An Analysis of the Priesthood “in persona Christi” and “in nominee ecclesiae”

The questions that surround the functions of the priesthood and the diaconate today appear to be part and parcel of the greater uncertainty that surrounds ancient Church customs. This paper will attempt to analyze the meanings of the phrases “in persona Christi” and “in nomine ecclesiae” as they have reflected the functions of the ministers of the Church both in the past and in today. The conclusion of this research is that while the traditional Church maintained a clear definition (and reverent propriety regarding the mystery of the priestly aspect), today’s Church is less sure of the role and function of the minister in relation to Church hierarchy and Church laity.

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In Persona Christi

Historical Background: the Vestments

Pius XII’s (1947) encyclical Mediator Dei describes for us the aspect of the priest in relation to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, and the lay members of the Church:

Only to the apostles, and thenceforth to those on whom their successors have imposed hands, is granted the power of the priesthood, in virtue of which they represent the person of Jesus Christ before their people, acting at the same time as representatives of their people before GodThe priest is the same, Jesus Christ, whose sacred Person His minister represents. Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is made like to the High Priest and possesses the power of performing actions in virtue of Christ’s very person.

Pius XII, the last pope to hold the pontifical office before Vatican II, asserts that the priestly office is one which is especially conferred upon only those who have been deemed worthy to be called to the lineage that descends to us from the Apostles. Pius XII makes clear that the priest is an alter Christus.

Pius XII’s depiction of the priest as being “in persona Christi” is consistent with the vestments that the priest would have donned during the celebration of the Mass before Vatican II: “Before he even dares to approach the altar, to renew in a mystical fashion Our Lord’s Sacrifice of Calvary, the priest covers himself, veritably conceals his person, under the sacred vestments which, allegorically interpreted, symbolize the garments and instruments of Christ’s Passion” (Laudenschlager 1978). The symbolism behind the garments, of course, factors into the way in which the Church traditionally perceived the priest “in persona Christi” — especially during the Mass. Each garment represented a specific aspect of Jesus Himself, and by wearing them, the priest pronounced in a visual way his role as another Christ:

The amice symbolizes the blindfold which the Jews placed about Our Lord’s head so as to slap and mock Him with impunity; the alb, the white fool’s robe which Herod contemptuously forced upon Him; the cincture, those cords by which the Jews dragged the Son of God from one cruel judge to another. The maniple signifies the chains which bound Our Lord to the column during his flagellation; the stole which the priest wears around his neck, the crushing burden of the Cross on His bruised shoulders; finally, the chasuble recalls the purple robe that the soldiers of Pilate put on Our Lord in mockery of His royal dignity. (Laudenschlager 1978).

The new order of the Mass does not require the priest to wear the maniple, nor does it require that he wear the amice as long as the alb is hooded. Yet, an increasing tendency towards modernization, novelty, and individuality following Vatican II saw many Masses celebrated without even the customary and prescribed vestments. The rigor with which the ancient Church protected the priesthood “in persona Christi” has seen numerous subtle changes that have led scholars such as Yves Congar to question the significance of the priesthood in both “person Christi” and “nomine ecclesiae”: “The magnitude of Congar’s accomplishment stands out with particular force when his theology of the Holy Spirit is read in contrast to the late-19th and early 20th-century Roman Catholic theology that he inherited” (Groppe 452). As Elizabeth Teresa Groppe states, Congar was a theologian whose eschatology was significantly different from the traditional teachings and perceptions of the Church. Congar stood out in the 20th century as a pneumatologist — a studier of the relation of the Holy Spirit (traditionally referred to as the Holy Ghost) to the church community. Pneumatology in the 20th century took efforts to legitimize Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement that grew out of it.

Theologians like Congar essentially diminished the “in persona Christi” aspect of the priesthood by circumnavigating it completely and emphasizing that the laity approach the Spirit directly. As Groppe observes, Congar certainly desired a departure from Church custom. Groppe discusses his “chagrin” at the lack of mention of the Holy Spirit:

Those de Ecclesia treatises that did mention the Spirit did so in limited fashion. Typically they discussed the activity of the Spirit only as the guarantee of the authenticity of the tradition and the authority of the acts of the magisterium. The widely used Brevior synopsis theologiae dogmaticae by Adolphe Tanquerey, for example, contains only four references to the Holy Spirit in the section of the manual entitled “On the Church of Christ”; the Spirit is mentioned twice in the sub-section “On the Infallibility of the Apostolic College and the Gathered Episcopacy” (Groppe 452).

