15 themes of the Irish Catholic Synodal listening process

What is the nature of Ireland’s contemporary Catholic psyche? What exactly are the faithful saying? Here are the most prevalent themes of the nations’ synodal gatherings.

15 Themes of the Irish Catholic Synodal Listening Process

The 15 themes were signed off on in August by the Irish Bishops and sent to Rome in preparation for the Synod of Bishops in 2023.  What lessons do we as Irish Catholics need to draw from them in order to continue our Synodal Pathway in Ireland? What follows below is the original text of the Synthesis with questions inserted by The Synodal Times to draw out action points in the original text. 

  1. Abuse as Part of the Story of the Church  

Physical, sexual and emotional abuse and its concealment by the Church in Ireland was described as an ‘open wound’. This experience affects victims/survivors and their families at every level of their being, including their soul. The submissions relate and link this abuse to so many other areas – our understanding of sexuality and of power; the absence of women in decision making roles; transparency and accountability in governance; clericalism.  

The Church is invited to interrogate how its own structures and modus operandi contributed to this crisis. In this sense it is a lens through which all else needs to be viewed.  

Q:How does the Church leadership intend to respond to this invitation? 

 The scale of abuse within the Church has created a huge sense of loss which infused the responses in our consultation. This sense of loss coupled with continuing anger was expressed by survivors themselves and their families, lay faithful who have become estranged from the Church because of it, and many good priests and religious who also feel betrayed. 

Alongside the enormous amount of good work on safeguarding, we need to continue our efforts to provide times and spaces for lamentation, to grieve this shared loss. The contributions about abuse, therefore, represent a call for penance and for atonement at a national level. One submission noted: In our view nothing adequate has yet emerged from the Church nationally in terms of atonement or reparation: while another remarked; Words that are carefully chosen and spoken with humility and sincerity help, but they are not enough.  

Q: How does the leadership of the Irish Church envisage a response to the call for penance and atonement at a national level? 

 At the national presynodal assembly, gratitude was expressed for the willingness of survivors to engage with the process and it was agreed that their searing words be included in an appendix to the submission to Rome. 

Institutional abuse in contexts such as Mother and Baby Homes, Magdalene Laundries and orphanages is inherent to the deep hurt of this wound. Strategies of concealment of institutional abuse by the Church have further wounded survivors. Surprisingly, while abuse has contributed very significantly to the loss of trust in the Church in Ireland, there were some submissions which placed relatively low emphasis on the abuse crisis. In summary, enormous gratitude to survivors for their engagement was expressed by many involved in the consultation process for the synod. There was a palpable sense that despite many efforts by the Church, a ‘reckoning’ had not yet taken place, and the synodal process generated a clear imperative to place this issue at the heart of any Church renewal and reform. 

2. Co-Responsible Leadership  

Accountability, transparency, participation, sharing, good governance – these are all key words used to express the hopes of participants for the future of the Church in Ireland when it comes to leadership. These words named what was absent in the lived experience of the Church for many of those responding to the synodal consultation. Many people feel that decision-making and authority are exercised solely by priests and bishops.  

This power structure provokes discontent in them, frustration and anger with the processes of decision-making and exercise of authority at all levels in the Church. It was asserted that Canon Law itself places obstacles to co-responsible leadership and there is obvious exclusion of laity, in particular, women and youth, in these processes and in leadership roles more generally within the Church.  

A reading of the submissions reveals a lack of clarity around leadership roles and responsibility. Parish Pastoral Councils, Finance Committees and other consultative councils should be balanced in their representation of the communities they are called to represent and not be elitist or groups that simply talk about doing. Instead, Parish Pastoral Councils and other representative councils are called to be cultivated as praying and discerning communities of faith whose actions arise from that discernment.  

Adult faith development, resources for lay ministries and collaborative decision-making was flagged as poor or non-existent. Clergy acknowledged that in many contexts they are too tired and weary to engage in these developments. However, they are aware that with education and formation, laity could and should be more involved in co-responsible leadership. Such approaches must be faith-based and focus on a model of servant-leadership to avoid becoming purely managerial or administrative. 

Some still feel that the laity should not have a voice in the decision making of the Church/parish; that this is primarily the ‘priest’s role’. They are happy to be ‘volunteers’ and just help where needed rather than be actively involved in leadership. Others, however, are more than ready to be involved in charting the way forward, especially through the synodal process.  

