ASK FATHER: The priest said: “I give you the absolution …”

penance_confession_stepsFrom a reader…


Reverend Father, If a priest in the confessional says “I give you the absolution in the name of the Father and the Song and the Holy Spirit”

Is the absolution valid since he did not say “I absolve you”? This happened to me, and the priest did not seem to be a native english speaker, I did not say anything at the time but afterward thought more about it ?

This is another example of why priests should SAY THE BLACK and DO THE RED.

People should never have to doubt that they were validly absolved, even for a moment.


First, you went to confession and, I assume, made a complete, sincere, confession of your mortal sins in kind and number.  You, I am sure, expressed a sorrow and a firm purpose of amendment.   You did your part.   God surely will smile on you.  That is a great deal.

Second, what that priest said was doubtfully a valid form of absolution.  I don’t have a clear idea of what he, apparently not a native speaker of English, was working with, or what language he might have been working from.  I think that some Eastern Catholics might have a slightly different form…. Still… as I jockey the words around, I don’t get clarity.  I am left doubting and that should never happen.

If I were you, the next time you go to confession, tell the confessor what happened, mention those mortal sins again, and be absolved properly.

If this priest was a visitor, let this go.  If this priest is stationed there and he regularly says this doubtful formula, it must be addressed, first with the priest himself and then, if that doesn’t register, with the pastor of the parish and then the bishop.  This is serious business.

Some years ago, I used to carry a card with the proper form of absolution on it to give to confused or idiot priests and I would insist that they use the proper form.  That occasionally caused a few tense moments, especially if I had to add a few other observations, but I got absolved and the priest had something to think about.  But priests can do as penitents what lay people can’t.  Be careful.

Fathers, if you are pastors of parishes, parish priests, and you have a missionary priest visiting, and you put him to work hearing confessions, I suggest that you mention that in your parish, all priests use exactly the form of absolution which the Church has approved. You should have a printed card in the confessional with the approved formula in Latin and in English (and perhaps in Spanish, etc.).

Perhaps diocesan bishops might think about directing that parish priests remind visiting priests from outside the diocese that, ’round these parts we say the black words and do the red stuff.

“But Father! But Father!”, you libs who haven’t darkened the door of a confessional are mewling, “This is paternalistic and insulting!  Who needs these strictures of matter and form!  The whole Aristotle thing is so yesterday.  We’ve grown beyond that, with the help of the Spirit of Vatican II.   But you are a throwback fundamentalist repressing the Spirit and she isn’t happy with you because YOU HATE VATICAN II!”

I, for one, want to be absolved validly.  You… do what you want and good luck with that.

Lay people, if this happens to you, ask the priest – politely – to say the words of absolution.  Keep in mind that older priests might say the form of absolution while you are reciting your Act of Contrition.  In most cases, they will wait with the actual form, “I absolve you…” when you have finished.  But, sometimes, they don’t.  In that case, if you don’t hear the priest say “I absolve you…” you can – politely – ask if the priest gave you absolution.  You might add that you didn’t hear it.  If you get the sense that the priest simply did not at any time use the correct form, do not lose your cool.  Sometimes a priest will send signals that he is a bit dodgy or unsure.  For example, if he tells you something that is clearly a mortal sin is not a sin, or if he subtly (or not) runs you down for a reciting “laundry list”, or even if he doesn’t give a penance or the penance is something like “think nice thoughts about someone”, you may be in the presence of a guy who has either made the choice that he knows better than the Church or he has not been well-trained.  Again, don’t lose your cool.  Inform the pastor – politely.  If the priest is the pastor, you may have to inform the diocesan bishop.  Did I mention don’t lose your cool? Be polite?  It is nearly unimaginable that the priest is straying from what ought to be done out of malice or ill intent.

If you are pretty sure that you were not absolved, freak not thou thyself out.  If there is another priest available, tell him what happened, make your confession, get absolved, and go on your way whistling a happy tune (after leaving the church, of course).  Otherwise, at your next opportunity, make your confession.

Moderation queue is ON.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Longinus says:

    I recently went to confession to an elderly Franciscan friar. After hearing my confession he gave me no penance to perform. After granting absolution (according to the proper form) I asked him what was my penance. His somewhat testy response was “isn’t life penance enough?” Thus, no penance assigned except, I suppose, to continue living.
    Valid or not?