Congar dismissed the pneumatological work of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, asserting that the popular British theologian’s efforts did not “constitute a pneumatology” (Groppe 454). If Manning, however, represented the old, Congar represented the new. And one of the aspects of modern scholarship was to doubt the significance of the old and to emphasize the transience of perspective.

Such perspective was hardly transient throughout the medieval age, however; and the ways in which the Church upheld the dignity of the priesthood was by a tight and strict militancy — which, like all things, dissolved as the old world changed into the new, directed by Enlightenment doctrine as it was. Nonetheless, the priesthood was still viewed in accordance with the outward symbolism observed in the vestments and the liturgical colors: the vestments themselves were interpreted as “symbols of the virtues which the priest should possess, in imitation of ChristThus, for example, the alb signifies the perfect purity and innocence which should adorn the priest’s soul; and the chasuble, which once more amply covered the priest’s whole body, symbolizes that charity which should wholly consume him” (Laudenschlager 1978).

Laudenschlager further intimates the importance of the priestly vestments in pronouncing the wearer as one who had been ordained to take on a sacred role in the Christian community — a role unlike that of the laity and unlike that of the deaconate:

These prescriptions serve to submerge, as it were, the personality of the individual priest, so that we may remember that he offers Mass in persona ChristiHe comes to the altar and leaves it with his head covered by biretta, despite the presence of the congregation, as a sign of this special character, for the rules of courtesy would permit this to no ordinary man. In reverence for Christ whom he represents, those who present anything to the priest during Mass first kiss the hand. And so many other rites of the Mass, along with the celebrant’s general bearing, accentuate the fact that, at the altar, the priest acts only in persona Christi; that for the time being, we might even say that he is ‘no longer himself’ (Laudenschlager 1978).

Thus, through the very articles of clothing that the priest traditionally wore during Mass, the person of Christ was visible — at least to those who understood the significance of the vestments.

Historical Context: Clerics, laity, and the “people of God”

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1984) expressed his consternation with the New Code of Canon Law issued by Pope John Paul II, which illustrated — for Lefebvre, at least — the striking departure of modern ecclesiology and the role and function of the priest “in persona Christi” from the traditional ecclesiology that clearly outlined the functions of the cleric:

That is perhaps what best characterizes the new theories of the Church since the Council: the Church is the ‘people of God.’ The Church no longer consists of clerics and the laity, with only the clergy exercising the ministry from which all the graces are communicated to the laity, while the laity must receive these graces from their ministry. No, now it is all one ‘people of God,’ everyone is admitted, according to his function, according to his capacities, to different ministries, as if there were no more distinction between the clergy and the laity.

As Lefebvre asserts, the traditional function of the priesthood was to administer grace through the sacraments to the laity for the sanctification of their souls that they might attain everlasting life in Heaven. The role was defined; it was clear and it was expected of the clergy by the laity.

Several examples abound of the laity’s disposition towards the clergy as it existed during the “age of faith.” Lay piety in the late Middle Ages was high indeed as the tales of confession by Caesar of Heisterbach and the preaching of Jacques de Vitry make plain. The Renaissance had not yet come along to displace the old world religion for the new world science of man. The trade that grew out of Christendom’s conflict with the Saracens of the East had not yet raised the merchant classes of Italy to a place of utmost prominence. Art and science were still practiced by the monks of medievalism; and scholasticism ala Thomas Aquinas was the height of rational thought and theology.

The Fourth Lateran Council, called by Pope Innocent III at the beginning of the thirteenth century, was hailed as “a turning point in the history of the Church” (Tanner 395). Why it was considered to be such had everything to do with the fact that it laid out in specific and definite terms exactly what the lay Church was expected to believe to save its soul. Various heresies, such as the Albigensian heresy (which claimed that there were two equal powers in nature, good and evil, and that all of creation was evil), had spread through Christendom — which gave the Papacy a reason to call a Council. The Councils of the Church, the first dating back to Nicea in the fourth century, had all convened to extinguish the chief heresy of the time, and this is exactly what the Fourth Lateran Council set out to do.

