Archive for September, 2015

IMG_0968Who Thought to Ask?

For historians of the Catholic experience in the United States, the prospect of Pope Francis standing before the Congress last week had to be nothing short of incredible.  What 17th-century Catholic in Maryland could ever imagine such a scene?  What 19th-century German or Irish or Italian immigrant could conceive of the day when the pope would occupy the moral high ground as he stepped out onto the balcony of the Capitol to address tens of thousands gathered outside?  Well, for some it’s stranger than fiction, and it stirred even the stony hearts — my own included.

I leave it to the professionals to analyze the significance of the pope’s visit, but what really matters is the experience of the tens of millions who participated in this.  Somehow the pope managed to bypass the talking heads and cut through into the hearts of so many, and the welcome they offered to the pope was intensely personal and genuine.

IMG_0964At Saint John’s we too shared in the curiosity, a curiosity which some of us acted upon.  Our monks in formation and the monk-seminarians endured a long bus-ride to Washington to see for themselves.  Later in the week a large group of our college students flew off to Philadelphia to attend the conference on the family.  And on the home front clusters of monks gathered in front of the television to take in as much as they could.

I didn’t go to Washington or New York or Philadelphia, but all the same there was an element of this that touched both the historian and the working professional in me.  Certainly the enthusiastic crowds amazed me, but what moved me most was a very quiet interlude in the middle of the papal visit to Washington.  Shortly after the appearance on the balcony of the Capitol, Pope Francis and Speaker of the House John Boehner stopped briefly in the latter’s office.  Waiting there was a small group that included Abbot John, Dr. Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, and Amy Rauenhorst Goldman, the president of the GHR Foundation.  In a gesture made possible through the generosity of the GHR Foundation, Dr. James Billington of the Library of Congress accepted an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, given to mark the visit of Pope Francis to the United States.

IMG_0965Volume one, The Pentateuch, was open, and Pope Francis studied the illumination of the Days of Creation.  Perhaps that was chosen with an eye to the pope’s concern for creation.  Abbot John broke the silence and asked the pope to bless the Bible, and Pope Francis then placed his hand on the illumination for a moment of quiet prayer.  Then, as quickly as it had all begun, it was over.  The pope was off to the next appointment.

Though I was a thousand miles away, I certainly appreciated every bit of the moment.  Twenty years ago we commissioned the making of The Saint John’s Bible to mark the day when the monks first came to central Minnesota.  1856 was not the best of years for monks or Catholics to set foot in the United States; but neither a tepid welcome on these shores nor the wilderness deterred them.  As for the monks, they persevered.  They worked and they prayed; and 150 years later The Saint John’s Bible commemorates their determination to seek God in the wilderness.

IMG_0967We had always hoped that this Bible might stir the spiritual imagination of people around the world.  Now, from its new home at the Library of Congress, we hope this set of the Apostles Edition will pique the curiosity of an entirely new audience.  And in one respect it is a little extension of Saint John’s and the bell tower that greets all visitors to the campus.  Symbolically the pedestal of the tower holds up the book of the gospels, and The Saint John’s Bible carries that theme even further afield.

So whatever else may come from this quiet moment in the heart of Washington, there’s this delicious thought to mull over.  When the first five monks arrived on the shore of Lake Sagatagan, they must have wondered what life would bring in such a difficult place.  Could they make a home here?  Would it last?  Would it make any sort of difference to people?  But one question would have brought chuckles, had someone thought to ask.  “When will the abbot be meeting the pope in the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives?”  Who would have thought?


+On September 24 the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible was presented to Dr. James Billington of the Library of Congress, in the presence of Pope Francis and Speaker of the House John Boehner.  The generosity of the GHR Foundation made this presentation possible, and in the room for the occasion were members of the Rauenhorst family from Minnesota.  To be honest, this moment was something of a miracle in itself.  Weeks ago it looked like it was going to happen.  But various issues intervened, and as the day approached it seemed less likely.  On the morning of the 24th I was resigned to the fact that it was not going to happen.  But whether it was divine intervention or something else, it did.

+Earlier in the day our president, Michael Hemesath, along with Bishop Kettler of Saint Cloud and President Mary Hinton of the College of Saint Benedict, sat in the gallery of the House of Representatives to hear the pope speak.  This was courtesy of Representative Tom Emmer, our congressman.

