From Red Herring to Honest Discussion

When faced with the clerical sexual abuse scandal, a common red herring that is brought up is to call into question the practice of clerical celibacy. I’m still amazed that people who try to capitalize on the tragedy of sexual abuse for their own theological agenda are not derided more. I think such actions are tantamount to someone arriving at the scene of a car accident and lecturing those involved and the emergency responders about the benefits of alternative fuels while open wounds still need mending. They are opportunists of the worst sort.

Choosing Latin Rite diocesan priests from mainly those called to the celibate state is a discipline of the Church that is open for discussion. I just think it’s important not to lump such a discussion into a real discourse about addressing sexual abuse. Discuss one or the other, but don’t tackle both at the same time.

With that clear, I wanted to do a separate post to respond to a comment made by Dan Soares:

Your points are well made about the calling of ‘some’ who are given the charism of celibacy or a life devoted to serving God as a single person.

What I do not see however is the ‘requirement’ for all ‘priests’ to be celibate. Could it be that we are requiring of those who would serve God in this capacity, something that Jesus Himself did not require?

After all the first Pope Peter himself was married and was able to serve Christ faithfully.

There are some issues to keep in mind when framing the discussion about clerical celibacy in the Latin Rite (as I believe that’s the focus Dan is asking about):

  • Valuing Marriage and Celibacy: Unless someone is firm in their appreciation for both the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and for the practice of Celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God, a beneficial discussion of clerical celibacy is not likely to take place. Both marriage and celibacy are important to understand both the nuptial meaning of the body and to take to the life of Christ seriously (Jesus is both the Bridegroom of the Church and lived as a chaste celibate priest).
  • Respecting the Historical Development of Clerical Celibacy: Any discussion of clerical celibacy should also be rooted in a solid understanding of its development in history. Dr. Anthony Dragani, a Byzantine Catholic, has a good overview of the historical practice of the development of clerical celibacy in the East and West. Both traditions are valuable. In the United States, any discussion of clerical celibacy should also begin with addressing any hurts still lingering from the ban on married Eastern priests in North American during the past century (such healing should go on regardless of what happens in the Latin Rite of course).
  • Understanding the Tradition: It has never been part of the Church’s tradition in the East or West to allow ordained men to get married. It has been part of the tradition to ordain men that are already married. There is a huge difference between the two. Many people want to discuss clerical celibacy without realizing that all men who are currently celibate priests (and married priests and deacons who may become widowers) would not all of the sudden be allowed to discern marriage/date/get married if a change is made to the current discipline. That is no where in the tradition and not worth speculating about.
  • Limiting Speculation to Diocesan Priests: Though it may seem obvious, many people want to talk about married priests without realizing they should only be talking about diocesan priests. Religious priests (monks, friars, etc.) who take the Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are out of the discussion. Those vows are crucial to the life of most religious. Most rules of life for religious wouldn’t make much sense if they had to adjust to allow married priests.
  • Clarifying How a Call to the Priesthood Works: Here’s where I might sound a bit controversial. Just because a man thinks he is called to the priesthood doesn’t mean he is called to the priesthood. No one has a right to become a priest. If the Church doesn’t discern a man has a vocation to the priesthood, then he doesn’t have a vocation to the priesthood. That might sound harsh, but think about it in terms of courtship and marriage. For example, if Bobby thinks with all his heart that he is called to marry Sussie, does that mean he is called to marry Sussie? No. Bobby is only called to marry Sussie if Sussie discerns a call to marry Bobby. If Sussie doesn’t decide to marry Bobby, then they are not called to get married. They are both called to holiness of life regardless, but they can only be sure of a call to marry each other when consent is exchanged/vows are made. The same is true with a call to the priesthood. The Church and the man must both discern the call and a man is only certainly called to become a priest the moment he is ordained. For this reason, it is wrong to say there are married men out there called to be priests, but the Church just won’t ordain them. As an aside, there are married men in the West that the Church has decided are called to be Catholic priests. This month we are ordaining 60 such men at least. However, not all Anglican/Episcopal priests who become Catholic are called to be Catholic priests as not all will be ordained. Placing discernment in the Church’s hands, like placing the discernment of marriage in the hands of another, is an often overlooked, but necessary part of the discussion of vocations.
  • Admitting the Church Does Not Require Priests to be Celibate: Let me repeat that. The Catholic Church does not impose celibacy on Her priests. That is a common misconception. However, the Latin Rite does normally restrict the choice of priests to men who are already called to celibacy. Jesus notes that some men are called to celibacy (Mt. 19:11-12). The practice in the West for many centuries has been to restrict the choice of priests to men who are already called to celibacy. In other words, if a man is not called to celibacy, he is most likely not called to be a priest in the Latin Rite. The Eastern Rites do the same thing in terms of their choice of monks and bishops (only choosing men first called to celibacy). There is no imposition going on. A man should not make a promise of chaste celibacy if he is not called or willing to live it out.
  • Accepting that it’s Not About Ability: Francis Cardinal George of Chicago made the point while addressing our seminary that the call of a priest is not based on ability first of all. He used the question of whether women could be ordained priests, but his point is appropriate to married priests as well. There are plenty of women who could do what priests do (administration, preaching, teaching, etc.) better than many priests today. However, a priest is called based on his capacity to be in relationship as a spiritual father to the people of God. Just as men cannot be biological mothers, women can’t be spiritual fathers. Being a husband, biological father, and spiritual father to a community takes tremendous gifts. Just because some might be able to handle it all doesn’t mean that many are called to do so. As far as I know, Eastern Rite vocation directors are not overwhelmed by the demand of married men who want to discern priesthood. Just because a call is possible, doesn’t mean it’s common. I marvel at my Eastern Rite brothers and few Latin Rite brothers who are married. They are truly Super Men in my eyes (and their wives and families are truly amazing). Just take a look at this blog from the wife of one of Byzantine Catholic priest to see what I mean.

