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Barring Kennedy from the Sacrament

posted by Scot McKnight

Because he supports abortion rights, a view in conflict with Roman Catholic teaching, Patrick Kennedy is now being banned from taking communion. What is your take on this?

Do you believe in such “church discipline”?
Will this complicate other parishes? (Anyone know?)

Washington (CNN) — Rhode Island’s top Roman Catholic leader has asked Rep. Patrick Kennedy to stop taking Communion over his support for abortion rights, the diocese said Sunday.< In a statement issued Sunday, Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin said he told Kennedy in February 2007 that it would be “inappropriate” for him to continue receiving the fundamental Catholic sacrament, “and I now ask respectfully that you refrain from doing so.”



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Nance

posted November 23, 2009 at 7:08 pm


Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t there a similar issue with John Kerry around the time of the 2004 election? If so, I’m not sure how this instance would especially serve to complicate other parishes.
I have no problem with the Church’s imposing this sort of discipline. If one consciously rejects the teaching of the Church, then they are not in full communion with them, yes? In which case they are to be excused with the sacrament is administered. This seems to be pretty straightforward–no different than if the representative were being barred from the Eucharist for contradicting teaching on some other topic.



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MattR

posted November 23, 2009 at 7:23 pm


I believe in a form of ‘church discipline.’
BUT this is not church discipline… this smacks of political posturing on the part of the diocese.
If this is the case… would a bishop exclude any senators from communion who vote against the health care reform bill?! That certainly is an issue of ‘life,’ and the church’s teaching on human life and dignity.
This sounds like political pressure, and outside the bounds of a bishop’s responsibility to me.
But then again, I’m not Catholic, so…



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Michael Crook

posted November 23, 2009 at 7:51 pm


MattR,
In the interest of setting the record a little bit straight, it is worth mentioning that the Bishop wrote a letter to Rep. Kennedy requesting he excuse himself from the eucharist. This was communicated personally and confidentially and the bishop explicitly stated he had no need to make the issue public. It was Kennedy who made the issue public.
If there’s political posturing going on here, it’s the politician who’s doing it, not the church. http://blog.beliefnet.com/crunchycon/2009/11/patrick-kennedy-whinypants-cat.html



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Taylor Georgr

posted November 23, 2009 at 7:58 pm


Scot, if you dig into the story it is Patrick’s very public support of abortion and his insisting to take on the Bishop that has caused this. I’m quite sur that if Patrick were to act contrite regarding this issue he would not be denied the table. My question is why does Pat want to be a Catholic. The churches teachings are very clear and the expectations all laid out.



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MattR

posted November 23, 2009 at 8:36 pm


Michael Crook,
I understand that side of the argument…
Maybe I should have said ‘political influence.’
To me it looks like the Bishop is using access to Holy Communion as a tool to get a senator to vote the Bishop’s politics.
If you have the time watch this:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036697/ns/msnbc_tv-hardball_with_chris_matthews#34116440
Though the discussion with Matthews (a lifelong Catholic, by the way) gets heated, it brings out a great point… moral teaching/values and making secular law are different things.
The issue here seems to be, not just of a Bishop & parishioner, but one of ‘how much power/influence should the church have over making secular law?’



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DJ AMDG

posted November 23, 2009 at 9:05 pm


There is no moral/secular separation… Or sacred secular for that matter. It’s all sacred. For a Christian to believe otherwise is to not fully embrace the teachings of Christ.



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RJS

posted November 23, 2009 at 9:22 pm


DJ #6, Dead on – to even think in terms of a separation is part of our problem.
But I would want to think through another question – When is church discipline appropriate and how should it be carried out? I am not clear on this from a NT point of view. I think is is quite clear however, that within the history of the church “church discipline” has become deeply tied to things like power and pride and persuasion. This is not appropriate.



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phil

posted November 23, 2009 at 9:37 pm


I’m not Catholic and don’t have a lot of familiarity with being banned from communion, but correct me if I’m wrong, did not Jesus take the Lord’s supper with his betrayer on the night he was betrayed? Did Jesus not eat the last supper with the disciple who was getting ready to deny him three times?
It seems to me that the experience that happens during the Eucharist is an intimate one between the “true bread” and the one that chooses to feast with him and with others and should not be banned or restricted because of political agendas; but that is my (protestant)view.