3. Clergy 

Participants expressed much appreciation for our priests. Their dedication, hard work, presence and pastoral care was frequently acknowledged during the consultation process. Many of those responding to the synod recognised that they are over-worked and often feel burdened by the weight of governance and administration. In the submissions, there is a lot of concern expressed for our ageing clergy.  

Q: How do we respond to the very clear concern for ageing clergy? 

The role of the priest is valued and will continue to play an essential part in communities of faith. Some participants were concerned that some younger priests are very traditional and rigid in their thinking and may not have the requisite skills for co-responsible leadership. There were calls for better training for our clergy. Priests need to be formed in the skills required to minister and lead in a synodal Church.  

Some priests themselves said they would need this assistance. Others are reluctant to let go of long-held roles. Others are feeling “edged out” with diminishing power and relevancy. At the national pre-synodal assembly, concern was raised that the voice of clergy was not as prominent as it might have been in the process. Practices varied in terms of whether listening sessions for clergy alone were organised as part of the synodal process.  

However, the invitation to participate as members of the wider ‘priesthood of the faithful’ was not always accepted, which may speak to the mindset that priests did not see themselves as part of the ‘all’ in communal discernment. On the other hand, clergy often wished to create an environment where parishioners were free to speak their minds and accordingly absented themselves from public meetings. 

In some cases, clergy simply chose not to engage. There were calls from both young and older participants for optional celibacy, married priests, female priests, and the return of those who had left the priesthood to marry. Clericalism in all its forms was frequently associated with hurt and abuse of power by participants in the process. Some declared that the structures of the Church are not inclusive but patriarchal, hierarchical, and feudal.  

There was concern expressed that many priests are resistant to change; that they feel they don’t have anything further to learn and view the local parish as ‘my parish’ not ‘our parish’. There was a sense that the permanent diaconate has been welcomed but is not always understood.[6] A new model for the selection of bishops was also sought and a number of participants indicated that it ought to include a wider participation of the People of God. 

 Q: Does the Synodal Process need to listen to priests on their own to allow them to speak freely? 

Q: Can the new Papal Nuncio to Ireland look at a new model for selection of bishops and wider consultation? 

4. Lay Ministry  

Baptismal calling is at the heart of who we are as Christians. That calling is manifested in a variety of ways, one of which is lay ministry. On the one hand, some respondents see that carrying out the mission of the Church is largely the responsibility of the clergy, while others recognise a call for greater participation of lay people in the life of the Church. Throughout the submissions, we heard similar calls that lay people, should be involved in other more significant leadership and teaching roles … not just because it will take some burden off the priest, but because it is part of each person’s mission as a baptised Catholic.  

However, there are challenges. These include the perceived passivity of the parish community or wider Church when it comes to lay ministry. There was an overarching thread evident throughout the consultation that the gifts of lay people were under-utilised by the Church. At the national pre-synodal assembly, it was noted that the Church should support lay people in their role as disciples, while a need was felt by some for lay people to take greater personal responsibility for their role in the Church. 

A submission from returned missionaries who had worked overseas highlighted that much was learned from working with lay colleagues in the various communities in which they served. We had no option but to trust and train lay leaders who gladly undertook the various ministries. In retrospect, it is clear that it was the actual shortage of ordained ministers that enabled the laity to take their God-given role. 

Q: Can we learn from returned Missionaries how to manage a lay-led Church? 

While many efforts have been made to enhance the role of lay people in ministry, much remains to be done to encourage, support and provide a training dedicated to enabling lay people in their calling to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ in their faith communities. A call for such training was evident in much of the consultation. It was also acknowledged that while we often speak of an aging clergy we also have an aging laity. 

Q: How do we respond nationally as a Church to the call for training for laity? 

5. Sense of Belonging  

Strong sentiments around the theme of belonging and a desire for the development of a more welcoming and inclusive Church emerged throughout the submissions. Some respondents were happy with the sense of belonging and companionship they felt within the Church but many more articulated the view that the Church was not as welcoming for those who may be on the margins of society or who feel excluded because of their sexual orientation. 

