Women were administrators, yes, celebrants, perhaps, but ordained?

Ruth Gledhill, of the London Times has posted an interesting paper on her online blog. Her intro to the article is titled, "Anglican tradition is to ordain women says theologian." The theologian in question is Professor Gary Macy of Santa Clara University. He is John Nobili, S.J. Professor of Theology, Religious Studies Department at Santa Clara University. He received his doctorate in Divinity from Cambridge University in 1978.

I am posting his paper in full. It provides interesting insight into the background for Ms Gledhill's somewhat provocative headline, but more importantly it provides some clarity on the possibility that women, whether or not ordained, performed many of the functions of priests and bishops in a wide variety of settings.

This all either ends up being an argument for lay administration of the sacraments or the effective functioning of women as priests and bishops or both.

This is well worth the read.


“Women of the Middle Ages”
Gary Macy, Santa Clara University
Women and the Shaping of Catholicism
Church in the 21st Century Lecture Series
Sixth Annual Theological Conference

Women in the Middle Ages played a far larger role in the life of the Church than they would in later centuries. In the early Middle Ages, they performed both sacramental and administrative functions that would be reserved to men after the thirteenth century. They celebrated the Mass, distributed communion, read the Gospel, heard confessions and preached. Some abbesses also exercised episcopal power, and indeed, a few were considered bishops. The powerful Abbess of Las Huelgas in Spain continued to wear her miter and exercise administrative episcopal power until 1874. This paper will discuss the evidence for these claims.