IMG_1170+On the evening of 24 September I attended the annual Junior Achievement awards dinner in Minneapolis, at which Saint John’s alumnus Prince Wallace and his wife Sandra were inducted into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame.  The evening was a delight, and my only regret was that some of my colleagues who should have been there were detained by stuff in Washington that day.

+As if we did not have enough going on this week, on 26 September ESPN Sports Center on the Road broadcast its Game Day program live from the football stadium at Saint John’s University.  This meant that we had to muster a crowd of several thousand for the opening of the program at 6:00 am.  For many of our students it was the first time they had ever been up at 6:00 am on a Saturday morning.  As for the monks, we listened to their cheers from the stadium as we prayed morning prayer.  Later in the day a huge throng of 17,000 attended the football game, and in the crowd was our congressman, Rep. Tom Emmer.

+The pictures of the presentation of the Apostles Edition in today’s post come courtesy of the GHR Foundation and Mark Rauenhorst.

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imageJesus Was Once a Refugee

I’m sure you’ve asked yourself on more than one occasion what members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre do during their annual meetings.  Actually, most people I know have never asked that question, largely because they’ve scarcely heard of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  And if they have, they tend to ask more basic questions like “Who are they?” and “What in the world do they do?”  Well, I can’t answer all of of the questions, but as a chaplain in the Order for several years I can shed some light on what they aspire to do.

People who have a nodding acquaintance with some members may recall seeing them in their ceremonial robes.  I certainly do not want to make light of them, because the robes are elegant and dignified.  But for those who have not seen, the sleek black robes of the women tend to make them look like female versions of Zorro, while the men’s hats suggest they are chefs at some fancy restaurant.  There’s also something counterintuitive about these outfits, since the women wear black and the men white.  I vividly remember the elderly couple who had never been to an investiture before, and so they had never seen anyone wear the outfits.  At the hotel in Saint Louis they stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby, and the room full of three hundred people went silent, and then roared with laughter.  He was wearing the woman’s outfit, and she was wearing the man’s outfit.  So they eased back into the elevator and whisked themselves away in ignominy.  Everyone got over it — but they all remember, to this day.

imageIn the Middle Ages there were lots of special perks attached to being a member, among which was the right to ride on horseback into the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  No one does that today, likely due to the cost of shipping a horse from Minnesota or Texas to Jerusalem.  It’s just way too expensive for most people I know, and riding a horse through the narrow streets of Jerusalem is something of a nightmare anyway.  Plus, it’s just cheaper to use a taxi.

The Order of the Holy Sepulchre had its start in the 12th century, and its mission was the defense of the church built over the burial place of Jesus.  Back then it had a military function, but today its mission is humanitarian.  Today the members of the Order support the Christian communities in the Middle East in general and the Catholic parishes in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in particular.  I scarcely need to say that their generosity is absolutely vital to the survival of these impoverished churches and their schools and orphanages.

A few years ago I went on a pilgrimage with a group from Minnesota, and from Jerusalem we travelled to places which our members support in the region.  In one particular instance we stopped for an afternoon at a parochial school in Amman, Jordan, and at the school the number of students had ballooned to six hundred almost overnight.  Three hundred were recent refugees from Iraq, and about the only thing these people had going for them was this school and the parish church.  It was amazing to realize that this church had become the center of their lives.  It was about all they had to give them hope.

imageEvery year members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre gather in cities across the United States, and there they have the chance to learn about the current activities of the Order.  My first meeting was in Kansas City, several years ago, and back then I thought the report on the Christian community in the Middle East was scary, but not grim.  That is not the case today.  “Horrific” better describes the situation for many Christians in the Middle East today.  And as we learned this weekend, the same is true for an awful lot of Muslims.