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Kristen

posted November 23, 2009 at 9:38 pm


The Kerry situation in 2004 was critically different (in my opinion) because in this situation Kennedy’s own bishop is the one involved. When John Kerry was running for President, about a dozen bishops (of about 200 in the United States) made it clear that he was not welcome to take communion in their dioceses. This did not include the bishops of Boston or Washington D.C. who would have pastoral responsibility over the guy. This was expressed not in the terms we think of for church discipline which is about winning back a straying brother, but out of a concern for the potential of “scandal” among the faithful.
I do accept that there is an appropriate role for church discipline. I am skeptical whether there is ever an appropriate role for church discipline via press release. And as I read the Gospels, Jesus is very little concerned about scandal.



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pam w

posted November 23, 2009 at 9:48 pm


I too agree part of our problem is a sacred/secular divide, but that is different from beliefs about your own body/family/choices and your responsibility to create laws for a pluralistic society. Is the Bishop witholding the Sacrament from all of his parishioners who believe abortion should be legal? Those who voted for candidates who believe the same? How about those who are using birth control? I think it is absolutely a power play.
Questions about healthcare, poverty, greed…this gets really complicated when we start to decide who should partake in the Sacrament based on beliefs in government structures!!



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Kristen

posted November 23, 2009 at 9:53 pm


Each bishop would act independently on this sort of thing. It is not the case that the Rhode Island bishop’s action would establish binding precedent on other politicians in other dioceses. There have been some smatterings along these lines in recent years, but Kennedy attracts more attention just by being a bigger name.
It makes me sad. I have heard about the “Mario Cuomo position on abortion” for as long as I can remember such things, and while I deeply deeply disagree with Gov. Cuomo, he was never barred from the Eucharist. And the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, John O’Connor, was NOBODY’s idea of a liberal. He and Bernard Law in Boston (who had quite a national reputation before the sex abuse scandal broke in 2002) were referred to as “Law and Order.”
Sometime in the last twenty-five years the currents changed, and IMHO not for the good.



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John Sobert Sylvest

posted November 23, 2009 at 10:42 pm


We draw distinctions between different types of questions because their answers require different types of methods or reasoning. This is a recognition of methodological autonomy and not a denial of the integral nature of the human being.
For example, we recognize the difference between moral and legal and political realities by the questions they ask; for example, respectively: 1) Is it good or evil? 2) Is this good jurisprudence? Is the law enforceable? Will it accomplish it’s aim? 3) Can this law be passed or overturned? The legal and political questions belong to the category of prudential judgment, which is informed by one’s moral judgment. These realities are complex, making it hard to locate differences between one person’s views and another’s.
As far as church discipline is concerned, US Catholics represent about 6% of the world’s Catholic population (about 70 million out of over 1 billion). To a great extent, this communion for politicians debate is unique to the US, arising very rarely in other cultures. Each bishop deals with it the way he wants in his diocese. FEW bishops take hard-line positions on this. Perhaps they think that would be inappropriate? I think it is inappropriate.



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Joy

posted November 23, 2009 at 11:04 pm


According to Catholic teaching, abortion is a mortal sin as it is murder. No one in the state of mortal sin is free to receive the Eucharist. Thinking abortion is “OK” is not a mortal sin, although it is contrary to Catholic teaching, so a person who is pro abortion can still receive the Eucharist if he/she does not actively promote or participate in abortion activities. In other words, just not having an abortion oneself is not enough to be in communion with the Church — one must not promote or participate in another’s abortion.
The act of receiving the Eucharist is not only a personal interaction with Jesus, it is also a public statement and action of unity with the Church. This is why public figures who actively promote abortion are told by their bishops to abstain. It is a question of “scandal” — the causing misunderstanding among others that can lead them into sin. Jesus never condemned any sinner. He ate with sinners, he forgave sinners. He DID condemn sin itself and said that those who remain in sin will not be saved. The Catholic Bishops are doing the same … they are letting the politicians know just how serious the pro – abortion stance is to their immortal souls. I am sure that no priest or bishop would withhold absolution from any one who repents of a pro abortion stance, just as they do not withhold absolution from those who repent of having an abortion.
The Gospel is not a list of politically correct suggestions nor is it changeable by majority opinion. One is free to deny any or all of it at any time, but not while proclaiming oneself a Catholic. Any bishop who does NOT speak out against public figures who do not stand for the Gospel of Life may himself be in serious spiritual trouble.