    [The validity of the absolution and the efficacy of the sacrament do not depend on whether you do your assigned penance. However, can. 981 says clearly that priests are to assign penances. The priest’s absolution is effective immediately. Your doing the penance doesn’t make it valid after the fact. This doesn’t mean that doing an assigned penance isn’t important. It is. However, it does not change the fact that CHRIST made the perfect satisfaction for all sins, and that your doing the penance doesn’t change the priest’s effective absolution.]

  2. “I give you the absolution” Personally [?] I would give the priest the benefit of the doubt and attribute the rephrasing to a simple translation error by a person who is not fluent in English. That comes from someone with very poor foreign language skills. [No one is calling into question the priest’s good will. But sacraments have matter and form.] I also wonder how “I absolve you” is said in Latin and how many different interpretations could be derived from the Latin.

    [Our personal feelings of the priest, and whether we think he is well-intentioned or not is not at issue here. Sacraments have matter and form. If the form isn’t used in an acceptable, valid way, the sacrament as not been effected. If a priest is going to serve in some region, he had at the very least know how to administer sacraments VALIDLY. I suggest that priests of the Latin Church perhaps could learn the Latin forms.]

  3. lilye says:

    I go to confession regularly, confessing venial sins, and a particular priest always tells me to “think about….” for my penance. I always feel like something is missing and I find the penance much more difficult to carry out than a concrete task. I’m not sure when or if I’ve completed it. I also struggle somewhat with whether I am confessing correctly so when this happens I wonder if I was being scrupulous (were they not really sins because I didn’t get a real penance?) or if I did it wrong after all (Was I not specific enough? Was I too specific? Why do I just have to “think about it”? I want a real penance….).

  4. arrowsmith says:

    I once made a confession at a Parish staffed by Dominicans. One of the friars from the priory nearby was hearing confessions just before Easter and had a long line of penitents. The friar, who was of a certain age, gave me some hokey absolution (God loves you, go in peace or some such nonsense) to which I replied “Thank you Father, could I have absolution now please.” He was obviously taken aback and sputtered for a moment but then launched into the full and proper form without issues. I can’t understand why someone who both knew the form and had no problem giving it when prompted wouldn’t just use in the first place. I think about that day often and can only hope that my request caused him to give the proper absolution to the people behind me.

  5. Pigeon says:

    Longinus, that priest sure seems to have a negative outlook on life. He needs your prayers. He’s probably going through problems of his own.

  6. surritter says:

    I agree that we must be meticulous with matter and form, but if the priest said “I give you the absolution,” that is in effect the same as “I absolve you.” Not acceptable as a regular thing, but efficacious before God.
    Suppose I say that “I donated $20 to a great Catholic charity.” Or suppose I say “I made a donation of $20 to a great Catholic charity.” How could anyone think those have different meanings?

  7. un-ionized says:

    lilye, in a parish with lots of people that fill up confession time, in the bulletin the pastor always reminded people not to go to confession to confess venial sins as this takes up time that can be used by people in mortal sin. he pointed out that venial sins are dealt with by saying a genuine act of contrition on one’s own. i also feel strongly about this, having been left behind before Mass by a long line of people taking ten minutes apiece. so what you do is fine (unless you are suffering from scrupulosity) but please do not take up time that someone else needs. All your questions about this seem to point toward scrupulosity: doing it “right,” real penance, too specific, etc. kneeling on broken glass is a real penance but would it help? the penances assigned are usually “piece of cakey,” the hard part is not putting on a repeat performance, as i always seem to do (blush, hanging head).

  8. mo7 says:

    Is it really necessary that the priest gives advice on every sin committed? I’m there because I know I’ve sinned, do we need to go over the obvious? I can see an odd circumstance where questions or advice might be in order. But honestly the vast majority of the time, I am not bringing mortal sins to confession, I’d like to confess, be absolved and be on my way. If I need advice or direction, I’ll ask; but still in that case I’d rather speak to the priest outside of confession.

