Mission and Missions
MISSION AND MISSIONS
Mission, as a term describing the activity of Church members in the spread of the Gospel, is a relatively new term. In the 16th century ignatius of loyola used the term "votum missionis" to describe the commitment and task of his members. Before that, a variety of words were used to describe this activity: propagation of the faith, conversion of the heathen, proclamation of the Good News to the whole world, conversion of unbelievers, planting the Church, extension of the Kingdom, etc.
It was only in the 19th century that missions (in the plural) became identified with the outreach of the Church to those who were not Christians and with the places where Christian communities were only starting or had not yet achieved the full structure of the Church. This word continued to be used to describe the Church's activity until the middle of the 20th century, when for various reasons the word mission began to replace missions.
Its Definition. Common definitions of mission encompass the following elements: mission begins in the life of God; the Church continues Christ's mission; mission is carried out under the guidance of the Spirit; the Church is missionary by her very nature; "foreign missions" is not a separate entity; mission expresses God's relationship with the world; and mission includes evangelization and bringing the Gospel to those who have never heard it.
Before Vatican II—From Missions to Mission. The activity of the Church in the 19th century in Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific prompted systematic theological reflection on missions at the beginning of the 20th century. This was true in both the Protestant and the Catholic Churches. Missionaries succeeded in making converts and establishing Christian communities. This suggested that they reflect on what they were doing and why and with what goal in mind.
Catholic mission theology from its formal start in 1911 until the time of World War II in the 1940s was dominated by three schools of thought. At Münster the school established and guided by Joseph schmidlin affirmed that the purpose of missions was to preach the Gospel to non-Christians. Therefore missions only existed in what were identified as non-Christian lands. At Louvain Pierre charles, SJ, and his colleagues preferred to say that the goal of missions was to plant the Church. They saw missions as a transient stage and they would disappear when the Church was established. At Burgos Jose Zameza, SJ, and Olegario Dominguez, OP, took a less juridical approach; they spoke about missions as the way in which the mystical body of christ grew. The French School of Andre Glorieux, Henri de lubac, and Alexandre Durand took a different approach. Their basis for mission work was not the salvation of individual souls but the collective salvation of humanity. Also they rooted mission in the mystery of the incarnation.
However, significant changes that would deeply influence Vatican II emerged after World War I. Edward Loffeld, CSSp, saw the European schools of thought converging. He spoke about the goal of missions as particular churches. Thomas Ohm, OSB, who filled the Chair at Münster once held by Schmidlin, emphasized that missions were about discipling the nations. He also suggested that missions must find their origin not in the Church but in the life of the Trinity.
The French also made important contributions. Jean daniÉlou, SJ, a church historian and patristics scholar, proposed the idea that God had made three covenants with humanity: through Noah, through Moses, and through Jesus. Thus he placed all religious history under God. He saw other religions as being simply human endeavors, while Judaism and Christianity were based on a revelation from God. He also was interested in the dynamics by which a Jewish movement became a gentile church. This led him to examine the mystery of the incarnation in terms of its cultural implications. He suggested that the Gospel must be incarnated in every culture, refracted as it were in the prism of every culture, before it would be fully understood.
Yves congar, OP, in his earliest writings was concerned about ecumenism. But he also was interested in the mission (in the singular) of the Church. He suggested that mission is permanent (not transient) and coextensive with the life of the Church in the world (not just mission territories). For him mission had to be linked with the incarnation and with cultures. The Church, he said, would not know what it means to preach the Gospel to all peoples until it had done so.
The Worker-Priest Movement, also known as the Mission de France, began under the guidance of Cardinal suhard of Paris in the early 1940s in response to a study that showed that the working class of France had never been evangelized. A group of missionaries were formed who would become full-time workers, identify with the people in their style of life, and bring the Gospel to those who had not heard it. They realized that the parish itself must become a missionary institution. Mission was no longer the specialized calling of religious men and women going overseas to new cultures; it was the calling of the local Church as well. These ideas were not easily accepted by the traditional mission theologians and religious missionary congregations at that time.