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AHH

posted November 23, 2009 at 11:12 pm


Prefaced with the “I’m not Roman Catholic” disclaimer …
Is there an issue of “selective enforcement” here?
Has there ever been denial of communion (or, as in this case, request to refrain from it) for a politician who favored something else contrary to church teaching, like pre-emptive war, or the death penalty, or gay marriage?
Are there any historians who can tell us whether this is a relatively new phenomenon? Or might pro-slavery Catholics have been denied Communion 150 years ago?



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John

posted November 23, 2009 at 11:26 pm


What happen to our constitution and separation of church and state?
It seems Rep Kennedy could be representing the wishes of his constituants and that the Church is playing the roll of lobbiest by trying to cause a particular voting result.
What is the Kennedy’s took the approach of “If you ex-communicate me I will withhold financially support from the Church until its changes it’s views?



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Dallas

posted November 23, 2009 at 11:52 pm


What the Roman Catholic church is doing here is no different from what any other organization does. Private organizations have the right to stipulate the rights and responsibilities of their members, including the right to control access to organizational resources or even exclusion of members who violate organization policies.



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John Sobert Sylvest

posted November 24, 2009 at 12:14 am


Dallas (#16) re: organizational resources, OUCH!



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John Sobert Sylvest

posted November 24, 2009 at 12:20 am


AHH (#14) – This is a cultural anomaly in the US, mostly, and happening in the US with VERY FEW bishops. Not even JPII, the previous Pope, withheld communion from Rome’s pro-choice mayor, who was administered communion personally by the Pope on several occasions.



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John Sobert Sylvest

posted November 24, 2009 at 12:29 am


AHH (#14) re: pro-slavery Catholics have been denied Communion 150 years ago?
BTW, that long ago, the anti-slavery Catholics, rather, would have been the dissidents ;)



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John Sobert Sylvest

posted November 24, 2009 at 1:12 am


Joy (#13) wrote: “According to Catholic teaching, abortion is a mortal sin as it is murder. No one in the state of mortal sin is free to receive the Eucharist. Thinking abortion is “OK” is not a mortal sin, although it is contrary to Catholic teaching, so a person who is pro abortion can still receive the Eucharist if he/she does not actively promote or participate in abortion activities.”
I appreciate what you are saying but offer some nuance.
Catholic teaching has no official metaphysic, but even with the traditional substance metaphysic, it has no stance on the timing of ensoulment. Rather, it teaches that human life, from the moment of conception, for all practical purposes, deserves the dignity and respect of a human person. So, the moral reality of abortion for one following this teaching needn’t distinguish between the moral status of incipient or sentient human life or the sapient human person, all being equally sacred, all offenses against same being equally gravely evil. I’m not too sure the morning-after pill would be called murder, even if the teaching office says it is grave matter. Most people seem to ascribe increasing moral status to the embryo as gestation advances.
As for sin, it involves not just a moral object but a moral agent with knowledge (reason) and consent (will). People who do not know what they are doing, e.g. who think wrongly that something is OK, are exculpable due to invincible ignorance.
As for speaking out re: Gospel of Life, that is distinct from withholding communion. There are a LOT of pro-choice Catholic politicians in a LOT of Catholic dioceses. FEW Bishops seem to agree with that form of discipline; I think for good pastoral reasons.



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Daniel

posted November 24, 2009 at 1:42 am


To borrow from an article I read on Catholic.org today: “Bishop Tobin has courageously – and with a Pastor?s heart – tried to help Congressman Patrick Kennedy to see the dangerous error of his failure to defend the fundamental Right to Life. The Congressman is one of far too many unfaithful Catholics in public life who do not demonstrate moral coherence in their exercise of public office.”



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don bryant

posted November 24, 2009 at 6:15 am


The reason that I will not sign the Manhattan Declaration is that the very communions it represents will not take serious action with regard to their own members who serially divorce and abort but want us to take on the broader political culture. When that is done, then we can speak believably to culture. This is an instance of the RCs meaningfully interacting with the behavior choices of one of their own. Whether or not most will agree with the barring from the Eucharist, the reality is that accountability is showing up on the radar – a good thing.