  9. HealingRose says:

    For some reason I was able to talk my ex-husband into coming to confession with me. I found out this was to be his first time. I think this was especially important, because he is a drug addict, was abusive, and was committing crimes to feed his drug habit. (We have been split for a long time due to the addiction and abuse.) While waiting, he was becoming angry and almost did not go in to the confession room. After helping orient my ex-husband with where to kneel behind the curtain so it would be private, I explained to a visiting missionary priest it was his first time, and I promptly left. I found out after the priest quickly redirected him to sit face to face and ended up doing most of the talking. I don’t know if he was ever properly absolved or received a penance.

    Our daughter also went with that day to go to confession for the first time. She had a similar experience with the missionary priest. She had also went through the RCIA process the previous year and told me they never went to confession or even explain it during classes. The adult and children candidates have separate classes. Even though I had received all the usual sacraments while growing up as cradle Catholic, I attended the adult RCIA class while my two oldest kids were in the kid RCIA class. They never went over the basics like what confession was and how to go. (They didn’t even prepare anyone how to properly receive Communion.) Why would new members of a church to go to confession when we aren’t teaching anyone what it is and why it’s so important!?

    I found a great little children’s booklet “My Confession Book” (originally printed in 1958). I ordered it to help my 11 yr old, my 12 yr old, and myself get more comfortable with going to confession regularly. I only went to confession once when I was 11 years old and never went again until this last year. It baffles me that something so basic and important like confession wasn’t a routine thing while I was growing up.

  10. Sword40 says:

    I once went to confession at a Dominican parish. Everything went perfect UNTIL he told me to say a good act of contrition. My mind went totally blank, so I said “Father, help me get started, my mind is blank”. There was a long silence, then he burst out laughing. He said, “my mind is blank too”. That’s when I saw a little “help card” on the ledge in front of the screen. By then I was laughing hard too and could barely read it properly. Confession can be “fun” too.

  11. lilye says:

    @un-ionized – I do not agree with your pastor about not going to confession for venial sins. Making a monthly confession is one of the cornerstones of the spiritual life. Saint Pope John Paul II and Saint Teresa of Calcutta went to confession weekly and I don’t think they were confessing mortal sins.

    From the CCC #1458: “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful.”

    Be careful about making assumptions – you do not know my vocation, the situation in the parish I confess in or how much time I take in confession. And please don’t make comments on scrupulosity – that is best left to a spiritual director. I shared only in the hope of helping others who may have similar feelings.

  12. Worm-120 says:

    I’ve never had a priest mess with absolution, if father struggles with english he ushualy says something to the effect of “I’m going to absolve you in my language” and then rattles it off in whatever language he speaks. I trust more in being absolved in a language I can’t understand than I would if someone fiddled with the english form a bit.

  13. Gee, a non-native speaker confessor struggling with language in the confessional and being a little inaccurate perhaps with the precise formula.

    If we only had a universal language that every priest could use, familiar to all Catholics no matter where we are… What a help this would be for the conscientious, soul-loving, well-intentioned priest!

    Imagine using the LATIN formula. Hey, there’s an idea. [rolling my eyes -this vernacular thing and making stuff up as you go has got to stop – the official language of the Church is Latin]

  14. Henry Edwards says:

    Might some priests dilute or weaken the words of absolution because they themselves harbor doubts about their sacramental efficacy?

    [It is tempting to wonder about that, but I doubt it. In seminary we had a priest on the faculty who is one of the 10 worst priests I have ever encountered. I’d relate more, but it is genuinely shocking. However, when the issue of confession came up, he wasn’t weird. For example, when talking about the Seal, he would repeat “Keep. Your. Mouth. Shut.”… “But what if….”… “Keep. Your. Mouth. Shut.”… “But say something happens like…” “Keep. Your. Mouth. Shut.”… This guy was really bad, but on this point he was solid. Of course that doesn’t speak to belief in sacramental efficacy. I noted on many occasions that he wouldn’t say the words of consecration when “concelebrating”. He was really into Rahner, who thought that sacraments celebrate pre-existing realities, and Schillebeecxk whose notions about priesthood were horrid. But when it came to confession, there was enough of a shred of Catholic sense left that he didn’t waver on the issue of the Seal. This fellow, by the way, vice-rector and also rector for a while, left the priesthood. Those were bad days.]

