People then seek escape in euphoria and violence; these are the very things that increasingly threaten young people. God is alive. He has created every one of us and he knows us all. He is so great that he has time for the little things in our lives: “Every hair of your head is numbered”. God is alive, and he needs people to serve him and bring him to others. It does makes sense to become a priest: the world needs priests, pastors, today, tomorrow and always, until the end of time.

The seminary is a community journeying towards priestly ministry. [That is what they should be.] I have said something very important here: one does not become a priest on one’s own. The “community of disciples” is essential, the fellowship of those who desire to serve the greater Church. In this letter I would like to point out – thinking back to my own time in the seminary – several elements which I consider important for these years of your journeying.

1. Anyone who wishes to become a priest must be first and foremost a “man of God”, to use the expression of Saint Paul (1 Tim 6:11). For us God is not some abstract hypothesis; he is not some stranger who left the scene after the “big bang”. [Furthermore, you cannot pray to an abstraction, you cannot have a relationship with an abstraction.] God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. In the face of Jesus Christ we see the face of God. In his words we hear God himself speaking to us. It follows that the most important thing in our path towards priesthood and during the whole of our priestly lives is our personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ. The priest is not the leader of a sort of association whose membership he tries to maintain and expand.  [Get that?  Today, the number of committed Catholics may be shrinking.  Also, we have to do the right thing, even if that means taking a hit in financing or numbers.  Just think of John 6, on the one hand, and Judas interest in money on the other.] He is God’s messenger to his people. He wants to lead them to God and in this way to foster authentic communion between all men and women. That is why it is so important, dear friends, that you learn to live in constant intimacy with God. When the Lord tells us to “pray constantly”, he is obviously not asking us to recite endless prayers, but urging us never to lose our inner closeness to God. [A te numquam separari permittas.] Praying means growing in this intimacy. So it is important that our day should begin and end with prayer; that we listen to God as the Scriptures are read; that we share with him our desires and our hopes, our joys and our troubles, our failures and our thanks for all his blessings, and thus keep him ever before us as the point of reference for our lives. In this way we grow aware of our failings and learn to improve, but we also come to appreciate all the beauty and goodness which we daily take for granted and so we grow in gratitude. With gratitude comes joy for the fact that God is close to us and that we can serve him.

2. For us God is not simply Word. In the sacraments he gives himself to us in person, through physical realities. At the heart of our relationship with God and our way of life is the Eucharist. Celebrating it devoutly, and thus encountering Christ personally, should be the centre of all our days. In Saint Cyprian’s interpretation of the Gospel prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”, he says among other things that “our” bread – the bread which we receive as Christians in the Church – is the Eucharistic Lord himself.  [And may all seminary faculties be reminded that the Cong. for Catholic Education in 1990 issued a document requiring that Patristics have its own place in the program of formation in seminaries.] In this petition of the Our Father, then, we pray that he may daily give us “our” bread; and that it may always nourish our lives; that the Risen Christ, who gives himself to us in the Eucharist, may truly shape the whole of our lives by the radiance of his divine love. The proper celebration of the Eucharist involves knowing, understanding and loving the Church’s liturgy in its concrete form. [This includes the Extraordinary Form, btw.] In the liturgy we pray with the faithful of every age – the past, the present and the future are joined in one great chorus of prayer. As I can state from personal experience, it is inspiring to learn how it all developed, what a great experience of faith is reflected in the structure of the Mass, and how it has been shaped by the prayer of many generations.

3. The sacrament of Penance is also important. It teaches me to see myself as God sees me, and it forces me to be honest with myself. It leads me to humility. [The Pope must go to confession just like everyone else.  More so, probably.] The Curé of Ars once said: “You think it makes no sense to be absolved today, because you know that tomorrow you will commit the same sins over again. Yet,” he continues, “God instantly forgets tomorrow’s sins in order to give you his grace today.” Even when we have to struggle continually with the same failings, it is important to resist the coarsening of our souls and the indifference which would simply accept that this is the way we are. It is important to keep pressing forward, without scrupulosity, in the grateful awareness that God forgives us ever anew – yet also without the indifference that might lead us to abandon altogether the struggle for holiness and self-improvement. Moreover, by letting myself be forgiven, I learn to forgive others. In recognizing my own weakness, I grow more tolerant and understanding of the failings of my neighbour.