Finally, the German Jesuit Karl rahner helped to bring about a changed understanding of mission and missions. In his attempt to explain that God wills the salvation of all peoples, he pointed out that God's will would be frustrated if salvation were limited to those who were baptized or who consciously knew and accepted Christ. Therefore, he talked of "anonymous Christians"— people who followed their consciences and lived a good life and were saved through Christ even if they did not know it. This changed not only the motivation for mission but also the approach to people of other faiths.
Vatican II—Ad gentes. The gathering of Bishops at Vatican II produced the most significant document on mission and missions of the 20th century. It almost did not happen. It was brought forward in the third session of the council. The bishops by that time were anxious about the amount of time that they were away from their dioceses. The drafting committee decided to reduce the decree to several proposals. Cardinal agagianian, the prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, persuaded paul vi to make a personal appearance in support of the proposals to show his concern for the entire missionary movement. After Paul VI left the aula, one bishop after the other rose to speak against the proposals. They urged that in the current climate the Church needed not just a few proposals but a complete decree. A special commission was set up to work on this between the third and fourth sessions. John Schuette, SVD, the superior general of the Divine Word Missionaries, was appointed to chair the commission. Some of its members were: Dominic Grasso, SJ; Joseph Neuner, SJ; Yves Congar; and Joseph ratzinger. They brought their decree to the Council floor early in the fourth session. It was approved, but certain changes were suggested. These were made and the revised document was again brought towards the end of the fourth session. It had almost universal acceptance.
The document, Ad gentes divinitus, as so many of the documents of Vatican II, is a compromise document. While the various European schools of mission theology argued to have their interpretation accepted as the official one, the commission decided not to choose between them but to take a both/and rather than an either/or position. It also decided to include the recent insights and outlook of Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, and the Worker-Priest Movement. It introduced an element that had not been greatly present in the missiological literature before then: the value of Christian presence and witness as a missionary task. Finally, it incorporated the recommendation that a bishop of the Melkite Church made after the first reading of the decree: that the Church should reclaim the teaching of justin martyr about the "seeded Word of God."
Early in the document the Council Fathers indicated that the origin for mission and missions is found in the life of the Trinity: "The Church on earth is by its very nature missionary, since, according to the plan of the Father, it has its origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit." (AG, 2) The Father sends the Son; the Father and Son send the Spirit; and all three send the Church. The decree highlights the special role that the Holy Spirit plays, removing divisions and diversity and often anticipating the presence and activity of the missionary.
Jesus called the Apostles who became the foundation of the Church which is a sacrament of Christ's presence and saving love. It is the Church's mission, according to the decree, to make herself fully present to all people and nations. It is a continuing task and one which the Church must carry out in the same way that Christ carried out His mission: "the Church, urged on by the Spirit of Christ, must walk the road Christ himself walked, a way of poverty and obedience, of service and self-sacrifice even to death, from which He emerged victorious by his resurrection" (AG, 5).
After pointing out the origin of mission and missions, the decree describes the difference between them. The mission of the Church, it is said, is one and the same everywhere, although circumstances may demand different approaches. However, "the special undertakings in which preachers of the Gospel, sent by the Church and going into the whole world, carry out the work of preaching the Gospel and implanting the Church among people who do not yet believe in Christ, are generally called 'missions."' (AG, 4) This distinction was insisted upon by missionary congregations who wanted to distinguish their work from that being done in the West, such as the Mission de France. While this distinction has been maintained by certain missionary groups and was even reinforced by the papal encyclical of John Paul II, Redemptoris missio, for the most part it has disappeared from the writings of most mission scholars. An opening was given to this in the document itself when it recognized not only that an established and fully mature Church and a mission situation can exist side by side but also that missionary activity can be reinstated because of changed circumstances and that the missionary activity might be reduced to presence and service.