The brilliance with which the Faith of the Catholic Church was defined allowed its ministers to teach the laity in no ambiguous or uncertain terms. The laity, therefore, was being ministered to by the Council that sought to clarify issues of faith and morals.

All the same, as Caesar of Heisterbach’s confession tale makes plain, not every minister of the Church was as holy or pious as his parish might have liked. In fact, as Chaucer observes, the clergy were easily corrupted. Nonetheless, there existed a clear sense of the role and function that belonged to the clergy: and there was a sense — as a result of Councils like Lateran IV — of the regard the laity owed the clergy: Caesar’s tale concerning a priest involved in an affair with the wife of a layman shows an example of lay piety, in which the layman practices more prudence and virtue than the priest. As the tale unfolds, it is revealed that both sinful priest and guiltless layman are of the same faith and confess the same belief in the mysteries of God. The layman’s decision to question neither his wife nor the priest shows the profound discipline, respect and piety the people of the medieval world held for the rules and regulations of religion and the extent to which they practiced prudence. The layman’s decision to take the priest before the possessed soldier, whose demon could see the sins not confessed, shows the belief the laity held in the exercise of confession and absolution.

Such a point, of course, reveals the essence of Christendom and Christian piety in the late middle ages: it understood the primacy of the spiritual over the temporal. Caesar of Heisterbach’s tale of the woman punished for scattering the Host upon her vegetables is another example of that primacy. The woman, caring more for her vegetables than for the Body of Christ, present in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, listened to the tempting of the Devil, removed the Host from her mouth, broke it into pieces and scattered it throughout her garden, hoping for it to give her good vegetables. What should have been food for her soul is debased by being used as food for her vegetables, which are in no way as important as her soul. For her sin (a sacrilege — abusing the Body of Christ), she was punished by God.

In both tales one can see the clarity of teaching as it existed in the old world. What the modern magisterium has offered, on the other hand, is a striking departure: in fact, as Lefebvre observes, the priest “in persona Christi” is no longer understand in its traditional jorum. Part of the reason is that Canon Law contains elements that appear to contradict themselves: one part may express teaching that is new — such as the “people of God” possessing facilities that heretofore were resolved for the priest “in persona Christi” — and another part may attempt to distinguish between the clergy and the laity — as though clerics still possessed some functions that were not now claimed by laymen as well. Such disorientation has, of course, had its effect, and can readily be observed in any number of modern theological works. David Coffey (1997) illustrates the point well: even Vatican II suffered from a lack of clarity:

There were still misgivings about [the common priesthood of the faithful] when the doctrine came up again for discussion at the council in the context of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentiumNaturally, this raised the question of the relation of this form of the priesthood to the ministerial priesthoodThe council took care to present the two forms as not in competition but in cooperation, particularly in their highest exercise, the celebration of the Eucharist. On their relationship it made the following nuanced statement: ‘Although they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are none the less ordered to each other; each in its own way participates in the one priesthood of Christ’ (p. 209).

But if this was nuance, what was the objective? Coffey himself realizes that it is to teach a new doctrine — just as does Lefebvre. As Coffey admits, any attempt to explain the Council’s teaching on the common priesthood of the faithful meets with the expectance of distinction. Interpretation that attempts to assert such distinction is viewed negatively by Coffey — such “teaching is sometimes seen as little more than a ploy for maintaining a rigid distinction of clergy and laity and thereby reinforcing clerical control in the Church. It is apprehended as a throwback from the conciliar ecclesiology of the People of God to the preconciliar theology of a perfect — and therefore strongly regimented — society” (p. 210). What Coffey attempts to do is downplay the perception of the priest as one who “dominates.” Coffey’s preference is for Enlightenment doctrine — liberty, equality, fraternity — doctrine that departs from traditional Church teaching: doctrine that essentially puts the wedge between the new world and the old world, and alters the way in which the new thinks of the priest “in persona Christi” and as a significant actor who can administer grace through the sacraments “in nomine ecclesiae.”