4. I urge you to retain an appreciation for popular piety, which is different in every culture [which liberals sneer at] yet always remains very similar, for the human heart is ultimately one and the same. Certainly, popular piety tends towards the irrational, and can at times be somewhat superficial. Yet it would be quite wrong to dismiss it. Through that piety, the faith has entered human hearts and become part of the common patrimony of sentiments and customs, shaping the life and emotions of the community. Popular piety is thus one of the Church’s great treasures. The faith has taken on flesh and blood. Certainly popular piety always needs to be purified and refocused, yet it is worthy of our love and it truly makes us into the “People of God”.

5. Above all, [Perhaps different from “first and foremost” back in No. 1.] your time in the seminary is also a time of study. The Christian faith has an essentially rational and intellectual dimension. [To a degree, the things the Pope mentioned so far are strongly affeective.] Were it to lack that dimension, it would not be itself. Paul speaks of a “standard of teaching” to which we were entrusted in Baptism (Rom 6:17). All of you know the words of Saint Peter which the medieval theologians saw as the justification for a rational and scientific theology: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an ‘accounting’ (logos) for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). Learning how to make such a defence is one of the primary responsibilities of your years in the seminary. [This sounds like a specific call from the Pope for an emphasis on apologetics.] I can only plead with you:  [The. Pope. Pleads. With. You.  … Think about that.] Be committed to your studies! Take advantage of your years of study! You will not regret it. Certainly, the subjects which you are studying can often seem far removed from the practice of the Christian life and the pastoral ministry. Yet it is completely mistaken to start questioning their practical value by asking: Will this be helpful to me in the future? Will it be practically or pastorally useful? The point is not simply to learn evidently useful things, but to understand and appreciate the internal structure of the faith as a whole, [The priest needs a world view, an interpretive lens, a hermeneutic…] so that it can become a response to people’s questions, which on the surface change from one generation to another yet ultimately remain the same. For this reason it is important to move beyond the changing questions of the moment in order to grasp the real questions, and so to understand how the answers are real answers. [Which leads me to suggest that the same goes for liturgical worship in seminary.  Seminarians should also have that worship which does not change.] It is important to have a thorough knowledge of sacred Scripture as a whole, in its unity as the Old and the New Testaments: the shaping of texts, their literary characteristics, the process by which they came to form the canon of sacred books, their dynamic inner unity, a unity which may not be immediately apparent but which in fact gives the individual texts their full meaning. [The Fathers can help seminarians learn this.  And speaking of the Fathers…] It is important to be familiar with the Fathers and the great Councils in which the Church appropriated, through faith-filled reflection, the essential statements of Scripture. I could easily go on. What we call dogmatic theology is the understanding of the individual contents of the faith in their unity, indeed, in their ultimate simplicity: each single element is, in the end, only an unfolding of our faith in the one God who has revealed himself to us and continues to do so. I do not need to point out the importance of knowing the essential issues of moral theology and Catholic social teaching[His Holiness probably doesn’t need to point that out to seminarians… not to seminarians…] The importance nowadays of ecumenical theology, and of a knowledge of the different Christian communities, is obvious; as is the need for a basic introduction to the great religions, to say nothing of philosophy: the understanding of that human process of questioning and searching to which faith seeks to respond. But you should also learn to understand and – dare I say it – to love canon law, appreciating how necessary it is and valuing its practical applications: a society without law would be a society without rights. Law is the condition of love. I will not go on with this list, but I simply say once more: love the study of theology and carry it out in the clear realization that theology is anchored in the living community of the Church, which, with her authority, is not the antithesis of theological science but its presupposition. Cut off from the believing Church, theology would cease to be itself and instead it would become a medley of different disciplines lacking inner unity.