One submission stated: Those who feel at home in the Church feel the absence of those who don’t. There was unanimous desire for the Church to adopt a more welcoming and inclusive stance towards all, and in doing so reach out especially to those on the margins and those who do not engage regularly.  

It was stressed that the Church is at its very best when it is close to people’s lives, speaking a language that people understand, and connecting with people amidst their daily struggles. Regarding language itself, some felt that the Irish language and the local customs that surround the language, were not afforded adequate attention in Church circles.  

Sadly, the view that nothing happens outside of Mass and that much more could be done to develop a sense of community through regular social events and other liturgical services, emerged repeatedly. Coupled to this desire for improving fraternal and communal bonds was a sense that better communication methods need to be adopted to assist this process. 

One diocesan submission offered a helpful caveat: Technology was very useful, yet the internet is no substitute for human contact. If the Church is to become an inclusive one where all marginalised people feel a sense of belonging, then we must take stock of who is missing and discern how they can be welcomed. As one submission noted: Personal invitation is key.  

Q: How do we adopt better communications? 

6. The Role of Women in the Church  

The role of women in the Church was mentioned in almost every submission received. In those responses there was a call for women to be given equal treatment within the Church structures in terms of leadership and decision making. As one submission states: Women have a special place in the Church but not an equal place.  

Q: What practical ways can the Irish Church include women in its leadership and decision making processes? 

Many women remarked that they are not prepared to be considered second class citizens anymore and many are leaving the Church. They feel that even though their contribution over the years has been invaluable, it has been taken for granted. Several of the submissions called for the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate and the priesthood.  

Their exclusion from the diaconate is regarded as particularly hurtful. Some women felt that yet another layer was added to exclude them. Many young people cannot understand the Church’s position on women. Because of the disconnect between the Church’s view of women and the role of women in wider society today, the Church is perceived as patriarchal and by some, as misogynistic. 

Q: Is the Irish Church objectively patriarchal and misogynistic? 

The issue of women and gender-based violence was also raised and a call to challenge systemic gender inequalities to ensure women’s voices are heard and that they have the opportunity to be leaders and take part in decision making forums. A call was also issued to reflect together as a Church on the injustice brought upon women by Church and State, and cultural norms in society.  

Q: How can the Church reflect on injustice brought upon women by Church and State? 

7. LGBTQI+  

There was a clear, overwhelming call for the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in the Church, expressed by all ages and particularly by the young and by members of the LGBTQI+ community themselves. This inclusion would in the first instance involve less judgemental language in Church teaching, following the compassionate approach of Pope Francis which has been transformative and is appreciated, again, by young people in particular.  

Some called for a change in Church teaching, asking if the Church is sufficiently mindful of developments with regard to human sexuality and the lived reality of LGBTQI+ couples. Others expressed a concern that a change in the Church’s teaching would be simply conforming to secular standards and contemporary culture. Likewise, it was urged that we not treat the LGBTQI+ community in isolation from other marginalised groups.  

There were calls from an LGBTQI+ focus group for an apology from the Church. This submission suggested that even though the Church rarely condemns gay people these days, it indirectly creates an atmosphere where physical, psychological and emotional abuse of gay people is tolerated and even encouraged. Indeed, the visceral clarity of this particular focus group gave life to the rather more tentative and generalised positions on inclusion offered elsewhere, pointing to the value of hearing directly the voices of the excluded or disaffected.  

Q: Should the Irish Church apologise to LGBTQI+ for contributing to an unhealthy atmosphere that leads to abuse? 

Q: In what practical ways could the Irish Church be more inclusive? 

8. Sexuality and Relationships 

It was evident that sexuality, sexual ethics, and relationship issues informed people’s decisions in relation to Mass attendance, reception of the Eucharist and many other aspects of Church life. One submission asserted that the way in which people (both clergy and lay) were formed within the Church in relation to the understanding of sexuality and sexual sin has been a source of great suffering to many. 

There were requests for re-examinations of Church teaching and a revision of its understanding of human sexuality in light of recent scientific and sociological research, alongside a recognition of the lived realities of LGBTQI+ and other couples. Similarly, it was asserted that Church teaching could be more compassionate to women’s health, wellbeing and the raising of families, considering many circumstances, including financial ones.  