  15. APX says:

    lilye, in a parish with lots of people that fill up confession time, in the bulletin the pastor always reminded people not to go to confession to confess venial sins as this takes up time that can be used by people in mortal sin. he pointed out that venial sins are dealt with by saying a genuine act of contrition on one’s own. i also feel strongly about this, having been left behind before Mass by a long line of people taking ten minutes apiece.

    Absolute rubish! Your priest is wrong, absolutely wrong, to tell people not to go to confession if they only have Venial sins to confess. The Sacrament of Penance gives us the grace to stay out of mortal sin and to overcome our Venial sins. Even the Church Herself disagrees with your priest.

    If people there isn’t sufficient time to hear confessions, then your priest needs to schedule more time to hear confessions.

  16. In regard to confessing only venial sins, I understand the dilemma of the priest with the long confessional line asking for only the confession of mortal sins. And gosh, what a good problem to have!

    However, it is extremely important to confess venial sins and frequently! Confessing venial sins gets you all sorts of graces – less blindness of intellect, grace to overcome the sin or fault, a method of detailed examination in regular self-accusation, a better sense of sin, an activity that forces us to examine our consciences more frequently …well the good effects are almost endless.
    Focusing on only mortal sins is more appropriate for emergency situations or dire necessity.
    Also if it becomes known to the parish that the people in line for confession have sinned mortally, isn’t that a bit too revealing for the anonymity of the confessional that we are all due?

    Yes, there are other means of remitting venial sin that include receiving certain other Sacraments, attending Mass, sacramentals. “It consists of the two prayers: Misereatur vestri, etc., and Indulgentiam absolutionem, etc., Also the use of holy water, which, in accordance with the intention and prayers of the Church when she blesses it, is designed to ward off the devil’s influence from animate and inanimate creatures and to protect them from impurity, sickness, and harm. The effect of the other sacramentals in procuring remission of venial sins is not so direct…”. The thing is, the Church encourages us to confess frequently, including venial sins. Its the best method for uprooting the causes of and defeating mortal sins. Venial sins and faults weaken us, making us vulnerable to sinning mortally. If we focus only on our mortal sins, so much more about ourselves and our weaknesses goes unnoticed, untreated.

    I have been reading a book on confession, written for confessors around 1905, because I want to know what I was never taught. Tremendously detailed, the book helps me understand the nature of contrition, love of God, as well as how to examine my conscience, and how to describe myself to a confessor. These types of books used to be a dime a dozen since one of the major objectives of priests is the direction and salvation of souls. Slogging through this book demonstrates how poorly formed, how inadequate, how lost priests are today in the confessional. I am not reading it to examine a priest’s methods but really to enlighten myself because I cannot find this kind of personal help from any priest today, even as well-intentioned and kind as they might be. Priests are not formed well today for directing souls.

    The book [over 650 pages], with Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, is “Theory and Practice of the Confessional, A guide in the administration of the Sacrament of Penance” by Prof. Caspar E. Schieler, D.D., edited by Rev. H. J. Heuser, D.D., intro by Messmer, Archbp of Milwaukee. It can be found online free.
    Maybe there are other old guides like this buried in libraries somewhere – unfortunately most of these kinds of helps have been destroyed or lost. Wouldn’t it be great to find more of these and disseminate them to our confused priests? And imagine using this kind of book in seminary training!

  17. The Masked Chicken says:

    “lilye, in a parish with lots of people that fill up confession time, in the bulletin the pastor always reminded people not to go to confession to confess venial sins as this takes up time that can be used by people in mortal sin. he pointed out that venial sins are dealt with by saying a genuine act of contrition on one’s own. ”

    This is a sticky point. It would be nice if there were an express line for those who have mortal sins, but without some sort of elaborate curtain maze, it is difficult for people to be discrete with regards to what sins they have. It is absolutely important for those in mortal sin to go to confession, but it is wrong to dismiss the effects or the need for confession with regards to venial sins. During St. Teresa of Avila’s day, she was very insistent that her nuns go to confession when it was available. One may presume that most of them did not have mortal sins on their souls. Granted, it was a restricted population, but St. Teresa felt that confession for venial sins was meritorious. Unlike saying an Act of Contrition, confession gives graces to avoid sins in the future by the action of the sacrament. This can be important for those people who are trying to live a life of perfection.