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dopderbeck

posted November 24, 2009 at 9:07 am


My understanding is that this was not a “ban,” but a request by the Bishop to Kennedy that he refrain from taking communion. I think it’s almost impossible for evangelicals to comment, because we just don’t have a grasp on how Catholics understand the sacrament and the Church. There is a sense of official endorsement of the individual when the Catholic Church administers the Eucharist, because it is the Church administering grace to an individual who is presumably prepared to receive it. In evangelical churches, we usually ask people to examine themselves before taking communion, but this examination remains a private matter; there is no sacrament of confession, no penitential system and no theology of administering grace through the sacrament. Given the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, I can understand how a Bishop would request that a vocal public supporter of abortion on demand not participate.



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Brad

posted November 24, 2009 at 11:08 am


John #15
There is no constitutional issue here. What the bishop is doing relates solely to the relationship between the Church and an individual Christian which is well within the purview of religion. If the particular behavior is prompted by a political view, then that is of no concern to the bishop. As for Kennedy or any other individual withholding financial support from the church if excommunicated, I would expect they would certainly expect that. Even though excommunication is not currently an issue here. Disclaimer: I am not a Catholic either.
dopderdeck #23
Even in evangelical churches where there is no sacrament of confession, no penitential system and no theology of administering grace through the sacrament, one might expect that a church would administer discipline that excluded a member from the Lord’s Supper (or even from church attendance) in the case of open, known sin. The Body would actually benefit greatly from more of this kind of biblical discipline, though I know it often does not occur in evangelical churches. I have been a member of churches where members had affairs and divorced and received no discipline. I’ve also seen a Sunday school teacher relieved of his duties for divorcing his wife for another church member. Sadly, that caused more backlash against the pastor and elders than remorse for the offending members.
Frankly, the Church probably needs to experience far more of the type of discipline Kennedy received, and not just regarding abortion, than is currently being administered. And we evangelicals perhaps more than most.



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ChrisB

posted November 24, 2009 at 11:13 am


This issue is different from most political issues. When we discuss poverty, education, immigration, or health care reform, the issue is not whether to help people but how.
On abortion, though, the question is whether this act is moral. The RC church has a clear and unequivocal teaching on this matter — namely that the act and its support are both immoral. To violate that is to sin just as if the person was living in adultery. Such a person is supposed to be denied that sacrament by RC teaching.
This is not a case of the RC church telling politicians how to vote. They’re just saying who can be a part of their church.



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John Sobert Sylvest

posted November 24, 2009 at 11:36 am


Chris B. (#25) Hold that thought. That distinction is right-on. Politics IS about the art of the possible, about HOW we are to advance our spiritual, moral and practical aspirations, which are of one fabric, one seamless garment of life.
The distinctions between moral, legal and political realities still hold even when different persons are in 100% agreement about the moral significance of abortion, which is why facile labeling exercises like pro-choice and pro-life do not begin to capture and express this complex moral reality. Persons of large intelligence and profound goodwill, who agree with church moral teachings regarding abortion, may honestly differ STRATEGICALLY regarding HOW to eliminate and reduce abortions the most efficaciously, which is to say determining what will work and what won’t work, especially in a pluralistic society.



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MattR

posted November 24, 2009 at 12:21 pm


ChrisB,
Like John Sobert Sylvest, I think actually the issue is “HOW” to best create public policy in regard to abortion.
Being so-called ‘pro-choice’ is not necessarily being ‘pro-abortion.’ Rather, for some, it’s a way of dealing with a complex issue, in a free society where abortion is already legal.
Which is why using church discipline to hold someone accountable on the basis their legislative vote gets tricky…



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Nance

posted November 24, 2009 at 12:21 pm


Kristen #9 – thanks for filling in my blanks on the Kerry situation.
John Sobert Sylvest #25 – I think your last point about strategy is absolutely right. However, I would point out that the issue at hand is not one of a disagreement over ‘how to best eliminate abortion.’ It would seem that the Church is absolutely right to ‘request that Kennedy excuse himself from the sacrament’ in this case–or even, if they were to act more ‘dramatically’, deny him the sacrament.
And, as an Evangelical, I’m in full agreement with Brad on these questions.