6. Your years in the seminary should also be a time of growth towards human maturity. It is important for the priest, who is called to accompany others through the journey of life up to the threshold of death, to have the right balance of heart and mind, reason and feeling, body and soul, and to be humanly integrated. To the theological virtues the Christian tradition has always joined the cardinal virtues derived from human experience and philosophy, and, more generally, from the sound ethical tradition of humanity. Paul makes this point this very clearly to the Philippians: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8). This also involves the integration of sexuality into the whole personality. Sexuality is a gift of the Creator yet it is also a task which relates to a person’s growth towards human maturity. [I think this is code language.  Cf. the Vatican’s document about not admitting men with homosexual tendencies into programs of formation if those tendencies are very strong or if they cannot deal with them in a healthy way.] When it is not integrated within the person, sexuality becomes banal and destructive. Today we can see many examples of this in our society. Recently we have seen with great dismay that some priests disfigured their ministry by sexually abusing children and young people. Instead of guiding people to greater human maturity and setting them an example, their abusive behaviour caused great damage for which we feel profound shame and regret. As a result of all this, many people, perhaps even some of you, might ask whether it is good to become a priest; whether the choice of celibacy makes any sense as a truly human way of life. Yet even the most reprehensible abuse cannot discredit the priestly mission, which remains great and pure. Thank God, all of us know exemplary priests, men shaped by their faith, who bear witness that one can attain to an authentic, pure and mature humanity in this state and specifically in the life of celibacy. Admittedly, what has happened should make us all the more watchful and attentive, precisely in order to examine ourselves earnestly, before God, as we make our way towards priesthood, so as to understand whether this is his will for me. It is the responsibility of your confessor and your superiors to accompany you and help you along this path of discernment. It is an essential part of your journey to practise the fundamental human virtues, [“human virtues”, those which we can discern from reason.  And then…] with your gaze fixed on the God who has revealed himself in Christ, and to let yourselves be purified by him ever anew.

7. The origins of a priestly vocation are nowadays more varied and disparate than in the past. [Later vocations, vocations coming from lay movements, etc.] Today the decision to become a priest often takes shape after one has already entered upon a secular profession. [You could hear it coming down the line…] Often it grows within the Communities, particularly within the Movements, [yep] which favour a communal encounter with Christ and his Church, spiritual experiences and joy in the service of the faith. It also matures in very personal encounters with the nobility and the wretchedness of human existence. As a result, candidates for the priesthood often live on very different spiritual continents. It can be difficult to recognize the common elements of one’s future mandate and its spiritual path. For this very reason, the seminary is important as a community which advances above and beyond differences of spirituality. The Movements are a magnificent thing. You know how much I esteem them and love them as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. Yet they must be evaluated by their openness to what is truly Catholic, to the life of the whole Church of Christ, which for all her variety still remains one. The seminary is a time when you learn with one another and from one another. In community life, which can at times be difficult, you should learn generosity and tolerance, not only bearing with, but also enriching one another, so that each of you will be able to contribute his own gifts to the whole, even as all serve the same Church, the same Lord. This school of tolerance, indeed, of mutual acceptance and mutual understanding in the unity of Christ’s Body, is an important part of your years in the seminary[Would that it had been so in my day!]

Dear seminarians, with these few lines I have wanted to let you know how often I think of you, especially in these difficult times, and how close I am to you in prayer[Who can for an instant doubt that!] Please pray for me, that I may exercise my ministry well, as long as the Lord may wish. I entrust your journey of preparation for priesthood to the maternal protection of Mary Most Holy, whose home was a school of goodness and of grace. May Almighty God bless you all, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

From the Vatican, 18 October 2010, the Feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist.