Celebration of the Eucharist

Evidence from the fourth through the eleventh centuries indicates that a few women led liturgies with the approval of at least some bishops. The scarcity of evidence does not necessarily mean that the practice was unusual, however. The sources that do survive, of necessity, have been compiled by an elite, almost exclusively male intelligentsia. They wrote the documents and they preserved them. Universities, monasteries, convents, dioceses, and the Roman curia had the means and motive to preserve particular records, and modern scholars, of necessity, rely heavily upon them. Because of this clear bias, the picture presented here cannot be, and will not be, complete. In fact, given the assumption of writers from the thirteenth century on that women could never have led the liturgy, it is amazing how much evidence has survived.
A graffito dated between fourth and sixth century and found near Poitiers commemorates that “Martia the presbytera made the offering together with Olybrius and Nepos.” Scholars who have studied the carving agree that this inscription refers to Martia as a minister who celebrated the Eucharist along with two men, Olybrius and Nepos. The Council of Nîmes, held in 394, noting that “women seemed to have been assumed into levitical service,” ordered that “such ordination should be undone when it is effected contrary to reason. It should be seen that no one so presume in the future.” It is quite likely that the ministry of women to the Eucharist was being discussed here, although some scholars have argued that it was the diaconate rather than the presbyterate that the Council intended to forbid. Ninety years later, in 494, Pope Gelasius in a letter to the bishops of southern Italy and Sicily also spoke out against bishops who were allowing women to serve at the altar. Gelasius had heard that “women are confirmed to minister at the sacred altars and to perform all matters imputed only to the service of the male sex and for which women are not competent.” The Italian scholar, Giorgio Otranto, makes clear in his analysis of this letter that Gelasius was directing his ire at the bishops who were ordaining women to function as priests, not at the women themselves.
Fifteen years later, Bishops Licinius, Melanius, and Eustochius of northern Gaul wrote to two priests from Brittany. They were furious to learn that the priests traveled with women who assisted them at the altar, “so that, while you are distributing the Eucharist, they hold the chalices and presume to administer the blood of Christ to the people of God.” The women were referred to by their companions as conhospitae (“housemates”), indicating that the women were living with the priests if indeed they were not their wives. The bishops upbraided the priests for “this novelty and unheard-of superstition” that “brings infamy upon the clergy and . . . incurs shame and horror for the holy religion.” The bishops demanded that “silly little women (mulierculae) of this sort not pollute the holy sacraments by illicit assistance,” and forbade the priests to continue to live in the same house with them. On the other hand, the letter implied that at least these priests and their congregations accepted the women as co-ministers of the Eucharist.
In 747, Pope Zachary wrote to the Frankish authorities who wished to know if nuns could read the Gospel or sing at Mass. Zachary replied in the negative, and added, “Nevertheless, as we have heard to our dismay, divine worship has fallen into such disdain that women have presumed to serve at the sacred altars, and that the female sex, to whom it does not belong, perform all the things that are assigned exclusively to men.” Women, it would seem, were still ministering at the altar in the mid eighth century. At the Council of Paris held in 829, the bishops were appalled to learn that “in some provinces, in contradiction to the divine law and to canonical instruction, women betake themselves into the altar area and impudently take hold of the sacred vessels, hold out the priestly garments to the priest, and—what is still worse, more indecent and unfitting than all this—they give the people the body and blood of the Lord and do other things which in themselves are indecent.” As in the sixth century, it appears that at least some priests and bishops were allowing women to minister at the altar. Perhaps they were participating as deaconesses or perhaps as priests. This depends on whether the “things which it would be shameful to mention” referred to saying the Mass itself. A report to the bishops of the acts of the council from the same year makes it clear that some bishops had been allowing the practice: “doubtless it occurred through the carelessness and negligence of some bishops . . . [they] have given themselves to carnal passions and illicit actions, so that women, without anyone preventing them, betake themselves into consecrated houses and therein have been able to introduce unpermitted things.” The reference to the bishops’ “carnal passions” might indicate as well that these bishops were married, and so the slur against the bishops that it was only lust that forced the clergy to allow the women to serve at the altar has to be taken with a grain of salt. It is important to remember here that deacons, priests and bishops were married in the Western as well as the Eastern Church until celibacy was enforced by in the mid-twelfth century. The wives of priests and deacons were sometimes called female priests (presbyterae) and deaconesses (diacona, diaconissa) in contemporary literature. In this case, the sources might be speaking of married presbyterae or deaconesses who shared in the liturgy with their spouses.
Women certainly did distribute communion in the tenth, eleventh, and perhaps the twelfth centuries. Texts for these services, with prayers written with feminine word endings, exist in two manuscripts of this period. One was copied in the eleventh or twelfth century at the Abbey of Saint Sophia in Benevento for use by the nuns in that community. The second dates from the tenth or eleventh century and, while the provenance of the manuscript is unknown, the use of the feminine word endings leads scholars to believe that it too was used by nuns. The famous medieval scholar and Benedictine monk Jean Leclerq notes: “It is never said or supposed that the one who recites [these prayers] is a priest. Nevertheless, in their ensemble they really constitute a long eucharistic prayer.” The rite consists of a series of prayers, followed by a communion service and prayers after communion. Again, according to Leclerq: “Note that this ensemble [which makes up the opening prayers] corresponds more or less to the series of texts which serve as an introduction to the Mass: entrance psalm, litany, penitential rite, collect and profession of faith.”
While these rites for women do not seem to be masses, they are very close to them and indicate that women were still involved in service at the altar despite the many injunctions against them doing so. Further, since the books that preserve these rites are liturgical books, we can presume, again to quote Leclerq, that “one did not incur the expense of copying manuscripts which would not be used; thus we have every reason to suppose that they were used, and in more than one place.” Once again these prayers demonstrate that the practice of women serving at the altar persisted long after legislation had forbidden it, in fact, at least until the twelfth century.
One example of just such a communion service was mentioned by the ninth-century hagiographer of St. Odilia. The holy woman died while her sisters were in prayer. Alarmed that she had died without receiving the body and blood of Christ, they prayed that her soul return to her body. The miracle was granted (although Odilia was annoyed about it). “And when the chalice in which the Lord’s body and blood were contained was ordered to be brought to her, accepting it with her own hands, and participating in the holy communion, she handed over her soul while all watched.” The hagiographer seems to have had no problem with nuns handling the consecrated species, with St. Odilia touching the chalice, and with nuns performing their own communion rites.