This attempt at downplay is what leads to ambiguity. Ambiguity within the texts themselves already opens the door to confusion: but it appears that such confusion is deliberate. No longer does the Church appear to wish to adhere to old world teachings. As Lefebvre insists:

That does not take away the contradiction. The error exists. It is there even if later on it is more or less ‘corrected’ by an affirmation of the distinction between clerics and laypeople. Notice however that it is precisely this which becomes the leit motif of the following chapters, when they speak of the munus docendi — in the chapter on the Church’s Teaching Office — the Teaching Office is given to the People of God, it is not given to the priests; the mission of sanctifying is given to the People of God; it is incredible! What power will they leave to the priests then? There remains only the power of jurisdiction; that is a little more difficult to change; so they published an article in L’Osservatore Romano on the powers which the laity now has in the new Canon Law, in which they said: you may have taken notice of the fact that the Teaching Office and the mission of sanctifying have been attributed to the People of God; as for the power of jurisdiction, that is a bit more delicate, what they say about that is less precise. There you are!

What is seen — according to Lefebvre — is a nothing more than a revolution in the magisterium of the Church: what was once the duty of the priest is now declared the leisure of the laity. Part of this comes from a view of history that sees the early Church in a modern light — one in which clerical function was as of yet undefined, and one in which the laity, or the “people of God,” as they are now known, took upon themselves the roles that the Scholastic age would confer to the clergy. Such, at least, is Paul Bernier’s (2003) vision: “In the first millennium we were content to see those ordained as exercising a pastoral office by their public and official witness to the faith of the church. Scholastic theology, however, began to see the ordained as having special ontological powers inherent in their persons enabling them to act as public persons. Thus, the power to consecrate the Eucharistic bread and wine or to ordain others to the church’s ministry can be completely divorced from their proper ecclesial context and still be considered valid (p. 2).”

Bernier again, like Coffey, calls for “nuance” (p. 3), and asserts the historical context as traditional upheld “need no longer simply” be asserted. Rather, Bernier implies that we question whether, for example, “Jesus clearly and deliberately founded the church as we know it today, and willed it to be just as it is[or that] the first ordination took place at the last supper, and Jesus gave priests the exclusive power to change bread and wine into his body and blood” (Bernier, p. 3). The desire to question what the past has taught is the hallmark of modern scholarship such as Bernier’s: yet, what it appears to do, rather than clarify, is to confuse and depreciate. In fact, from such a doubtful standpoint, theologians, such as Christian Cochini (1990) venture out to question other aspects of the priesthood — such as priestly celibacy. For from Bernier’s perspective, it matters not what the past has preached upon the topic — the “living tradition” is one that evolves; therefore, doctrine can essentially change faces.

“In Nomine Ecclesiae”

How It Relates to “in persona Christi”

When the Congregation for the Clergy, led by the prefect Cardinal Castrillon-Hoyos, published in early 2003 in L’Osservatore Romano the letter “The Priest, Pastor and Guide of the Parish Community,” it was an occasion in which a new interpretation of the function and role of the priest was expressed with “nuance” — and seemingly “in the light of tradition.” Yet, as Lefebvre would have intimated, the document makes one claim and then strikingly contradicts that claim later on. For example: “The priest is ‘ontologically assimilated to Christ’ (no. 5) — an ‘alter Christus.’ And it is because he is essentially that — alter Christus — that he is for the Church ‘ad gentes’ — ‘at the service of others’ in the order of salvation, ‘ordained to the service of community,’ like Christ who came to serve and not to be served” (Presentation of a Document from Cardinal Castrillon-Hoyos, La Revue Item, 2003).

Cardinal Hoyos apparently desires to dislodge some of the notions that have taken hold following Vatican II: for example, the document disposes of the notion that the priesthood need not be celibate: “The admirable gift of celibacy receives its light and its motivation in the assimilation to the nuptial donation of the crucified and resurrected Son of God with regard to ransomed and renewed humanity” (no. 5). La Revue Item calls this a traditional defense of priestly celibacy and supplements the Cardinal’s assertion with its own:

Celibacy is very inseparable from the priesthood ever since the nuptial donation of the Son of God in the Church — we find here a great conception of Saint Bernard in his commentary on the Song of Songs — has been total, absolute, without sharing nor limit. And from this fact, the priestly action — the Cardinal says — has to correspond to his being. Being and action are correlative. Priestly being justifies priestly action, or here, celibacy.