With all that being said, let’s look back to the original question:

Could it be that we are requiring of those who would serve God in this capacity, something that Jesus Himself did not require?

My Answer: No. Jesus still calls many to be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In her wisdom, the Catholic Church still chooses most of Her priests from those with that particular call. She is not requiring anything extra that Jesus is not already calling a man to embrace. If a man is not called to already be celibate, then he is not called to be a priest in the Latin Rite (except in the rarest of cases).

***I didn’t cover the practical concerns about ordaining more married men in the Latin Rite, but there are certainly many. Such a discussion is of course welcome in the comments too. I also didn’t appeal to the experience of married permanent deacons, but such experience is also quite valuable to the discussion.

16 Comments

  1. LOVE IT! The discussion on “Clarifying How a Call to the Priesthood Works” is something to often overlooked completely and the discussion of “It’s not about Ability” gets to the root of a larger cultural issue I think we have fallen into…see roles of men and women in western society today and the issues it is causing… Thank you so much for these posts, thoroughly enjoying them

    God Bless

  2. “If a man is not called to already be celibate, then he is not called to be a priest in the Latin Rite (except in the rarest of cases).”

    The Roman Catholic church does not allow certain priests to be married – “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils…Forbidding to marry…” (1 Timothy 4:1,3)

    “It has never been part of the Church’s tradition in the East or West to allow ordained men to get married.”

    “Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” (Mark 7:7)

  3. Hey Daniel,

    Both of those arguments are easily answered.

    I discuss the “forbidding to marry” accusation here, and the “traditions of men” accusation here. But in addition, two questions:
    (1) If a man marries a woman, and decides he likes another woman, and wants to marry her also, is he forbidden?
    (2) Does Christ forbid traditions within the Church, or only those traditions which violate the word of God?

    In Christ,

    Joe

  4. scredsoxfan2: Thanks for the comment! I think if more people understood what the Catholic Church actually teaches and practices in regards to clerical celibacy then there would still be many that disagree, but the disagreement might not be so virulent. You are right on about the Western culture distorting the very notion of gender and equality. Lots of work to be done.