The decree sees the missionary task as a three-fold one: bearing Christian witness; preaching the Gospel and gathering God's people; and forming the Christian community. Missionaries had traditionally cared for the poor and afflicted. Schools, clinics, and hospitals had been established; famine relief was organized. They did this both for their Christians and to attract new converts. This was often seen as pre-evangelization. The decree insists that if it is true charity it must extend to all without distinction of race, social condition, or religion. (AG, 12) Moreover, charity must never be used to entice people to conversion. (AG, 13) In doing this, Catholics need not set up their own projects, but should be willing to cooperate with public and private organizations, with international agencies, with various Christian communities, and even with non-Christian religions. (AG, 12) Missionaries must have a concern for the development of peoples, even if they cannot preach Christ; since "in teaching the religious and moral truths, which Christ illumined with his light, they seek to enhance the dignity of men and promote fraternal unity, and, in this way, are gradually opening a wider approach to God." (AG, 12) Interestingly, in addressing this topic the decree began with the role of the new converts rather than that of the foreign missionaries. To give this witness they must be members of the group among whom they live, sharing in their cultural and social life (AG, 11).
The second missionary task, according to the decree, is to preach the Gospel and gather God's people, an example of the Commission's approach, combining the concerns of the Münster and Louvain schools of thought rather than choosing between them. From the start the decree points out that the missionary might announce the Gospel, but it is the Holy Spirit, which opens hearts, that leads to conversion. The decree recognizes that conversion is a gradual process and at times demands a painful breaking of ties. It brings a progressive change of outlook and morals that is developed during the time of the catechumenate. (AG, 13) These should be established everywhere. The liturgy is to play an important role in it with a special emphasis put on Lent and Easter (AG, 14).
The third missionary task is forming the Christian community. There is a great emphasis on the role the laity in these congregations plays in the mission of the Church by being part of the local scene. Congregations are enriched by their nation's culture and are truly one with the people. This new community is to be ecumenical in the broadest sense of the term. Not only is it to recognize that others who believe in Christ are Christ's disciples, but also to the extent that its beliefs are common, it is to make before the nations a common profession of faith in God and in Jesus Christ (AG, 15).
The formation of the Christian community also means raising up priests from their own community. The decree also recommends the restoration of the diaconate on the grounds that there are men who are already carrying out that ministry and would be strengthened by the laying on of hands. (AG, 16) This creative idea has not stimulated much of a response in the former mission territories, although it has been taken up by many churches in the West. Religious life is also to be encouraged, but according to the nature and the genius of the country.
The decree has a special chapter on particular churches. Much is a repetition of what was said in the part about forming the Christian community, but it was the "missionary bishops" who insisted that there be such a chapter. There are two emphases in this chapter: that the local congregation from the start should participate in the mission of the universal Church, and that the particular church is such because of the uniqueness of its culture.
The particular church is expected to engage in mission through its witness since it is to mirror the universal Church. It is sent to those also who live in the same territory and who do not yet believe in Christ. They do this by the living witness of each one of the faithful and of the whole community. (AG, 20) Special consideration is to be given to those who for some reason are not able to join the community just then. The decree recognizes that in certain regions, groups of people are found who are kept away from embracing the Catholic faith because they cannot adapt themselves to the peculiar form the Church has taken on there. In that case the decree urges "that this situation should be specially provided for, until all Christians can gather together in one community" (AG, 20).
What makes the particular Church particular is the local culture. Therefore this missionary task of witness is to be carried out in a way that is relevant to the local culture and local politics. The decree urges that Christians give expression to their newness of life in the social and cultural framework of their own homeland and according to their own national traditions. They are not only to be acquainted with their culture, but also to heal and preserve it. Thus "the faith of Christ and the life of the Church will not be something foreign to the society in which they live, but will begin to transform and permeate it." (AG, 21) The decree foresees that the Church, following the model of the incarnation, will be enriched by these cultures. They will take to themselves in a wonderful exchange the riches of the nations which were given to Christ as an inheritance. From the customs and traditions of their people, from their wisdom and their learning, from their arts and sciences, these Churches will borrow those things which contribute to the glory of their Creator, the revelation of the Savior's grace, or the proper arrangement of Christian life (AG, 22).