Hearing confessions

The main duty of an abbess was very similar to that of an abbot. Abbots and abbesses were quite powerful, sometimes as powerful as bishops, as we shall see later. Given their high standing in the Christian community it is not too surprising that throughout this period, abbesses exercised functions later reserved to the male diaconate and presbyterate.
The best example would be the responsibility, indeed duty, of the abbess to hear her nuns’ confessions. This practice is mentioned by at least two of the rules for nuns from the early medieval period. The writers go on at great length about the necessity of the abbess (or her designate) to hear daily confessions. One of the main virtues required of an abbess was a merciful yet firm use of penance to train the nuns under her care. Abbesses heard their nuns’ confessions, gave them penances and reconciled them back into the community. There is no provision in either monastic rules or canonical legislation for nuns to confess to anyone other than their abbess or her delegate. For all intents and purposes, abbesses played the same role for their communities in hearing confession and in absolving from sin as did bishops or priests for their communities. The abbesses’ power to remove nuns from either table or the divine office or both is regularly termed “excommunication” and parallels within the community of nuns, the power of bishops to excommunicate within the larger community of the church.
Abbesses sometimes even heard the confessions of and gave penances for people other than the nuns of their immediate communities. According to her hagiographer, St. Bertila heard confessions for the entire surrounding area. “[Bertila] drew the family of the monastery or the surrounding neighbors through holy communion, so that, hearing their confessions, they would do penance for their sins.” The “family of the monastery” would include, in this case, all those who worked in and for the monastery including the peasant farmers in villages owned by the monastery. St. Ite heard the confession and gave penance to a murderer who sought her out to hear his confession. When he refused to complete his penance, she had to give him another penance that he finally fulfilled.
Abbesses then for several centuries were recognized as the ordinary ministers of penance for their own monastic community and sometimes even exercised that power outside that circle. This was one of the most important liturgical functions attached to the ordo of abbess. Abbesses also exercised other functions later reserved to male clergy, particularly in their role as acting bishops for the territories under the jurisdiction of their convents. Before looking at this important history, however, it would help to review the data we have on women as bishops, whether abbesses or not.

Female Bishops and Abbesses as Bishops

There are only five known references to women bishops in Western Christianity. By far the most famous is the ninth-century mosaic of “Theodora episcopa” in the Chapel of St. Zeno in the Church of Santa Pressede in Rome. An inscription on a reliquary in the same church identifies Theodora as the mother of Pope Paschal I (817-824). This inscription dates the translation of the relics contained therein to July 20, 817. The Liber pontificalis named the father of Pascal I as Bonosus without further title. More than likely, if Bonosus had clerical status, this would have been noted, so it is unlikely that Theodora was the wife of a bishop.
The other epigraphic inscription offers less information. A tomb dating sometime between the fourth and the sixth century is inscribed to the “venerable woman, episcopa Q.” Ute Eisen has identified the inscription as originally from Umbria and points out that there are also inscriptions to presbyterae from the same period and location that may indicate a pattern of female leadership in fifth-century Umbria. Madigan and Osiek locate the inscription in Rome and suggest a date of 390. They also offer a tentative identification of “Q” as that of the mother or wife of Pope Siricius (384-99).
Brigid of Ireland was described not only as a bishop, but also as having successfully undergone consecration to the ranks of the episcopacy. The ninth century Celtic life of Brigid, the Bethu Brigte, described how it happened. “The bishop being intoxicated with the grace of God there did not recognise what he was reciting from his book, for he consecrated Brigid with the orders of a bishop. ‘This virgin alone in Ireland,’ said Mel, ‘will hold the episcopal ordination.’ While she was being consecrated a fiery column ascended from her head.” The reference is extraordinary for several reasons. First, Brigid was described as actually ordained to the episcopacy. She was not referred to as a bishop out of courtesy or metaphorically. She was really ordained, even if by accident and even if uniquely. Secondly, there is no question that the ordination took. As Bishop Mel realized, Brigid once consecrated, was a bishop. At least for this ninth-century Irish writer, a woman could be ordained and even be ordained as bishop.
The second reference to the consecration of a woman as a bishop occurs on the tombstone of Mathilda, daughter of Otto I who died in 968. Here she is described not only as abbess but also as metropolitana of Quedlinburg. Metropolitanus is a title most commonly used for an archbishop although it very occasionally appears as the title for an abbot who acts as an archbishop. In this case, Mathilda was described an abbess who was considered as least in her epigraph as having episcopal authority.
Hildeburga, the wife of Segenfrid, bishop of Le Mans from 963-996, was described as an episcopissa in the account of Segenfrid’s death. The bishop was remembered disparagingly in the mid-eleventh century continuation of the Acts of the Bishops of Le Mans because he married and because he bequeathed a large portion of the church’s property to his son. Churches were treated as hereditary during this period, and so it is difficult to know if Segenfrid really abused church property or whether the author simply disapproved in general of married clergy. In this particular instance, the title of bishop was certainly given to Hildeburga because she was the wife of a male bishop. This does not mean, however, that she had no other function. Those of us who are married realize that simply being a husband or a wife does not exhaust one’s vocation.
The earliest evidence that abbesses were considered the equivalent of bishops comes from the earliest existent rite for the ordination of an abbess. A group of manuscripts dating from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries preserve the rites of the Mozarabic or Visigoth Church of Spain. These rites would have been practiced from the fifth century roughly through the eleventh century for many parts of Christian Spain and in the diocese of Toledo up to the present day. The critical edition of the oldest manuscript, however, would represent rites from roughly the seventh through the eleventh century.
The rite, which is clearly marked as the ordination of an abbess, begins:

“When an abbess dedicated to God is ordained, she is clothed in the sanctuary with religious vestments and the religious mitre is placed upon her head, and, with other women devoted to God preceding and following her with candles, she comes to the choir. The bishop then leads her to the altar; together with her, he places the pallium over her head, and says over her the following prayer:
“Almighty Lord God before whom there is no distinction between the sexes, nor any difference between holy souls; you who strengthen men for the spiritual struggle, in order that you do not abandon women, we yield to your compassion in humble supplication, in order that this strengthened women might acquire your mercy and this aided woman might not yield, whom by imposition of our hands and by the covering of this veil we desire to become mother to this holy flock of virgins. Give her, Lord, strength to wage spiritual war, as you bestowed provisions on the warrior Deborah, battle-ready for the struggle against the enemy troops of Sisera.”

The prayer continues in a similar warlike vein. The ceremony ends with the bishop kissing the new abbess and handing her a book of the rule (presumably the Rule of Benedict) and a staff.
Several points are worth noting here. First, the abbess receives a mitre, a pallium and a staff. The mitre was most often used by bishops, even during this period, and so this is clearly a sign of administrative authority. The word pallium is more problematic. Tempting as it is to read pallium here as the vestment with the same name sent by the pope to a new bishop, this pallium is almost certainly a veil. The word was used to refer to the veil received by a widow by the tenth council of Toledo in 656 and contemporary French and Irish references use the term to refer the veil of a nun. This is even more likely the meaning since the pallium is placed on the head of the one to be ordained and the abbess is described as veiled in the prayer of ordination. Still, the reference is significant, since veiling was an important part of the ordination rite of deaconesses as preserved in the tenth century Romano-Germanic Pontifical. Abbesses were often understood to be the successors to the order of deaconesses by writers in the tenth through twelfth centuries. The identification of abbesses and deaconesses, according to these sources, explained why abbesses had the authority to read the Gospel. A staff was a common symbol of office for bishops, abbots and abbesses during this period, and so is not unusual except that, in so far as the three ministries share this symbol of office, it would also suggest that they had shared responsibilities.
In the ordination rights for abbots in the Mozarabic rite, neither the mitre nor the pallium are bestowed. It is not surprising, of course, that an abbot does not receive the pallium, if indeed a veil is meant, but it is very interesting that he does not receive the mitre, as does an abbess. This may possibly suggest that abbesses had more administrative authority in Spain than did abbots.
One abbess in Spain, the powerful Cistercian abbess of Las Huelgas near Burgos, clearly acted as a bishop. She wore her mitre and carried her crosier until she was finally forbidden to do so in 1873. The history of Las Huelgas is impressive. Alphonsus VIII of Castile and his wife, Elinor of England (daughter of the more famous Elinor of Aquitaine) decided to establish the monastery of Las Huelgas after Alphonsus’ victory over the Moslem armies at Cuenca in 1178. Pope Clement II approved the foundation in January of 1187, and the founding privilege was promulgated by the king in June of that year. From the very beginning, the monastery was comprised of noble women, and intended as the burial place for the royal family. One of the first nuns was the King’s daughter Constanza. In 1189, Las Huelgas was established as the mother-house for all the Cistercian nuns in Castile and Leon, despite the fact that some of the Cistercian convents in those regions predated the establishment of Las Huelgas. In 1212, Alphonsus appointed the Abbess of Las Huelgas as adminstratrix and superior of the Hospital del Rey, a pilgrim lodge and poorhouse to which were attached a number of villages and villas. The Hospital itself was staffed by a military order, the Freyles, and when the Abbess took control of the Hospital, she was given the power to confirm their commander, and remained the superior of the Order and of their chaplains. In a striking ceremony, the members of the order professed their vows to the Abbess proclaiming her as “my Prelate and my Lady, Superior, Mother and legitimate administratrix in spiritual and temporary affairs.”
Over the centuries, the Abbess accumulated complete ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the territory, villages and villas subject to Las Huelgas and the Hospital del Rey. An extensive study of the episcopal power exercised by the Abbess appeared in 1944 by none other than Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei . In his La Abadesa de Las Huelgas, Balaguer details the various powers exercised by the abbesses. In the interests of time, I will merely catalogue the examples of episcopal power documented by Balaguer.