    Daniel: I appreciate you reading the post and making a comment. I think we are talking about two different situations. I encourage you to reread my point about “Admitting the Church Does Not Require Priests to be Celibate”. I’m afraid you’re assuming the Catholic Church teaches and practices something that it does not. In the Latin Rite, priests are chosen (mainly) from men who are already called to be celibate (which is a valid call as both Jesus and Paul affirm). If a man is called to be celibate and makes that promise, of course the Church is going to hold him to that promise to remain celibate (just as She holds married couples to their vows). Trying to apply the verses you reference in 1 Tim 4 doesn’t seem appropriate as the Catholic Church is not forbidding priests not to marry. Priests are making a free choice not to marry since they are called to celibacy already. The Church is simply affirming the call of those who are called to be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

    I’m also concerned that you might be applying Mark 7:7 to any practice you do not personally agree with. Celibacy is a valid call. Jesus himself was celibate and there have always been chaste celibates for the Kingdom of God. It has been a valuable practice in the West to choose priests from those called to be celibate. That practice could be adjusted, but why? What benefits do you think there would be to more married priests in the Latin Rite?

    I’d also be curious how you personally determine when something is “doctrine” vs. a “commandment of men.” I’m interested in your responses to Joe’s questions too. Remember that the way Catholics understand a call to the priesthood can be very different from how some non-Catholics understand a call to ministry. A man interested in the priesthood cannot simply decide he’s supposed to be a priest, put himself through school, get ordained, and then apply to be a pastor for a church community. A man is called from a community, by the Church, and for the Church. If that’s the case, the Church must provide a great level of guidance in the matter and She draws from 2,000 years experience of shepherding God’s flock to do so.

    Thanks for reading our blog. I checked yours out as well. I hope you continue studying Sacred Scripture and share your love for God.

    In Christ,

    Fr. Andrew

  5. About a month ago I was called demonic by a woman wanting her “right” to be “ordained” a priest be finally recognized by the mean Church. This came after I said it was not possible for a woman to be called by God to the priesthood by the very fact that it was not possible for women to be ordained. In addition to calling me demonic she went into a diatribe about me not knowing what her heart was calling her to be. Your excellent post brought this memory back to me. This all seems to ultimately go back to the difference of a God-centric life viewpoint and a me-centric viewpoint.

  6. zimmerk:

    Someone I used to work with used to like to propose this response to a situation like yours: how are they going to promise obedience as a priest to a Church they can’t obey now?

    Another angle: I bet the woman you ran into would also reject a man who demanded the right to marry her on his terms.

    Jesus loves/honors/respects/dignifies women and didn’t hesitate to commission them with spreading the Gospel. Mary Magdalen was the first to proclaim the Resurrection. The Blessed Mother is the pinnacle of creation (just like Eve before her). There were more faithful women at the Cross than men. However, he still only chose men to become apostles (the first bishops/priests). He didn’t restrict his choice to men simply because he was bound to the culture of his day or because of a lack of appreciation for women or to make a statement about who has the ability to “do” priestly things. He only chose men because only men can be spiritual fathers (just as only women can be biological mothers). The all male priesthood is a choice of God, not the Church.

  7. Thanks Fr. Andrew. Those are good points. I think she brought up the women at the cross though, as one of the reasons why women should be ordained. Unfortunately I am not usually quick witted in sudden hostile situations like that to respond in a reasonable time. Things come to mind after the fact. To add further clarification, I did not act with actual hostility to her; just that what I said about God’s calling was taken to be hostile in itself by her. She was a stranger that I will probably never see again either way.

  8. Hi,

    First off, I do appreciate that this conversation is civil (much more civil than some I have seen). In my first post, I really did not speak my own words. I just wanted to let the Scripture speak for itself.

    Joe – in response to your article on clerical celibacy. There is much that I agree with, but I cannot say that I agree with your main point. Again, the Scripture from 1 Timothy 4:3 may well apply to other groups, but I would again mention that it applies well in this situation, because the Catholic Church *does* forbid to marry – an unmarried catholic cannot choose to both marry and enter the priesthood, or at least most would be forbidden to do both.