    I have no solution for this state of affairs.

    I have been in one or two confessions where the priest used an objectively invalid form of absolution. I have walked out of the confessional in a state of shock, wondering if I should say something to the other people waiting in line, but, then, I realize that I can’t, objectively, know what form of absolution he is going to give for them, so I can only pray and hope that the people going into the confessional understand their faith well enough that should he give them the same formula he gave me, they would recognize it for its invalidity. Sadly, one can no longer assume that the general public understands the nature of the sacraments well enough to know this. Why, oh why, can’t the laity speak up loudly and unashamedly when they encounter poor RCIA classes or other poor catechetics coming from their parish. Souls are at stake.

    If I were the Pope’s chicken (pet, not meal), I would whisper in his ear about universal education for Catholic adults. It might keep bad confessions from happening.

    The Chicken

  18. MrsMacD says:

    mo7 When the priest speaks ESPECIALLY in confession (a sacrament!) that is Jesus giving you advice. Humbly listen.

    un-ionized maybe if your priest had more people confessing venial sins he would have less people commiting mortal sins. It sounds like your priest really doesn’t understand confession.

    There is so much injustice in the whole situation. Priests are given the impression that they can just make it up. (If they can make up the Mass why not everything else.).

    Think about it this way NorthernHermit, what if someone baptized your Godchild,”I give you the baptism…” It would leave you wondering if your godchild was baptized and that’s the whole point. It would be wise, humbling but wise, to redo it.

  19. TimG says:

    Fr Z., is the following correct? I cannot believe it. It’s been a long time since I have committed a mortal sin, but I try to go to Confession at least once a month and my priest always recommends it.

    he pointed out that venial sins are dealt with by saying a genuine act of contrition on one’s own. i also feel strongly about this, having been left behind before Mass by a long line of people taking ten minutes apiece. so what you do is fine (unless you are suffering from scrupulosity) but please do not take up time that someone else needs.

    [I’m not sure what you are asking, but I don’t see anything wrong with reminding people to get to the point.]

  20. ajf1984 says:

    To respond to surritter’s point, above: I don’t think the meaning of the words is at issue, necessarily. It is certainly true that English, as with most languages, provides you with many ways to express the same idea. To whit: “I heard Mass this morning”/”I participated in the Divine Liturgy”/”I worshiped the Risen One at Eucharist” all essentially mean the same thing (although not all versions are as clear as others). But neither in my example nor in yours are we talking about a prescribed order of specific words given to us by Holy Mother Church to effect a particular end (namely, the forgiveness of sins). So yes, different words/phrases can express the same reality, but that doesn’t make them interchangeable and especially not in the case of the sacraments.

    One final example: an unhappy priest, or perhaps the Bishop of Libville himself, might deign to substitute parts of the Formula of Consecration, saying “This is the Lord’s Body” instead of “This is my Body” or something equally silly. We all know what he means, but did he confect the Eucharist? Dubious…And Fr. Z’s point is, I think, largely that no one should ever be in doubt about the state of his soul post-Absolution!

  21. TimG says:

    My question was in response to the statement by un-ionized that one need not go to Confession for venial sins.

    Others have seen this disconcerting statement as well and have responded as I would expect…..I especially like the straight forward “Rubbish!”

  22. JustaSinner says:

    Father Z., love the graphics. From the old Baltimore Catechism Book I believe?

  23. un-ionized says:

    apx, absolutely not rubbish, this is a parish with confession before every sunday Mass, an hour on saturday and after every noon Mass weekdays until all are heard. and there is still a problem. many many scrupulous people there, which is what the priest was trying to get at.

  24. un-ionized says:

    mrs. macd, i assure you that a dominican friar really does understand confession.

  25. un-ionized says:

    “un-ionized maybe if your priest had more people confessing venial sins he would have less people commiting mortal sins.” isn’t that sorta rude?

  26. Ralph says:

    You know Father, when I encounter less than perfect clergy, I try to simply be greatful that, at minimum, at least I have regular access to them. How many of our brethren in remote areas have to deal with irregular access to the sacraments?