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luke

posted November 24, 2009 at 12:25 pm


I might be one of the few Catholics who comment on this.
If he sent a private letter asking the senator to refrain from communion, I think the bishop is dutifully pastoring one of his own. He can’t do this for every person in the diocese because he does not know the hearts and minds of every person. But this senator very publicly vocalizes arguments against this teaching of his Church and its bishops.
I couldn’t watch the CNN clip because the host was engaged in sophistry – claiming to know the bishop’s intentions and accusing the bishop of legislating from the cathedra/pulpit. What I think the bishop was trying to say was that, as bishop, he has to protect the faith and morals of the people in his diocese. Of course the bishop can’t make an authoritative statement on the morality of every piece of legislation – he is not a statesman. But he can impose Christian discipline on statesmen under his authority if he believes they are separating themselves from the Body of Christ.
Here’s a relevant quote from C.S. Lewis:
“People say, ‘The Church ought to give us a lead.’ That is true if they mean it in the right way, but false if they mean it in the wrong way. By the Church they ought to mean the whole body of practising Christians. And when they say that the Church should give us a lead, they ought to mean that some Christians – those who happen to have the right talents – should be economists and statesmen, and that all economists and statesmen should be Christians, and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting ‘Do as you would be done by’ into action. If that happened, and if we others were really ready to take it, then we should find the Christian solution for our own social problems pretty quickly. But, of course, when they ask for a lead from the Church most people mean they want the clergy to put out a political programme. That is silly. The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live for ever: and we are asking them to do quite a different job for which they have not been trained. The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism or education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters: just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists – not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.”



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John Sobert Sylvest

posted November 24, 2009 at 8:51 pm


Nance (#28) wrote: “I would point out that the issue at hand is not one of a disagreement over ‘how to best eliminate abortion.'”
What is the issue at hand? (not a rhetorical question)
I corresponded some with Doug Kmiec, Patrick Whelan and Vickie Kennedy during the POTUS primaries when I was the co-founder and co-owner for romancatholicsforobama.com – all of whom are now board members and/or officers of its successor
Catholics for Obama and who have provided Catholic Questions and Answers on Abortion. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is also on that board.
Where, then, does Patrick Kennedy differ in substance with them regarding the issue at hand?



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luke

posted November 25, 2009 at 9:40 am


John #30 – The difference is Obama is not a Catholic?



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John Sobert Sylvest

posted November 25, 2009 at 10:38 am


Luke (#31) What I was wondering, in particular, was what specific position Patrick Kennedy took on which pieces of legislation or even in position statements that occasioned the Bishop’s 2007 letter. I was thinking that Vickie Kennedy’s position, for example, might shed some light on same. Also, I was trying to highlight how people might variously describe different legal and political strategies, a practical concern requiring one’s prudential judgment, even while holding the same moral positions, employing, instead, one’s moral reasoning and judgment. Again, all related to the most effective approaches to take in our pluralistic society with the aim to reduce and eliminate abortion. For example, in addition to supply-side approaches there are also demand-reduction strategies. Of course, strategies are not mutually exclusive, one vs another, but can be pursued on a broad front, some more likely to work than others (based on sociologic data from other countries throughout the world, which have employed various legal and political remedies).
Luke, great blog! And where Thomas Merton is concerned, I am with you on that all the way (even with my great fondness for CS Lewis, also). If you are interested in networking with other Catholics in the emerging church conversation, please feel free to join our new network at Cathlimergent. All are welcome!



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Your Name

posted November 27, 2009 at 12:43 pm


“Where, then, does Patrick Kennedy differ in substance with them regarding the issue at hand.” Since it is true that error begets error, the question should be, what are the fundamental errors that can be found in the substance of Patrick Kennedy’s argument that can be seen in those of his kindred spirits? Since The Truth does not depend on location, the Catholic Church does not distinguish between Public and Private Morality. The Truth of Love is the same, yesterday, today, and always.
Canon 751 of The Catholic Church states: “Heresy is the obstinate denial or doubt after Baptism of a truth which must be believed by Divine and Catholic Faith.” Thich includes God’s intention for Respect for the Sacredness and Dignity of every Human Person, and Respect for the Sacraments, including Marriage and The Eucharist. It is obstinate to continue to deny the fact that our Constitution, that “Government instituted by Men”, is built upon the self-evident, fundamental, unalienable, Right to Life, that has been endowed to each one of us from our Creator from the beginning, and that our Government was instituted to “secure” this fundamental Right to Life. Every one of the self-evident Rights that have been endowed to us by our Creator depends on protecting our Right to Life, to begin with. We can not transform The Truth, for any transformation of The Truth would result in error. The Truth, The Word Of God transforms us, which is why only The Word Of God, Who Is Love to begin with, can set you free.



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