Several things occur to me at this point.

First, the Pope is concerned that young men will be discouraged by what they are seeing.  This is a real shot in the arm.

Consider what a shot in the arm Summorum Pontificum was for priests.   Since and during the Council there has a tendency, heck… nearly an obsession… about building up the mystic and power of bishops.  This Pope has, I think, a little different view of the matter.

The Holy Father is not just speaking to the seminarians of the pampered West and Northern Hemisphere in the letter.   He is also not speaking around them.

Pope Benedict spoke from personal experience, from his youth… a very difficult time.  I think he sees similarities.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    First of all, dear Fr Z, what a wonderful fisk. Here you have fulfilled the role of a teacher, adding to the Holy Father’s words with depth and perspective.

    Secondly, it is most interesting that in these words you can hear the Holy Father speaking directly to His successor in the Chair of Peter.

  2. Seraphic Spouse says:

    The Holy Father writes so lucidly that it is a pleasure to read anything that he writes. I suppose kudos are owed also to his English translator. A very beautiful letter.

  3. lmgilbert says:

    It would be really helpful also if the pope were to write a letter to seminary rectors commanding them to implement the Benedictine reform, e.g. make the EF available, use Latin in the NO, teach Gregorian chant and have a schola; commanding them to get the godforsaken JEPD (Wellhoausen theory, documentary hypothesis) theory out of the biblical curriculum, especially out of the Roman theologates; commanding them to put their philosophical instruction on a Thomistic basis, etc., etc. In other words, make it possible for the seminarian to learn how to pray, believe and think with the Church (sentire cum ecclesia) WHILE STILL IN THE SEMINARY, as opposed to playing catch up for the rest of his life.

    As it is, to take one horrific example among others, there is a major seminary here in the U.S. that sends its men to a local junior college for their philosophical training. How bright is that?

    Regarding the JEPD theory, Solomon Schecter, ( in “The Higher Anti-Semitism,” In Seminary Addresses and Other Papers (Cincinnati; The Ark Publishing Company, 1915) anticipating the Holocaust by 35 years, wrote:

    “Our great claim to the gratitude of mankind is that we gave to the world the word of God, the Bible. We have stormed heaven to snatch down this heavenly gift, as the Paitanic expression is; we threw ourselves into the breach and covered it with our bodies against every attack; we allowed ourselves to be slain by hundreds and thousands rather than become unfaithful to it; and we bore witness to its truth and watched over its purity in the face of a hostile world. The Bible is our sole raison d’être, and it is just this which the Higher anti-Semitism is seeking to destroy, denying all our claims for the past, and leaving us without hope for the future.
    “Can any section among us afford to concede to this professorial and imperial anti-Semitism and confess “for a truth we and our ancestors have sinned’” we have lived on false pretenses and were the worst shams in the world? Forget not that we live in an historical age in which everybody must show his credentials from the past. The Bible is our patent of nobility granted to us by the Almighty God, and if we disown the Bible, leaving it to the tender mercies of a Wellhausen, Stade and Duhm, and other beautiful souls working away at diminishing the “nimbus of the Chosen People,” the world will disown us.”

    It doesn’t take a genius to see that Schecter virtually predicted the Holocaust, and that the so called Documentary Hypothesis (JEPD theory, Wellhausen hypothesis) may well have been a very substantial contributing factor. In my view it is killing our priests and seminarians now. After saying good-bye to everyone, in other words totally committing himself, the seminarian is told (or it is strongly implied) on the first day of Bible 101 that there were no miracles in the Exodus, that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch, etc., etc.

    In other words, the Pope and the Bishops have to make it POSSIBLE for the seminarian to implement the Pope’s letter

  4. irishgirl says:

    Wow-this is a beautiful letter to seminarians from our Holy Papa!
    And thank you, Father Z, for posting this, along with all your comments and emphases!