Among our speakers this year was Msgr. John Kozar, who serves as the president of The Catholic Near East Welfare Association.  He’s charged with a Vatican-sponsored effort to provide support for the Catholic communities in the Middle East, and in his presentation he hoped to put a human face on some of these groups.  The best word to describe the situation of so many was “horrific.”  He had visited with refugees in Iraq and Syria, where he heard stories from mothers who had seen husbands and sons lined up and executed by ten-year-old kids.  He spoke of church communities that dated back to the time of the apostles, but they are churches no more.  It was sad to hear; but even in the midst of such gloom there was hope, he said.  Time after time he heard from refugees, young and old, who held on to their faith as the one thing that gave them life and hope.  These were people who had lost everything, but they assured him of their prayers.  There was an obvious irony here, because he had gone to help them, and here they were, praying for him.

imageHis presentation was a sobering lesson to all of us in the room.  We who chafe in heavy traffic and worry about all sorts of little things, and we who think of God as a Sunday-kind-of-thing — we live with such paltry concerns compared to those who live clinging on to a sliver of life.  And yet these refugees have an appreciation for the generosity of God that leaves us looking ungrateful, at best.

Hearing such a presentation can be a transformative experience, and that personal transformation is why people choose to be part of organizations such as the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  Like people in similar kinds of organizations, we get involved thinking that we can do some little good and make some sort of difference in the world.  But once there are faces to connect to the people we try to help, we discover that helping is a two-way street.  We give to them out of our abundance of material wealth, and they give back out of the abundance of their faith.

A few days ago Pope Francis asked every parish in Europe to take in a refugee family.  Not a few people balked at that, for all sorts of reasons.  But it seemed not to occur to many that in receiving these families they would be receiving Christ.  Once upon a time Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees, in Egypt.  This same Christ returns today in the faces of persecuted refugees, and that’s what those who help them soon discover.  What a small price it is to pay from our own abundance, only to have before us the vision of the face of Christ.


+On September 18-20 I attended the annual meeting of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, held in Minneapolis.  Saint John’s Abbey was well-represented this time around, with Abbot John and Fr. Bob Koopmann in attendance, as well as newly-invested Fr. Michael Patella.  On display were the seven volumes of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, and images from The Saint John’s Bible graced the pages of the worship aid as well as the programs for the meeting.  On Friday the 18th I spoke to members of the Order, talking about The Artist as Preacher in The Saint John’s Bible.

image+To readers who were surprised to see that I published a post on my blog last Friday, I can only say that no one was as surprised to see that than I was.  That entry was supposed to be an attachment to today”s post, but that’s not the way it happened.  I blame this on a so-called “computer upgrade,” which did not really turn out to be so.  Like many others who are scarcely computer-literate, I find the upgrades from our friends in the tech industry a minor irritation at best, and the law of unintended consequences works full-tilt with these “improvements.  It can take me days to uncover the errors and mysteries that show up.  This was not the only item that has disrupted my work, and I’m sure more surprises are in store.  Just about the time I get everything fixed, a new upgrade will be on the way.

+The photos in today’s post include ones from the meeting of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as photos of the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, where the investiture took place.

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Reflection on the Nativity of Mary: Uncertainty

Eric Hollas, OSB

8 September MMXV

[The following reflection first appeared in the September 2015 issue of Give Us This Day, published by The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN.]

IMG_0265_2Like the prophet Micah’s Bethlehem-Ephrathah, there was nothing in the nativity of Mary to suggest she would be anyone out of the ordinary.  In common with most of God’s special servants, she was born in obscurity, and she seemed destined to live in obscurity.  But of course the Annunciation changed all that.

We may envy those God calls directly, but we should never assume that from that day forward they know exactly what God expects of them.  In Mary’s case, she had given her assent to be the mother of the Messiah, but at the end of the day she still pondered what all of this might mean.

Matthew illustrates the kind of trust Mary had to place in God.  As the angel spoke to Joseph, Mary was not even present to argue her own case.  With deep anxiety she must have waited for word from Joseph, praying that somehow God would see her through all this.

Like Mary, all people of faith at times wonder where God intends to take them.  And perhaps that uncertainty is the mark of mature faith.  In most cases God never lights our paths brilliantly.  But we walk on anyway, sure that God is guiding us to something important.  With faith we grab hold of God’s hand as we wander through life.  And like Mary, we walk, certain of only one thing.  God will lead us safely through to journey’s end, and beyond.

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imageSaint Cloud and the Joys of History

On September 7th we celebrated the feast of St. Cloud, both in the universal Church and in the diocese of St. Cloud, where Saint John’s Abbey is located.  These days there aren’t many 6th-century saints who can stir up widespread enthusiasm, and St. Cloud certainly is not among the select few who can.  In fact, in most parts of the country his feast day goes largely unnoticed.  But not so in the diocese of St. Cloud, MN.  Here his feast is still a big deal — sort of.