    – Regarding tradition, I am a strong believer in the value of tradition. Many Protestant churches have strayed far from the truth by abandoning tradition. The problem is when tradition contradicts the Scripture. It is clear that the early church allowed married men to enter the ministry, 1 Timothy 3:2. There are many Roman Catholic beliefs which are said to be founded on tradition, but which have no well-documented support until hundreds of years after the church was formed (praying to the saints, immaculate conception, perpetual virginity of Mary, etc.- and by the way, I would say that these traditions contradict the Scripture, you would disagree with me. But let’s not get onto that right now). The best that can be said is that these ‘traditions’ are known to have existed many years after the church was formed – and any honest history book will admit that the early church did change a lot in the first few centuries. But in 1 Timothy, we clearly see that God does *not* forbid marriage, and even allows for married men to enter the ministry, while the Roman Catholic church rarely allows married men to enter the ministry – in most cases it is forbidden.

    In response to your questions to me: (1) Yes, he is forbidden – Ephesians 5:31; (2) Christ only forbids those traditions which violate the word of God – this does not mean that any tradition is acceptable so long as it does not directly violate a clear teaching of Scripture, but a harmless tradition is not forbidden.

    Andrew – I reread the section on the church not requiring priests to be celibate, and I understand it. Many Protestants don’t understand, but I have talked with Catholics and know what you are saying. *If a man says he will be celibate,* and then enters the ministry, then certainly he should remain celibate – because he has committed to it. One thing is certain – the early church allowed married men to enter the office, but the Roman Catholic church does not (except in a few instances). The Roman Catholic Church forbids marriage if a man wishes to become a priest. I have no problem with the church holding men to what they have promised to do.

    Of course celibacy is a valid call. I agree. But you ask, “that practice could be adjusted, but why?” Because it does not line up with scripture or the traditions of the early church. “What benefits do you think there would be to more married priests in the Latin Rite?” Perhaps the scripture would be obeyed, and the traditions taught by the Lord and the early church would be followed. Why was it good for the early church to allow married men into the ministry?

    I would say that a Scriptural doctrine is one which could be backed up (not just proof-texted, but solidly supported) by the Scripture. A ‘commandment of men’ is any teaching which (1) contradicts the Scripture or (2) does not contradict the Scripture, but REQUIRES obedience, i.e., insists on something which God does not insist on.

    And again, I am completely in agreement with what you say about a man not just ‘deciding’ to enter the ministry. Certainly, the Church will recognize those whom God has called to be shepherds of his flock.

    Sorry for being long-winded! And thanks, Andrew, for visiting my site.

    Sincerely,
    Daniel

  9. Daniel,

    I agree, this conversation has been wonderfully civil. I appreciate that a lot. I also think that we’ve made a lot of progress. In response to my first question, you said that a married man who desired to be married again would be forbidden. So we agree that it is sometimes okay to forbid a man from marrying – that is, that 1 Timothy 4:1-3 doesn’t require marriage on demand. And in response to Fr. Andrew, you acknowledged that the men who have promised celibacy should be held to that promise. So it sounds like you already agree that all existing celibate priests within the Catholic Church should remain celibate, and that this in no way offends 1 Timothy 4:1-3. Is that a fair understanding?

    Your argument is that “the Catholic Church *does* forbid to marry – an unmarried catholic cannot choose to both marry and enter the priesthood, or at least most would be forbidden to do both.” But no man becomes a priest or a husband simply because he wants to: it requires the consent of the woman or the Church. With marriage, the woman doesn’t have to consent, even if the man meets all the Scriptural qualifications of a husband. She can require things that Scripture doesn’t: perhaps she might say, “I’ll only marry you if you stop gambling.” I doubt anyone would claim she was somehow violating Scripture, by commanding something above and beyond. Rather, she’s simply exercising her free will in taking the spouse she desires, and calling her would-be husband to more.

    Likewise, the Church is responsible for choosing Her priests (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). She isn’t required to simply accept any man who wants to be a priest, nor is She required to accept every man who appears qualified. Nothing in Scripture requires Her to do so, and to the extent you would require Her to do so, you go beyond what Scripture requires. Now, if the Church is free to choose Her priests, She is like the bride who is free to require her husband to give up gambling if he would marry her. After all, Scripture presents celibacy as superior to marriage, so the Church is free to use this as one rubric by which to pick out the cream of the crop. She has many suitors to choose from, and isn’t required to pick them all.

    (This is going to have to be a two-part comment — sorry for the length!)