  5. Dr. Eric says:

    What a great letter! Our seminarians are blessed to have the Holy Father write this to them. I pray that every seminarian and young man who is discerning will read this.

  6. Gail F says:

    What a fantastic letter. I am going to see some seminarians tomorrow; I’ll ask them what they think of it.

  7. anna 6 says:

    Classic Benedict…
    Beautiful, inspiring and eminently useful!

  8. Kate says:

    I. Love. Pope. Benedict!

  9. Elizabeth D says:

    “I urge you to retain an appreciation for popular piety, which is different in every culture [which liberals sneer at] yet always remains very similar, for the human heart is ultimately one and the same. Certainly, popular piety tends towards the irrational, and can at times be somewhat superficial. Yet it would be quite wrong to dismiss it. ” These are edifying words, for me. To me it’s very irrational to be devoted to Medjugorje for instance. Or to the Brown Scapular in a way that has nothing to do with being part of the Carmelite family whose habit it is, nor their spirituality, both of which elements a CDW-approved doctrinal statement says are integral with the Scapular devotion. (I am a Secular Carmelite novice) These are things that about drive me crazy, and at the same time it seems usually really wrong to be mad at the people, who are basically devoted to Mary, and what could be more right than that?

  10. This is exactly what I needed to hear this week. Long live our Holy Father, and please pray for us seminarians :)

  11. Supertradmum says:

    Thank you for posting this. I wish every diocesan and non-diocesan seminary president or abbot would look at this and hold up each point to what is actually happening in their seminaries.

    Popular piety is absolutely disparaged at an undergraduate seminary where our diocese sends young men. For example, adoration is not encouraged and the rosary not said as a group. In addition, Marian holy days are minimalist, to the point where one seminarian remarked to me that he could not understand the “absence of Mary”.

    The shorthand note, as you mentioned Father Z, on normal sexuality, is also “an issue”, as I know for a fact that some dioceses are accepting homosexual men into the seminaries. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in effect remains a joke in at least two of those in the Midwest, with which I am familar. Young men at Mundelein were told in September “to not mention homosexuality” at all, in any situation, to keep quiet about things they would find out.

    God bless this Pope, and his courageous leadership. I am sure this letter will encourage young men who want to be holy, traditional, orthodox priests.

  12. ghp95134 says:

    How is this letter being diseminated? Does it come down the official chain of command and is publicly read during “Officer’s Call;” or, is it being sent via the “bush telegraph” and will be up to the individual seminarian to hopefully read it? I’m praying for the former.

    Joe of St. Thérèse: How did YOU receive the letter?

    –Guy Power

  13. AlexE says:

    At my seminary this was posted on two bulletin boards for us to read.

  14. Adoration isn’t even popular piety. It’s normal ecclesiastical piety.

    Re: codewords, I actually think the Pope is talking to all the seminary men. There are a lot of people these days who have disordered attitude toward sex, reproduction, the opposite sex, et al. SSA is the tip of the iceberg, and probably not what troubles most seminarians. Given the statistics on general use of p*rn, the hookup culture, the many kids who come from broken families, and so on; and given the general lack of catechesis on these matters given to Catholics whose parents didn’t teach them; there are probably a lot of young men who don’t know how much they don’t know about how to live as a normal chaste Catholic layman, much less a normal celibate Catholic priest.

  15. The other point is that there are plenty of people who go into college (or seminary) as nice moral kids and come out crooked. You can’t stay still. You have to advance in virtue, and understanding, and sense of proportion, and holiness.

  16. basilorat says:

    As a sidenote: I must note that yes, the Holy Father is a (I stress “a” Vicar of Christ”). But I believe the Fathers of the Church stress that every bishop is “the Vicar of Christ” in his diocese. In other words, the pope is only one of many “Vicars of Christ”. He is the symbol of the unity of the Church as the Chair of Peter has always been.

    I was raised as both a Greek Catholic (mom’s side) and Latin Rite, and our Byzantine priest always stressed this. May I offer this gentle reminder in all humility?