Cardinal Hoyos likewise goes on to clarify a point of contention between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood — that of role and function. As La Revue Item notes,

Priestly identity being marvelously planted before the reader’s eyes, the Cardinal can then very easily recall — and with force — the essential distinction between ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful. He responds — here — to a grave error underlined in the sacerdotal crisis: the confusion of two priesthoods, one searching to absorb the other, one general, one particularHe writes: “The common priesthood and ministerial priesthood are different one from the other by their essence and not only by degree” (no.6). He clarifies as such: This is not only a case of a greater intensity of participation in the sole priesthood of Christ but of an essentially different participation” (no.6).

Thus, Cardinal Hoyos establishes — by referencing texts from the Council of Trent — a kind of continuity: “The priest acts, the Cardinal tells us, ‘in persona Christi Capitis,’ that is ‘he personifies — he is an alter Christus — in the heart of the Church of the people of God the triple prophetic, cultural and royal task of Christ Himself so much the Head and Pastor of the Church’ (no. 6)” (Presentation of a Document from Cardinal Castrillon-Hoyos). Again, as Lefebvre would have indicated, the definition that at one moment clarifies later muddies by defining anew within the context of the new — the priest act “in persona Christi” only in the hearts of the “people of God.” A subjective inference is made that renders the objective aspect of the priesthood simply null and void. Yet, again, Cardinal Hoyos attempts to counteract his own undoing: “Thus in the exercise of their specific function, (the priests] act in persona Christi capitis and consequently and likewise in nominee Ecclesiae” (Congregation for the Clergy, no. 6). The document appears as a work of two minds — one wishing to maintain the old, the other wishing to assert the new. What is to be the interpretation of this document? Who is to say? Understanding it requires yet another document.

What the Cardinal does at least intimate is the manner in which the priest “in persona Christi” acts “in nomine ecclesiae” — that is, in the name of the Church — which is done simply when the priest or bishop wishes to do as the Church does. By wishing to do as the Church does, he places himself in line with the magisterium.

Guided by the Spirit

However, the new focus on the Spirit by theologians such as Congar, delegates the ability to act “in nomine ecclesiae” to the Spirit — and the Spirit becomes approachable directly by the laity — the “people of God.” Such represents not a clear manifestation of traditional Church doctrine — but a clear departure from traditional Church teaching. Thus the Church now opens itself to new forms of worship that resemble, to a great degree, the forms practiced by Protestants.

The Church has, in fact, taken a liking to the new Pentecostalism: “The charismatic movement hasbeen of significance in the life of many mainline Protestant churches, and its influence has also been felt within Catholicism” (McGrath, 1999, p. 17). Obviously, then, Pentecostalism has had an effect on the way spirituality is considered around the world.

Tony Jones (2005) says that “the ecstatic, hands-raised prayer of a Charismatic service will open your eyes to the richness and diversity of the Christian tradition” (p. 176), but exactly what that Christian tradition is, essentially, may not be so easy to define. Foster (1999) returns us to the “Holiness Tradition” to give the movement some shape: “While the Holiness Tradition centers upon the power to be, the Charismatic Tradition centers upon the power to do” (p. 99). The distinction is, of course, glib — and Foster admits as much — but he also admits so much more: “The Charismatic Stream of Christian life and faith focuses upon the empowering charisms or gifts of the Spirit and the nurturing fruit of the Spirit. This Spirit-empowered way of living addresses the deep yearning for the immediacy of God’s presence among his people” (Foster, p. 99). What Foster’s definition implies is that the Charismatic Stream is a supernatural force that has the power to draw one into a superlative union with God.