  10. Go back to 1 Timothy 4. In it, Paul also talks about the “doctrine of devils” leading men to abstain from certain foods. Yet we see the Apostles themselves fasting (Acts 13:2-3, Acts 14:23), as Christ prophesies that they will (Mark 2:19-20; Luke 5:35). And Jesus Himself fasted for forty days (Matthew 4:2). Of course, neither Christ nor the Apostles are teaching a doctrine of devils in so doing. So what Paul’s condemning can’t be fasting or celibacy. Rather, he’s condemning specific doctrines – those which he calls doctrines of devils. In the page I linked to you earlier, I showed what those doctrines are: those who call for celibacy because they think marriage is evil, and who call for fasting because they think Creation is evil, or certain foods are evil. In fasting or being celibate, they’re doing something which should be a spiritual good, but they’re doing it for depraved and demonic reasons.

    Two final points of clarification. First, the Church doesn’t claim that Jesus or the Apostles requires Her to accept only celibate men (after all, She doesn’t accept only celibate men, just primarily so). So She’s not claiming that this is an Apostolic Tradition, like the Immaculate Conception, or perpetual Virginity of Mary (and I agree, we should address those points, but later). Her claim, instead, is two-fold: (1) She is free to choose who She will and won’t accept as priests, and (2) celibacy is preferable to marriage. Both of those claims are Scriptural: how She chooses to act upon them is within Her discretion.

    Second, you say that a “tradition of men” is one which “(1) contradicts the Scripture or (2) does not contradict the Scripture, but REQUIRES obedience, i.e., insists on something which God does not insist on.” Fair enough. By that definition, I think we would agree that this would fall into # 2. But you acknowledged in your answer to my second question that the only “traditions of men” which Christ forbids are “those traditions which violate the word of God.” In other words, only # 1 is forbidden.

    By the way, I’ve enjoyed your site as well. Keep up the good work! In Christ,

    Joe

  11. Hi Joe,

    You ask, “it sounds like you already agree that all existing celibate priests within the Catholic Church should remain celibate, and that this in no way offends 1 Timothy 4:1-3. Is that a fair understanding?” Yes, that is a fair understanding, to this extent: if a man says he ought to do something, he should do it. Therefore, a church could send a man out of the ministry if that man breaks his word.

    Now I want to drop down to what is a tradition of men. We do agree that this falls into ‘#2.’ You wrote, “But you acknowledged in your answer to my second question that the only “traditions of men” which Christ forbids are “those traditions which violate the word of God.” In other words, only # 1 is forbidden.” Now (if you are still keeping track with me!), I wrote this: “Christ only forbids those traditions which violate the word of God – this does not mean that any tradition is acceptable so long as it does not directly violate a clear teaching of Scripture, but a harmless tradition is not forbidden.” In other words, a tradition can be a bad tradition even though it is not *directly* contrary to a Scripture text. Would you agree?

    I would define a ‘bad tradition’ as one which rigidly commands something which God does not command. I believe that an honest reading of Matthew 15:9 will support this proposition. The early church dealt with a group of people who did this thing exactly: they followed the idea of Jesus Christ, but they rigidly required obedience to other commandments – see Colossians 2:20-22.

    Again I agree: a man cannot simply enter the ministry if he wants to. If he really is called, the church will recognize that. But this does *not* mean that the church can put in place new requirements for the ministry. Again, a ‘bad tradition’ is one which rigidly commands something which God does not command.

    Sincerely,
    Daniel

  12. Also, I hope that you do not take offense at my pointedness.

    I enjoy discussing the Scripture and hopefully this conversation is useful to both of us and any seeking to know the way of the LORD.

    Daniel

  13. Daniel,

    When you say that something is a “bad tradition,” what exactly are you saying? I think that there are at least two ways of reading it: (1) that the tradition is permissible but unhelpful; or (2) that the tradition is somehow forbidden to Christians.

    (1) As Christians, we’re free to think that the Church’s decisions (any actions She takes where Christ or the Apostles haven’t provided specific instructions) are wise or unwise. So if you mean bad tradition in that narrow sense, you’re welcome to your opinion. We disagree, but you’re welcome to it.

    (2) But it sounds like you mean more than that. You said, “Again I agree: a man cannot simply enter the ministry if he wants to. If he really is called, the church will recognize that. But this does *not* mean that the church can put in place new requirements for the ministry.