    But when I find a great priest – I try to make sure I encourage and thank him. A truly orthodox priest is in for a difficult life. The enemy hates the priesthood.

  27. iamlucky13 says:

    I know there is more official guidance Father Z draws from (no doubt some of those manuals he likes), although when I had to consider the question personally in the past, I only came across hints of the debate that has in the past taken place about this. But the basic summary seems to be pretty easy to remember:

    1.) The way to be sure that absolution is validly conferred is to use the exact words stipulated.
    2.) If in doubt of whether you received valid absolution, there is nothing preventing you from confessing again to another priest, explaining briefly the circumstances.

    My personal case also involved a priest who was not a native English speaker. He gave no absolution at all, nor any indication he was withholding it. Having read from Father Z. that some priests say the absolution silently during the act of contrition, I simply said, “I’m sorry Father, I didn’t hear the absolution. Did you give it?” He responded by repeating the penance he assigned, so I said, “Ok, I understand the penance. What about absolution?” He again repeated the penance. I decided not to press further on the assumption it was a language barrier issue, and went to confession with another priest the next week. It was frustrating, but not the end of the world.

  28. APX says:

    apx, absolutely not rubbish, this is a parish with confession before every sunday Mass, an hour on saturday and after every noon Mass weekdays until all are heard. and there is still a problem. many many scrupulous people there, which is what the priest was trying to get at.

    No, it is absolute rubbish for a priest to make a blanket statement that parishioners should not go to confession if they only have Venial sins to confess. The Church and the saints are adamant that those souls who desire for perfection (which is supposed to be everyone, btw) should go to confession frequently and to confess Venial sins, even when they have no mortal sins to confess.

    The problem isn’t with people confessing venial sins, and doing so doesn’t make someone scrupulous. A scrupulous conscience and a timorous conscience are not the same. That we all would have timorous consciences. I go to confession every week and only confess Venial sins. It takes me less than 5 minutes to go to confession even with my confessor giving good sound, thorough counsel/pep talk. The problem lies somewhere else. More than likely people don’t know how to confess their sins succinctly, confession times do not meet the needs of the parishioners, and/or people are lazy and only show up for confession before Mass on Sunday expecting their confession to be heard rather than coming earlier in the week when it’s available and they’re available (this is a common issue with our Latin Mass community).

    Btw: How do you know there are many scrupulous people at your parish? Do you have access to everyone’s consciences and knowledge to what their confessions are inside The Box?

  29. BenjaminiPeregrinus says:

    “I think that some Eastern Catholics might have a slightly different form…. ”
    When I go to the local Ukrainian Church for Confession, which I often do since he makes it available before every liturgy, the formula is as follows.

    “May our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, by the grace and mercies of His love for us, pardon you, my child, all your faults, and I, an unworthy priest, by His authority given to me, pardon and absolve you of all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

  30. mo7 says:

    Mrs.MacD I do humbly listen. My point is that some sins just don’t need to be talked out.

  31. It IS important to confess venial sins. We are to attack venial sins before they become mortal sins. It is true that to confess venial sins helps to avoid mortal sin.

    To confess only mortal sins is like getting the medicine after you are sick – why not get the medicine before you are critically ill? Confessing venial sins is preventative maintenance.

    I don’t know about this charge of scrupulosity, it is way over-emphasized today – most people I know have no or a very damaged sense of sin. Yea, maybe some get scrupulous because they focus on what isn’t important instead of really admitting to their real sins. This scrupulosity thing is a liberal mindset of ‘oh don’t worry about it, its really okay’. A good, well-formed confessor can ferret out the reasons for scrupulosity and maybe discover where the sense of guilt comes from.
    Reading very old guides on how to go to confession reveals bad habits that the modernist priest might consider ‘scrupulous’. Please use the term ‘scrupulous’ very carefully.
    Old confession guides discuss yearly General Confessions, digging out sins of the very young that were not confessed, confessions for very intelligent children who are capable of reason and sin at much earlier age — today these ideas are considered laughable. No – consider how Padre Pio or saintly confessors helped penitents with unconfessed or forgotten sins. Examining one’s conscience and confessing venial sins is important.

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