The language that Foster uses couches the ideology of Pentecostalism in the language of poetic romanticism: He refers to God as the “Hound of Heaven,” a title given by Francis Thompson in his poem of the same name — but Thompson was a pre-conciliar Catholic, whose estimation of the role of priesthood was based upon the traditional teachings of the Church. The modern Charismatic movement has hardly any such basis — but that has not kept it from appealing to the masses who see in this worship more than mere emotional spectacle. One thing the Charismatics have been able to do is incorporate their views into mainstream Catholicism: Foster himself does so when he turns Francis of Assisi into “a model of charismatic jubilee” (p. 106). Again, he does the same with St. Paul.

Such may be labeled, certainly, revisionist historiography — nonetheless, it is a way of inculturation. Pentecostals and Charismatics have been showing how their Christian ancestors, once considered great Catholic saints, were actually great Charismatics. But such is always the way with new Protestant forms of worship — they claim that their way is a return to the original ways of the saints and apostles: the Charismatic movement, then, becomes a Tradition that is only now being rediscovered.

In this manner, Pentecostalism has made great strides in establishing missions across the globe. The fervor aroused by speaking in tongues (admittedly, only one element of Pentecostalism) and the ecstatic preaching for which the Charismatics are known has appealed to a mass of Christians who want their faith to appear more active, more flamboyant, more alive.

The sole source for this new role of the Spirit in the Church, of course, is Scripture. New historical paradigms are constructed (as Foster shows) that place the Scriptures in contexts that are at best hypothetical. By removing itself from the traditional magisterium, the Church displaces the definition of the priesthood “in persona Christi” even as it attempts to assert it. For it likewise asserts the new definition as gleaned from revisionist interpretations of Scripture — interpretations that downplay the role and function of the priest as an alter Christus who acts “in nominee ecclesiae.”

Guided by Tradition and Scripture: “in nomine Ecclesiae”

It is the Anglican Vernon Staley (1894) who states that “it is upon the authority of the Church, and upon that alone, that we know what is Scripture, and what is not” (p. 320). The meaning of this statement is bound up in the Church’s two-fold reliance upon both tradition and scripture. As some Protestants make Scripture their rule of Faith, the Church has never done so — for it is aware that some Church customs were handed down orally — customs that keep alive and emphasize important aspects of the priesthood — such as the symbolism in the sacred vestments.

To further the argument of the significance of tradition, Staley quotes Dr. Pusey, who says, “We acknowledge that Holy Scripture is the source of all saving truth; but it does not therefore follow that everyone, unguided, is to draw for himself the truth out of that living well” (p. 322). The deposit of Faith was passed down from Christ both through Scripture and Tradition: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen” (John 21:25). Thus, while the Church Fathers gathered the books of Scripture together, they also passed on through Tradition the deposit of Faith to which all Christians should adhere.

Likewise, the authors of the pages of Scripture make mention of the act of passing on: St. Paul says, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:23). And it is St. Paul who disputes with Peter the correct way to approach both Jews and Gentiles in order to convert them. Thus, while even the Apostles of Our Lord contended among themselves, the Spirit of the Church has always been protected by the Holy Ghost, which guides the Church in Her pronouncements concerning that which is necessary for salvation (matters of faith and morals).

This guidance, however, has never been stated as being guaranteed to the “people of God” — at least not in the modern sense. The power that modern theologians attempt to confer onto the laity in spite of the tradition that reserves it for the priesthood — the ability to confect sacraments, for example — is thus give seemingly willy-nilly. Yet, as Aquinas argues, such power is not to be taken by laymen who have not been ordained into the lineage of the priesthood of the Apostles: “Since the sanctification of man is in the power of God who sanctifies, it is not in the competency of man to choose the things by which he is to be sanctified, but this must be determined by Divine institution (Summa Theologiae III:60:2)” (Sacraments).


In conclusion, the Church today finds itself in a unique position: on the one hand it attempts to assert the old role and function of the priest “in persona Christi” as he acts “in nomine ecclesiae” — and yet on the other hand it attempts to elevate the role and function of the laity to one of seeming equality with that of the priest. As Kevin Hennessy (1997) notes, “Since the Second Vatican Council, successful efforts have been made in many monasteries to declericalize the community and to emphasize, both in theory and practice, the essential equality of all monks” (p. 48). Thus, the stage is set for a new understanding of the role and function of the clergy — one that is separate from the ancient understanding that carried the Church all the way through the old world.

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