    But the Church absolutely has this ability. In fact, to my knowledge, every single denomination on Earth practices it. If you possess the bare minimum qualifications described in the New Testament, but refuse to agree to that denomination’s creed, refuse to preach at the time that services are held (perhaps they do Wednesday night services, and you’ve got a weekly poker game), and demand an outlandish salary, a sane church can and will deny you, whether it’s a Catholic or Protestant church, or something altogether different.

    They may not formally come out and say, “in addition to the Scriptural requirements, you must also agree to preach at 8 AM Sunday, and 7 PM Wednesday, accept a salary of $35,000, and agree to our statement of beliefs,” but those requirements exist nonetheless. The Catholic Church just does openly and honestly what other Christian denominations pretend they don’t do.

    And unlike “must work Wednesday nights,” the celibacy requirement is at least rooted in Scripture. The one who can accept it should, Jesus said (Mt. 19:12). And if someone genuinely can’t accept it, that sends up a red flag about his qualifications.

    And don’t worry: I haven’t found you pointed at all. I find your honesty refreshing, and your spirit one of Christian charity.

    Yours in Christ,

    Joe.

  14. Fr. Andrew:

    Thank you for outlining the position of the Roman Catholic church on this issue as well as the reasoning behind it.

    We agree on the following:

    – The single life devoted to serving God is a gift from God, not given to all.

    – Some are called to serve God in this capacity.

    – Those who are called by God to a life of singleness, should embrace it.

    – Your calling to ministry needs to be affirmed by the church.

    This is what I’m struggling with and perhaps you have already addressed it but I’m too dense to see it.

    Your statement: ‘The Catholic Church does not impose celibacy on Her priests. That is a common misconception. However, the Latin Rite does normally restrict the choice of priests to men who are already called to celibacy.’

    I do not see a celibacy ‘restriction’ in Scripture. I see Jesus telling his disciples that some are called to celibacy. I see Paul writing that ‘he who abstains from marriage does better’, indicating that he who is single is free from certain ‘cares’ that a married person would have.

    However, we see Jesus calling married and unmarried men to follow Him and be His disciples and eventually apostles. He did not see the need to restrict His calling to just those men who were called to be celibate.

    So why would the church in it’s wisdom choose to go beyond what Jesus Himself had done? Were there some other compelling factors?

    Your statement: “She is not requiring anything extra that Jesus is not already calling a man to embrace. If a man is not called to already be celibate, then he is not called to be a priest in the Latin Rite”

    I’m confused. If Jesus did not restrict his calling (to be priests) to those who were called to be celibate, then yes, the Church has instituted an extra requirement.

    Thanks,

    Dan

  15. Hi Joe,

    I haven’t forgotten about our conversation, just really busy right now. I still plan to respond, but if you can give me a little more time to respond.

    Thanks,
    Daniel

  16. Hi Joe,

    I suppose that late is better than never! I think that we have both made our points, and hopefully have each carefully considered the other position (I know that it has been good for me to reexamine what I have thought). So I thought that I would just add a few more comments and maybe sum up my thoughts. Feel free to sum up your own thoughts or respond, if you wish.

    You mentioned that ” to my knowledge, every single denomination on Earth practices it [laying down additional requirements for entering the ministry].” But don’t you agree that there is a huge difference between absolute requirements that apply to the entire catholic church, and the requirements (if you would even call them such) that a single congregation lays out, like ‘must be availabe at 7 PM on Wednesday?’ But it is especially strange for the Roman Catholic Church to make celibacy an absolute requirement (I know, some exceptions), when the Scripture clearly mentions those who ‘forbid to marry’ in a negative light. And if someone can’t accept celibacy, why should that send up a red flag? Paul himself referred to celibacy as a gift (1 Corinthians 7:7) which is not given to everyone. So why should it be a red flag if someone doesn’t have the gift of celibacy? Should it send up a red flag if they don’t have the gift of tongues? Or miracles? (I merely mean that as a rhetorical question).

    One more thought – think about 1 Corinthians 9:5 – “Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?” No, he didn’t use that power, but what do you suppose he would have said if he lived now and someone said ‘No’? (Again, rhetorical).

    I have enjoyed our discussion!
    Daniel

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