Q: Should Church teaching on sexuality be re-examined? 

It was suggested that the theology underpinning Church teaching on sexuality is but one strand in a far richer tapestry. For the divorced and remarried, the Church’s ‘rules and regulations’ were seen as draconian. Some divorced and separated people believed they could not receive the Eucharist even though they had not entered second relationships. Others described their exclusion by priests from any active role in the parish because of their status.  

It was stated that some priests avoided the strict implementation of the teaching regarding those in second unions receiving the Eucharist, and while this was appreciated it was also seen as turning a blind eye to the reality. Honest, open engagement and accompaniment with those in second unions was called for; to name the issue and to dialogue.  

Q: Should the Church in Ireland begin an open dialogue with divorced and re-married Catholics? 

Calls to make the process of applying for a declaration of marriage nullity easier and more accessible were also received. Another group who identified as feeling excluded from the life of the Church was single parents. It was felt that all parents who wish to bring up their children in the Church should experience welcome and support, and that greater creativity in ministry to families is needed. There are other minority, yet strong, voices that believe the Church, rooted in the Catholic Tradition, should not conform to secular standards when it comes to questions regarding gender, sexuality, and relationships. For others, the Church has no credibility in modern society as long as discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexuality exists.  

Q: Should the Church listen to the minority voices as well as the majority in any dialogue in this area? 

9. Adult Faith Formation  

The synodal process highlighted the serious weaknesses in Adult Faith Development in Ireland. Many of the submissions reported that people found it hard to engage with the questions, the concepts and the language relating to communion and mission. There is a felt need among many respondents for safe and dynamic spaces where people can come together to talk deeply about their faith and increase their knowledge of it.  

Q: How should we create safe and dynamic spaces to talk about faith and develop it? 

One submission stated: Our spiritual growth is stunted. As adult members of the Church, we are not sufficiently grounded in our faith, and do not have the confidence in speaking about our love of God. Many submissions stressed that the declining numbers of priests and religious means the Church is heading for a crisis as there will be very few people properly prepared to step into leadership and faith development roles.  

The need to provide continuous professional development for Religious Education teachers in Primary and Secondary level was also highlighted. They make a crucial contribution to the communication of the faith today. One submission outlined that there is a crisis in transmission of faith, rather than a crisis of faith and that we are unsure about how to evangelise in the modern world. 

This problem can only be addressed with the deployment of significant resources into programmes for those who wish to deepen their own faith, spirituality and understanding of scripture at a personal or academic level. Many of the courses available are very expensive, and therefore inaccessible to those who are on low incomes or social welfare. Some felt that if we invested half as many resources into the training and formation of people as we do into buildings, we could dramatically improve the life of the Church in Ireland today.  

Q: Where do we get the resources for a major faith development programme in the national Church? 

10. Liturgy  

There is a sense that funerals and special occasions are celebrated extremely well, but there is a need for more creative and engaging liturgies to connect with families and young people. Some feel the Church’s liturgies are boring, monotonous, jaded and flat; that they no longer speak to people’s lives. There was a desire expressed by respondents for the full participation of the laity throughout the liturgy; and for a wider more diverse group of people, including women, to take part. A minority view seeks a return of the Latin Mass and pre-Vatican II celebrations.  

Q: How do we make liturgies less boring and more participative? 

It was clear that the Eucharist is highly valued; so much so that, there is a desire for all to be able to receive, including those who are currently excluded. There was concern that the Sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation are seen solely through the lens of the school and a desire that those presenting for the Sacraments would participate in the whole life of the Church.  

Homilies were frequently described as being too long, ill prepared, irrelevant, monotonous and not always connected to life. Church language in the Liturgy is seen as archaic, non-inclusive and hard to understand, particularly the language in the Old Testament readings and liturgical prayers. There was a clear call for simpler, user-friendly, inclusive vocabulary.  

Q: Can we develop the ministry of Lector allowing trained lay people to give homilies?  Can we make the readings more simple and less archaic? 

The power of prayer was very much valued, as well as the presence of music and song. Some participants felt a great sense of love for our devotional practices and others talked about the power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Some participants long for the return of House Masses, Station Masses and particular feasts. 