The decree also has a chapter on the missionary vocation that reaffirms the value of a lifetime commitment to mission and a chapter on missionary cooperation that describes the possible role that the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith might play in the future.
Vatican II—Nostra aetate. Another decree that has had a profound effect on missionaries and the missionary task is Nostra aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. This, too, was a decree that almost did not happen. At the very outset of the Council John XXIII asked that a statement on the Jews should be included in the Council's deliberations; he was anxious to have the charge of "deicide" removed. At first it was made part of the decree on Ecumenism and then on Religious Liberty. But John XXIII, as well as several bishops, wanted a separate decree; this was decided upon as early as Nov. 19, 1963.
The document was drafted under the leadership of Cardinal bea between the second and third session. The document brought to the Fathers of the Council was different from that which had been leaked to the press, and there was a great outcry. There were several serious concerns. The four Eastern Patriarchs and the bishops coming from Arab lands favored no statement at all for fear that it might be interpreted politically. Many bishops were opposed even to using the word "deicide," which in the end did not appear in the document. The question was raised about asking the Jews and Muslims forgiveness for past offenses. Finally, it was thought that the decree should also refer to the Muslims and people of African religions as well. However, when the final version of the document was brought to the Council on Oct. 28, 1965, it received overwhelming approval.
The decree first refers to Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions, and it affirms that the Church "rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions." She "looks with sincere respect" on them since they "often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men." Therefore, it exhorts the Church to "enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture" (NA, 2).
There is a special section on the Muslims. The decree states that the Church has a high regard for them for several reasons: they adore the One God; they submit wholeheartedly to God; they acknowledge Jesus as a prophet; they honor Mary; they prize moral living; and they worship God through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. It urges "all to forget the past" and that "a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding." Also they are called on to make common cause in safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom (NA, 3).
But the longest section of the decree deals with the Jews. After pointing out the common heritage of Christians and Jews and reminding its readers that Jesus and the Apostles were Jews, the decree states clearly that the covenant that God has with the Jews is still valid; as Paul argued: "the Jews still remain most dear to God because of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts He bestowed or the choice He made." (NA, 4) The decree talks about the role that Jews played in the death of Christ, but states clearly that "neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during the passion. It is true that the Church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed, as if this followed from holy Scripture" (NA, 4).
The decree concludes with a strong statement on discrimination. It states that there is no basis for discrimination either in theory or in practice, and therefore the "Church rejects … any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion" (NA, 5).
A Changed Situation. While the Council was in session, the situation in former mission lands was changing rapidly. Almost all the former colonies which had not yet become independent became new nation-states. The Church also changed. Vicariates apostolic became dioceses, and vicars apostolic became ordinaries. Bishops' Conferences developed in the new nations and sometimes across regions; leadership posts were filled by indigenous people. Some countries closed their doors to foreign missionaries.
Changes also took place in the structures of mission work. The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith became the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. With the establishment of national hierarchies its role became more one of coordination than supervision, although it has continued to play an important role in the choice of new bishops in the former mission lands. The end of "ius commissionis" in 1966 meant that the territories would no longer "belong" to a particular mission congregation. Bishops were free to invite any congregations they wished as co-workers.
Development of New Mission Theories. Ad gentes had summarized the theories about mission and missions that had taken place in the 20th century before and leading up to Vatican II. But it had also introduced some new ideas that would be explored and embraced in the subsequent decades of the 20th century. It had affirmed that witness and development work were not just preevangelization; they were part of the missionary task itself. It had also introduced the phrase "the seeded Word of God," spoke forthrightly about the respect that must be shown to all other religions and called for dialogue, and had urged that local cultures be respected and embraced so that the Church itself could become more local. These ideas demanded discussion, elaboration, and clarification.