  17. Magpie says:

    This is great. So edifying to read Pope Benedict’s works. I emailed this to a seminarian I know.

  18. Supertradmum says:

    Guy and others,

    At Mundelein, the Rector sent an e-mail to all the seminarians with the letter in it.

  19. Sixupman says:

    What of the bishop, late rector of a seminary who preached, at a priest’s annjversary Mass of his ordination, against the priesthood and welcomed the ‘priesthood’ of the laity. Ushaw [UK] Seminary to be closed, the rector, on BBC Radio, opined that lay men have now so many options open to them to operate within the Church [diaconate?]. He appeared not to be greatly bothered. The E & W Conference of Bishops trail their feet in respect of BXVI’s admonitions. Who will rid us of these idiots?

  20. basilorat says:

    Actually, your point regarding Adoration in the category of ecclesiastical piety is dubious. There is a debate as to whether Benediction and adoration is considered a liturgy. It has never ever been regarded as such, and in fact, would be under the category of “popular piety” which is its origins. Now that a Gospel passage has been added, many conclude that it is now an official liturgy, which would make it ‘ecclesiastical piety’ since it is governed by universal rubrics.

  21. Vox clamantis in deserto says:

    As a sidenote: I must note that yes, the Holy Father is a (I stress “a” Vicar of Christ”). But I believe the Fathers of the Church stress that every bishop is “the Vicar of Christ” in his diocese. In other words, the pope is only one of many “Vicars of Christ”. He is the symbol of the unity of the Church as the Chair of Peter has always been.

    Yes and no. Sure, the pope is one of bishops, he is the bishop of Rome, hence he is a bishop (and he is no higher in terms of the Holy Orders, and he can’t be, as nothing higher than bishop exists). Sure, the pope is a symbol of the Church.

    But, at the same time, only the pope has the highest jurisdiction over the Church (over THE Church, i.e., over all particular Catholic Churches, including all Eastern ones). And only the pope (either alone, or, when he decides so, with a Council) is infallible in matters of faith and morals.

    Read Codex canonum ecclesiarum orientalium, Can. 43-48.

    And, while I highly esteem everything what is orthodox in Orthodox Churches, they are not orthodox in the question of the Pope’s role in the Church. Eastern Catholic Churches must be careful and keep the distinction between what is their own precious tradition which they share with schismatic Churches and what is a heretical opinion of (in this question not so) Orthodox faithful.

  22. Cantuale says:

    Fr Z, have you seen the poll of the WSJ online on celibacy & priesthood ? Amazing results!
    And without lobbying … apparently

  23. irishgirl says:

    Sixupman-I just got the news of Ushaw College’s closing from a priest-friend who received his seminary training there. I am so sad for him. He was ordained in 1982 by Venerable John Paul II.
    Have the Bishops of England and Wales forgotten about everything Benedict XVI said to them JUST LAST MONTH? What’s going on here?

  24. jbas says:

    basilorat said, “There is a debate as to whether Benediction and adoration is considered a liturgy. It has never ever been regarded as such, and in fact, would be under the category of ‘popular piety’ which is its origins.”
    The following comes to mind:
    From the Instruction on Sacred Music and Sacred Liturgy, Sacred Congregation for Rites – September 3, 1958:
    47. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a true liturgical ceremony; hence it must be conducted in accordance with the “Roman Ritual”, ti. X, ch V, no.5….”

  25. CJC says:

    Thank you for posting this, Fr Z! I am in the Pre-Theologate program at Franciscan University of Steubenville. I shared this with the program directors, and they are sharing it with the rest of the program — it is such an affirmation that we are on the right tract (us personally and the program) as well as a personal engagement from the Holy Father!
    Thanks be to God for Papa Bene!

  26. Frank H says:

    At the seminary attended by my son, the Pope’s letter was read to the seminarians at dinner.

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