If the truth be told, St. Cloud has had to struggle for every bit of respect he could get in our area.  For one thing, it did not help that he is the patron of nail-makers and the patron against carbuncles.  But there were other reasons why he’s had a tough time endearing himself to the locals, and a little history is in order to appreciate that.  First of all, St. Cloud was a 6th-century priest who lived and preached outside of Paris.  Paris wasn’t much back then, but today an entire suburb of the city bears his name.  Given that our county of Stearns was 99% Catholic in the 19th century, you’d expect the local settlers would welcome their new patron with great fanfare.  From his perch in St. Cloud, St. Cloud would preside over the see city, situated on the banks overlooking the Mississippi River.  Who could possibly object to naming a town after such a holy man?  And who could possibly take issue with naming the main street Saint Germain, after the famous boulevard on the left bank in Paris?

imageThe founders of St. Cloud should have used a focus group to test their ideas.  Had they done so, they would have learned early on that French saints just weren’t going to cut it in Stearns County.  The population of the county certianly was 99% Catholic, but 95% of the people were German.  Virtually no one in the county spoke a word of French, and the reaction of a typical German farmer had to be something along the lines of “gross” — meaning “great,” or, alternatively, “gross.”

I’m sure there was a reason why the city founders named the place St. Cloud, but if their goal was to attract mobs of French settlers to a left bank on the Mississippi, it didn’t work.  The French weren’t fooled by the false advertising, and they stayed away in droves.  St. Cloud never did become a French enclave, while the other (i.e.: German) immigrants flooded into towns with more familiar German saints’ names.  So it is that within a few miles of Saint John’s there are the towns of Saint Anna, Saint Stephen, Saint Wendel, Saint Nicholas, Saint Augusta, Saint Joseph and Saint Martin.  But just to make things crystal clear to prospective settlers, there was also New Munich.

At Saint John’s of course we have always been open-minded about Saint Cloud, and in the abbey church there is a side altar in the crypt dedicated to the French saint, complete with statue.  On his feast day we haul him upstairs, and on that one day each year he presides solemnly in the sanctuary.  For twenty-four hours he stands there, presenting in his arms a carving of the cathedral in St. Cloud, as if to remind us that this is the mother-church of the diocese.

imageOf course it is the mother-church, but there’s more to the story than that, as new monks at Saint John’s eventually learn.  The cathedral actually is named in honor of Saint Mary, and it was never built to be the cathedral.  For decades the monks of Saint John’s staffed the parish, and it was they who presided over the building of the stately romanesque structure.  In the  meantime the real cathedral was a bit of an also-ran, and when fire destroyed it one day, the bishop had an idea.  So it was that a few months later the abbot woke to the news that the bishop had prevailed on friends in Rome to name Saint Mary’s the cathedral of the diocese.  At minimal cost the bishop had a superb cathedral, and the monks had to pack up and clear out.  So the statue in our sanctuary is a reminder of that little act of larceny.

That event is long past now, and though the monks resented the bishop for a while, we got over it ages ago.  Ironically, in the last fifty years the abbey has relinquished to various dioceses some thirty churches that we once staffed.  Long before the changing vocational climate decided the issue, the abbey planned to concentrate its monks at home.  Still, there was a bit of silent satisfaction in returning some churches to the local bishop — more churches than he had really ever wanted.

So last week at least I celebrated the feast of St. Cloud with a mixture of veneration for the saint and a little mirth at the twists and turns that local history has taken.  That’s the value of knowing the history of the Church, and that’s the importance of not taking things too personally.  And in hindsight, had we  known how things were going to turn out, we might have given the bishop all the churches he wanted, when he really only wanted one.


+Besides celebrating the feast of St. Cloud on September 7th, we monks also celebrated Labor Day.  Weather-wise it was the beginning of a perfect week, and that day we had a picnic lunch in the monastery garden.