Some of this took place in the Church synods, such as that in 1974 on evangelization, which resulted in the encyclical of Paul VI: Evangelii nuntiandi. Major guidance has also been given through papal encyclicals such as John Paul II's Redemptoris missio. The Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions (the name was later changed to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue) was set up by Paul VI in 1964 and has provided documents and guidelines for this aspect of the missionary task. Bishops' Conferences, like celam (the Latin American Bishops' Conference) and FABC (the federation of asian bishops' CONFERENCES), have addressed the missionary task in their part of the world. Finally, theologians, individually and through missionary associations, such as the International Association for Mission Studies, American Society of Missiology, and the many national associations, continue to further thought on the missionary task. A very significant meeting has been the gathering in Italy of scholars from around the world almost every ten years for Seminars organized by SEDOS.
Witness—Development—Liberation—Ecology. The Church has had a long history of carrying out corporal works of mercy. It was often seen as a way of making converts or as pre-evangelization. But the decree Ad gentes said that the Church must be concerned about the development of people even when there was no hope of preaching the Gospel. This idea was given great impetus by Paul VI's encyclical Populorum progressio "On the Progress of Peoples", published in 1967. Some of the characteristics of development that were urged by the pope were: the human person and the respect for his or her dignity must be the basis for development and ought to determine its approach; the Church must look to the improvement of the whole person, body and soul; the Church must be concerned to improve the whole world, not just Christians; and such development tasks should be done in conjunction with local governments and national agencies. The United Nations had declared the 1960s to be the decade for development, and so missionaries were quick to take up the suggestions of Vatican II and Paul VI.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s not only were missionaries deeply involved in development work but also mission theologians were reflecting on its meaning. Some suggested that development was the new name for mission. Books with titles such as Theology of Development or something similar appeared. A SEDOS seminar in March of 1969 addressed the topic of development and evangelization. It recognized that there could be a tension between missionaries who saw evangelization and those who saw development as a priority. The SEDOS seminar, building on the documents of Vatican II, affirmed that work undertaken to further the integral development of peoples is a means of evangelization. It was a living and eloquent witness of the lordship of Christ over the world. Even when this witness could not be complemented by the word, development still retained a missionary significance.
At the synod of 1974 on evangelization, the question of human promotion and its relation to evangelization was once more examined. Paul VI was asked to write the conclusions of the synod. This he did in Evangelii nuntiandi. While reaffirming the priority of verbal evangelization he recognized the validity of development work as a missionary task even in situations where the Gospel could not be preached.
Paul VI's Populorum progressio was written primarily with Latin America in mind. But events had overtaken theory. The bishops of Latin America (CELAM) met in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968. After experiencing a decade of development they found that there were more poor than at the beginning of the decade and that the gap between the rich and the poor had widened. They also decided that since the overwhelming majority of their Catholics were the poor they must make an option for them. As Gustavo Gutierrez, a parish priest in Lima and the father of Liberation Theology, would say: development had not worked for Latin America; what was needed was liberation from oppressive economic structures.
By the late 1980s missionaries and mission theologians realized that if they were truly concerned about the development of peoples they must also be concerned about the universe and the environment. National and international meetings of missiologists began to make this not only an item on the program but often its entire focus.
Interreligious Dialogue. The decrees of Vatican II raised new questions about other faiths and the Church's attitude toward them. Both Lumen gentium and Ad gentes made it clear that salvation is possible for all, even those who have never heard of Christ. But, it was asked, does this mean that people can be saved in their religions, even if not through them? The magisterium as articulated in documents such as John Paul II's Redemptoris missio insists that Jesus Christ is the only Savior given to humankind; but it does not say how this relates to the teaching of Vatican II about salvation being possible for all. A second issue is the question of revelation. Nostra aetate, Redemptoris missio, and Dialogue and Proclamation (published jointly by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 1991) all talk about the "seeds of the Word of God" present in other religions, but they have not yet explained what this means in the concrete situation. It does establish a basis for respect for the other religions; but does it mean that these religions have received a revelation? This issue is more than a theoretical, albeit lively, topic of discussion among missiologists; it has far reaching ramifications on relations between the Church and other religions.