It was requested that Laudato Si’ and a greater presence of environmental issues be part of our liturgies, particularly at certain times of the year. There were requests to move Mass times, so they did not clash with working hours, family time or sporting occasions. There was also a sense that in the future, people may not be reached through liturgy, so a prior step is required in relation to encountering Jesus on a personal level. 

11. Youth  

The issue of youth and the question of how the Church might engage with them, emerged universally across the synodal process. Multiple dioceses and organisations noted the absence of young people in parish communities and many submissions articulated a view that other youth organisations provide a home for young people that is more welcoming than that in parishes. There was an openness and honesty in responses from young people. 

They identified with faith and with the Gospel message and what we are called to as Church. One response clearly conveyed the sentiments expressed by so many: the one thing we, as young people, look for is sincerity. In many instances it was felt that the Church lacked this, or indeed pastoral awareness of the significant challenges faced by young people today.  

Q: If the Church is seen by young people as insincere, how do we identify this and tackle it? 

One notable example given was the mental health crisis faced by many young people. Many young people were critical of the Church regarding the role of women, clerical celibacy and its handling of the abuse crisis. A significant number disagreed with the Church’s teaching on sexuality and the Church’s position on sex was considered as a barrier to participation by some young people.  

Q: If the Church’s position on sex is a barrier to young people, how do we proceed in evangelisation? 

On the other hand, some young people said that, for them, the Church’s teaching on sexuality is a welcome challenge. One submission commented that the pursuit of authenticity, truth, beauty and the goodness which the Church has to offer is what is most attractive about the faith. It is striking to note that whilst dioceses noted the absence of young people in parishes, particular youth groups were able to offer the kind of faith community young people desired.  

Young people feel significant pressure from their peers and wider society when they express their faith and engage with Church. It is significant that for young people who have not engaged with or found vibrant communities where they can belong, they become indifferent to their faith. Many young people do wish to engage with Church, yet deficiencies in current pastoral practice have resulted in a marked disconnect between them and the Church. The question of how the Church might accompany them has emerged as an urgent one.  

Q: How does the Church accompany and support those young people who do have a faith? 

12. Education and Catechesis  

The topics of religious education, catechesis, faith formation and discernment are mentioned frequently in the submissions. The Sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist and Confirmation were identified as key moments in the life of the family and the Church. There is a wide consensus in the diocesan submissions, which was also confirmed at the national pre-synodal assembly, that a more prayerful, catechetical and scriptural formation is needed at parish level in order to accompany people before, during, and after these important sacramental moments. Parishes are struggling to accompany young people and their families in their faith development.  

Q: We need more formation at parish level but who will do it? 

It is acknowledged that the actual faith community will need to educate and lead our children in the faith, which suggests that a strategy, with particular focus on catechetical accompaniment, is required at parish level for young people and their parents. 

There is a wide awareness that the traditional cooperative faith-transmission model of the parish-home-school is no longer working. Many submissions suggest that the Spirit is prompting the Church in Ireland to remove sacramental preparation from schools in favour of parish-based formation programmes. The national pre-synodal assembly recognised the shortcomings of the current model and called for a discernment on how to address this challenge.  

Q: Who will lead this discernment? Will it be new wineskins or the same people who are always involved at leadership level? 

If children are to encounter Christ in their sacramental preparation and be formed as intentional disciples, perhaps a more kerygmatic accompaniment at parish level is required. Related to the topic of education and catechesis is an awareness that the skills necessary for discernment, which are crucial for making decisions in a synodal style, are lacking at all levels. When discernment is not prayerful, collaborative and deliberative in a co-responsible way, it can lead to mistrust. Transparency and formation in discernment are therefore needed. 

Q: Where is the transparency in the Irish Church? 

13. Family  

Many of the submissions place a strong emphasis on the central place of family in all three elements of our synodal process, communion, participation and mission. The Church is seen as a family of families; families are the natural framework within which faith is transmitted, nurtured and practised and from which a Christian identity emerges; and families are the appropriate framework for accompaniment and evangelisation.  

The submissions highlighted the importance of a broad and inclusive understanding of family in terms of the composition and formal status of family units. The Church needs to recognise the changing reality of families over the life cycle, and the challenges and burdens which they face. These burdens are often carried in silence and without external support, particularly in cases where families are coping with members who have a disability, dementia, addiction or other challenges.  