The abbess had complete power over the chaplains assigned to the convent and to the Hospital del Rey attached to the convent. She had exclusive right to assign benefices to the chaplains. She could judge the behavior of the chaplains and remove them and even jail them for improper behavior. Not only could she appoint and discipline the chaplains, however. She also had the power to appoint parish priests for the countryside subject to the convent of Las Huelgas. This involved some sixty-four villages. She could establish new curates and benefices. She could unite benefices or parochial churches; transfer benefices from closed churches or reopen closed churches. She could approve confessors for all her subjects and examine their credentials if necessary. Curates appointed by the abbess could not only hear the confessions of those under her care, but also the confessions of pilgrims and strangers. They could also absolve cases reserved for bishops whenever the abbess authorized them to do so.
Apart from and along side the power the abbess had over her own clergy, she also had the power to confer licenses to say Mass, or to hear confessions or to preach in those areas subject to her control. She could punish or confront any preacher in her diocese if he was preaching heresy. She had the authority to authorize her subjects to proceed to Holy Orders, to grant letters dimissory, and issue wedding licenses. She could give licenses to officiate at marriages, but not officiate herself.
No bishop or delegate from the Holy See could perform a visitation of the churches or altars or curates or clerics or benefices under the care of the abbess. She could recognize and implement any dispensations that came from Rome to her diocese or district. She could commute last will and testaments when there was just cause. She had the power to visit and examine the adequacy of the Apostolic, Imperial or Royal Notaries, and if she found them delinquent in their duties, she could punish them or prohibit them from office. She had the authority to reserve cases regarding her subjects, just like other bishops.
She had the faculty by means of ecclesiastical judges chosen by her to impose censures, and prohibitions. She could dispense her nuns from their vows, as well as dispense her ecclesial and regular subjects from the divine office. She could punish any secular person who broke the law. Finally, the Abbess of Las Huelgas was able to convene a synod in her diocese and to make synodal constitutions and laws for both her religious and lay subjects.
One or all of the extraordinary powers of Las Huelgas were confirmed by Honorius III in 1219, Gregory IX in 1234, Innocent IV in 1248 and again in 1252. Not that there were not occasionally challenges to the power of the abbess. In 1622, for instance, Gregory XV issued the bull Inscrutabili requiring the approval of bishops for confessors and preachers both in parishes and in houses of religious orders, including those ordinarily exempt in an attempt to implement the decrees of the Council of Trent. Ana of Austria, Abbess of Las Huelgas, requested that the Pope “clarify” his decree in regard to her powers. To quote Elizabeth Connor’s astute account of the affair: “[The Pope] assured the Abbess that the Regulations of the decrees of the Council of Trent did not revoke her authority, and he confirmed her privileges of exemption and immunity, and reaffirmed her spiritual and temporal jurisdiction.” Finally, in 1873, after seven hundred years, Pius IX in his decree, Quae diversa, put an end to the episcopal powers of the Abbesses of Las Huelgas. The Abbess, Dona María del Pilar Ugarte, mounted a spirited legal defense, but to no avail. On February 1, 1874, she wrote to the daughter-houses of Las Huelgas, informing them that Las Huelgas was now under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Burgos.
Was Las Huelgas unique in its exercise of episcopal powers? Again, much more work needs to be done here, but at least for the period before the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, Las Huelgas does not appear to be an exception. According to Maria Filomena Coelho in her recent study, Expresiones Del Poder Feudal: El Cister Femenino En Leon, the Cistercian abbesses in Spain installed the chaplains for the churches subject to their monasteries in a ritual in which the chaplains professed their obedience to the abbess for life in front of the entire community. The statues from 1257 that Coehlo quotes here also indicate that the abbesses professed their own nuns. Unfortunately, she provides no further discussion of the ecclesiastical authority of the abbesses. Similar powers were exercised by convents in other parts of Europe. To quote Connor, “The Abbess of Las Huelgas was not the only abbess to enjoy jurisdictional powers in the Middle Ages. Several other of the more famous ones were the Abbesses of Jouarre and Fountevraud in France, of Quedlingbourg and Essen in Germany, and of the Cistercian monastery of Conversano in Italy, where the Abbess wore a mitre and members of the clergy prostrated before her.”
Was this power “real” episcopal power, or, as Balaguer would describe it, quasi-episcopal power? The answer to this question depends one what one considers a “real” bishop to be. There seems little question that the Abbess of Las Huelgas performed most of the administrative roles that a “real” bishop would. One imagines, in fact, that very few bishops were powerful enough to attain an exemption from the implementation of the Council of Trent. The more central question would seem to be what, if any, sacramental functions the Abbess of Las Huelgas, or her contemporaries might have performed. As described already, significant evidence exists that abbesses did indeed lead liturgies, hear confessions and read the gospel.
In case of Las Huelgas, however, no less an authority than Pope Innocent III recorded instances of liturgical services performed by the Abbess of Las Huelgas. In 1210, her thundered out against these abuses:

News of certain things recently have reached our ears, about which we are not a little amazed, that abbesses, namely those constituted in the diocese of Burgos and Palencia, bless their own nuns, and hear the confessions of sins of these same, and reading the Gospel presume to preach publicly. Since then this is equally incongruous and absurd (nor supported by you to any degree), we order through the apostolic writing at your discernment so that, lest this be done by others, you take care by the apostolic authority firmly to prevent [these actions] because even though the most blessed virgin Mary was more worthy and more excellent than all of the apostles, yet not to her, but to them the Lord handed over the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

There is little doubt that the abbesses mentioned here include the Abbess of Las Huelgas and those of her daughter convents since they were (and are) in Burgos and Palencia. While Innocent wrote as if the actions of the abbesses were unheard of innovations, in fact abbesses had been hearing confessions, reading the Gospel and preaching for centuries.
During these early centuries, it must be noted, confession and penance had not yet been defined as “sacraments,” and they were not clearly differentiated from spiritual direction, and yet, given this understanding of penance, abbesses heard confessions and gave penance in the same way as priests and bishops of the time.
Not until the end of the twelfth century would ecclesiastical officials begin to insist that only priests could preach, indeed, Hildegard of Bingen went on a famous preaching tour to reform the morals of the clergy. The reading of the Gospel by abbesses, despite Innocent’s dire warning, was a regular occurrence in the twelfth century, so much so, that a number of twelfth-century theologians and canonists, most notably, the infamous Abelard and his learned wife, Heliose, insisted that abbesses were also deaconesses, and so authorized to read the Gospel.
Carthusian nuns, in fact, continued to receive a stole as part of their consecration rite until 1975. Abbesses in particular wore the stole for the reading of the Gospel during matins when a priest was not available to do so. This practice would appear to have come from the ordination rites for a deaconess in the tenth through twelfth centuries, where the deaconess also received a stole as a sign of her commissioning to read the Gospel.
Abbesses, then, performed many of the liturgical functions later reserved to priests and bishops. They were considered by themselves and by their contemporaries, to be ordained ministers, and as such, were able to perform sacramental functions. Their sacramental ministry was not the same as that of a priest or a bishop; they did not, for instance, ordain priests. This would make sense, though, since they did profess their own nuns just as a bishop would ordain his own priests.
More could, and should, be said here, especially about the change in the definition of ordination that took place in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; a change that excluded women from many, if not most, liturgical functions. However, the purpose of this presentation was merely to present the case that women have played a much more significant role in the liturgical and administrative functions of the Church for the first twelve hundred years of its history. And that raises the important and intriguing question, if they have played such roles in the past, can they not play such roles in the future?

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