Paul VI, even before Nostra aetate had been accepted by the Council, had established a Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions. Its purpose was to promote studies of the various religions and activities such as cooperation and dialogue. The Church in Asia, which is a minority living in the midst of other living faiths, has responded enthusiastically to this call for dialogue. At first the dialogue was undertaken at the level of theological exchange for the sake of mutual understanding. But as time passed the Church also took part in the other forms of dialogue: of life—where Catholics shared a common social or political life with peoples of other faiths; of action—where Catholics and people of other faiths formed basic human communities to work for development and/or change of oppressive structures; and of religious experience— where monks, nuns, and religious people of various faiths came together to pray and exchange their deeply religious experiences.
Theologians have attempted to address some of the questions that interreligious dialogue raises. The SEDOS Seminar of 1969 stated clearly that although non-Christian religions could not be seen as ways of salvation their authentic values could lead their followers to the act of faith and charity which is necessary for salvation.
Paul VI, in Evangelii nuntiandi, did not address the topic of interreligious dialogue. But he did say of the other living faiths that since these religions "are the living experience of the soul of vast groups of people" searching for God in an incomplete way but with "great sincerity and righteousness of heart," they are to be respected and esteemed. "They are all impregnated with innumerable 'seeds of the Word."' (EN, 53) However, John Paul II has led the way in interreligious dialogue both in action and in word. His visit to the Synagogue in Rome, his meetings with Jewish leaders, and his visit to Israel have furthered the dialogue with the Jews. His invitation to the religious leaders of the world to join him in prayer for peace at Assisi in 1986 was a landmark event that initiated a new practice that he continued to pursue. Notable, too, was his decision to enter and pray in a mosque during his visit to Syria in May of 2001, another first for any pope. His writings also, especially Redemptor hominis, Dominum et vivificantem, and Redemptoris missio, have not only encouraged interreligious dialogue but have also articulated a theological basis for interreligious dialogue.
Inculturation. The decree Ad gentes emphasized the role of culture even though it did not use the term inculturation. It stated that Christians (and the Church) must be at home in their own cultures. It even used the analogy of the incarnation. The chapter on particular churches gives the impression that the identity and relative autonomy of particular Churches is bound up with culture.
In the letter Evangelii nuntiandi, Paul VI offers a theology of a multicultural Church. He writes: "What matters is to evangelize people's culture and cultures (not in a purely decorative way as it were by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to the very roots), in the wide and rich sense which these terms have in Gaudium et spes, always taking the person as one's starting point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God" (EN, 20).
It was in the Synod on Catechesis in 1977 that the term "inculturation" was brought into ecclesiastical discussion by Pedro Arrupe, SJ. The following year John Paul II used it for the first time in a Roman document, calling it a "neologism" but stating that it expressed well one factor of the great mystery of the incarnation. When he set up the Pontifical Council for Culture in May of 1982, he said that the synthesis between culture and faith is a demand of both culture and faith. A faith that does not become a culture, he maintained, is a faith that has not been fully received, not thoroughly thought through, not fully lived out.
No More Missions or Mission Lands. In the decades that followed Vatican II missionaries, mission agencies, and mission theorists, with a few exceptions, have stopped talking about missions or mission lands. The emphasis is on the mission of the Church that is one and the same everywhere. Mission is recognized to be as necessary and alive in North America and Europe as in Asia and Africa. It is no longer mission agencies in Europe and North America that determine the missionary task to be carried out elsewhere; it is the local Church of the area, a local Church that is for the most part in the hands of local people.
Bibliography: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate ), Vatican Council II, The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, ed. a. flannery (North-port, NY 1992) 738–743. Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes ) 813–857 Paul VI. Evangelization Today (Evangelii nuntiandi) (London 1977). d. j. bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY 1991). w. burrows ed., Redemption and Dialogue: Reading Redemptoris missio and Dialogue and Proclamation (Maryknoll, NY 1993). k. muller, et al., eds., Dictionary of Mission: Theology, History, Perspectives (Maryknoll, NY 1997).
"Mission and Missions." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 27, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mission-and-missions
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