Q: In what way can the Irish Church recognise the changing reality of families? 

In recognising the diversity and validity of family types, frequent mention was also made of the importance of those who are single and whose needs and capacities are sometimes overlooked in the shaping of pastoral priorities. Accompaniment of families requires a more creative and considered response by the Church. The focus of parish life on the sacraments of initiation is too centred on children and reliant on schools. Parishes should focus more on parents, guardians and grandparents, while a shift away from the celebrations of a single day to an ongoing relationship based on invitation would be more appropriate and likely, more effective.  

The central role of family life requires acknowledgement of the importance of the domestic church in its own terms, an importance which was highlighted during the Covid restrictions on communal gatherings. Nurturing the domestic church and empowering and affirming parents will require fresh approaches that are not so reliant on formal liturgical moments.  

Q: What fresh approaches can be examined that will nurture the domestic family Church? 

14. Covid-19 Pandemic  

The Covid-19 pandemic greatly impacted religion and faith in different ways – gathering and expressing faith in physical places of worship was restricted, especially at parish level. The closure of churches and curtailment of ministry during lockdowns represented a marked shift in the life of the Church during this period. This shift generated deep feelings of isolation, abandonment, pain and hurt, especially amongst the elderly and those on their own as well as palpable sorrow to grieving families, arising from the restrictions on Church liturgies and pastoral care at this time.  

Many felt that Covid accelerated an already steep decline in Church practice and general engagement. Others remarked that it prompted a new vision for restructuring and re-thinking what it means to be a Church. It necessitated alternative liturgical and ritual responses as liturgical life moved to digital platforms. Some Catholics engaged fully with this possibility. 

Online communication has generated new possibilities for formation and training. Many participants mentioned that during the pandemic they missed “gathering” and “socialising” when going to Mass. Covid placed huge financial pressures on individuals and the rise in cases related to mental health, domestic violence and addiction reflect the stress placed on families and communities by the pandemic.  

There is still a deep sense of grief, loss and pain for people who lost family members during this period or could not visit loved ones in nursing homes or care facilities. Young people felt isolated from their peers and still feel they have lost out. More positively, prayer in the home and appreciation of the family as the domestic church grew. Families slowed down and became more present to each other. A healthier work-life balance emerged as people enjoyed creation and were more aware of the need to protect the environment. 

Q: Should the Church hold a national day of mourning for all those who lost loved ones in the Covid pandemic? 

For many, the synodal listening gatherings were the first ‘in-person’ events people attended after many months of restrictions and even though there was some nervousness, those attending were grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with their faith community.  

15. Culture  

Dramatic economic and social change was seen to have had a profound impact on the structures and processes of the Church, its place within Irish society, and thus on the perceived capacity for participation and mission. Some of the submissions reflected that contextual changes have been mediated by the two political and legal jurisdictions on the island, by the legacy of conflict and the challenge of sectarianism, and so have not been experienced uniformly.  

The pressures of commercialisation and consumerism, the rise of individualism, pressure on time for family and community and a secularist mindset reflected in dominant media, are all heard in the submissions. The Church increasingly finds itself pushed to the margins of popular culture which it struggles to understand or to find language with which to be understood. It was felt that the Church’s proclaimed concern to foster communion and participation is overshadowed by the wider society’s focus on inclusion, transparency and accountability. 

Q: Is Church language out of step with modern culture?  Is our secular culture perceived as more inclusive, transparent and accountable? If so, and if true, what steps does the Irish Church need to take? 

The submissions highlight the morale-sapping effect of negative media treatment of the Church, while recognising the invaluable service of independent media in exposing abuse and failures of accountability within the Church.  

Despite these pressures, it was felt that there are strong reasons to engage with the wider culture so that Catholics can highlight the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth; a consumer society has failed to deliver sustainability, equity or life satisfaction.  

Q: How can Catholics highlight the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth to the wider culture when these two issues were notable for not being strongly present in the Consultation? 

The reality of mutual interdependence was demonstrated by the pandemic experience. Catholic Social Teaching calls The Church to highlight the cries from the margins. Many submissions recognised that this will require a fresh approach to popular culture, including a new relationship with the traditional media and the new communication channels whose power was highlighted during the Covid-19 crisis. 

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