+On September 11th I participated in the longest traffic jam I’ve ever experienced in the Twin Cities.  Maple Grove is the choke point for all traffic from our area into the Cities, and we calculate our trips through that zone according to the rush hours.  This time it was awful, however.  And a stretch that normally takes about twelve minutes took two hours.  On the plus side, everyone was well-behaved and polite.

image+On September 12th I attended the home football game between Saint John’s and Buena Vista University.  Again, it was a gorgeous day, and Saint John’s won handily.

+On September 13th I presided at the Mass in the abbey church, and  you can access my sermon for the day, Putting Character First, through this link.  It was Family Weekend at Saint John’s University, and so the congregation in the church was much larger than usual.  Following the Mass I drove to St. Cloud, where I blessed the new home of some friends.

+The first photo in today’s post is the statue of St. Cloud, holding the model of the cathedral of Saint Mary in St. Cloud.  The statue is housed in the abbey church.  The other photos illustrate the abbey of Saint Germain des Pres, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris.  This is not to be confused with anything on Saint Germain Street in St. Cloud, MN.

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imageThe Great Siege of Malta, 1565

My first trip to the island of Malta was a real eye-opener.  I’d been director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University for only a few months, and I had to get up to speed on the various projects on HMML’s plate.  So I flew to Valletta to visit the National Library, where HMML had assisted in photographing the archives of the Order of Malta.  Since I’d been to other islands already, I assumed that this one would be like all the rest, save for the library.  I was completely wrong about that.

Physically, Malta is not very big, and from its medieval capital of Medina you can see the whole thing spread out around  you.  And it’s crowded — really crowded.  There’s also a lot of stone there.  From stately buildings to the simplest homes, the tan-colored stone gives it the feel of the Middle East.  And the landscape is so strewn with stones that you quickly understand why the Maltese have to import most of their food.  In fact they import nearly everything, except for capers.  Those bushes grow everywhere, like weeds, and they’d take over if people didn’t chop them back.  The latter seems a shame, because I love capers.

For what Malta lacks in vegetation it more than compensates with its history.  In fact it wears the past on its sleeve, and everywhere you turn it tells a larger-than-life story.  Its neolithic temples are among the most ancient structures on the planet, and traces of a succession of foreign rulers show up all over the place.  The fact that outsiders like Romans, Arabs, French and English occupied the place continuously for 2,000 years means that Maltese self-government is a very recent experiment.

imageUndeniably it is the Order of Saint John that has left the greatest mark on the island.  Now known as the Order of Malta, it began in Jerusalem as a hospice serving sick and poor pilgrims, run by the monks of a Benedictine abbey.  From Pope Pascal II in 1113 Blessed Frá Gerard received a charter that brought formal recognition as a religous order, and in Jerusalem it served Christians, Muslims and Jews.  Later, after the Order’s expulsion from the Holy Land, the knights ended up on the island of Rhodes.  There they stayed until 1523, and in 1530 they settled on Malta, where they remained until Napoleon dislodged them in 1798.

As an influential and accomplished group in the Middle Ages, the Knights of Saint John earned both admirers and enemies, as did their peers in the Order of the Temple.  But they fared better than did the Templars and were never suppressed, though they came perilously close to extinction in the early 19th century.

imageAlong the way there were days when members must have wondered why they’d ever signed up for such a life. One such occasion was the siege of Rhodes in 1480, when the Ottoman Turks came close to dislodging them.  The Turks finally did succeed in 1523, but as a gesture of respect the sultan gave the knights honorable passage off the island and into exile.

The sultan’s successors came to regret that decision, and in 1565 the Turks sailed to Malta to rid the Mediterranean of the knights once and for all.  What followed was one of the nastiest sieges ever, and I’ve always been surprised that Hollywood has never made a movie about it.  It would be a blockbuster, with violence and bravery scarcely imaginable.  But the knights held out against huge odds, until on September 8 the Turks lifted the siege and sailed away.

The knights learned several things during that siege, and among them was the disadvantage of defending lower ground in an artillery duel.  The Turks had commanded the high ground, and after the siege the knights hastily moved their capital to those heights.  And they named the city after Grand Master Jean de la Valette, who had led them through the crisis.  Today Valletta’s stately government buildings are the visible record of the knights’ 268 years of residence in Malta.

imageOn September 8th the Order of Malta celebrates the 450th anniversary of the lifting of the siege.  Both Maltese citizens and members of the Order will gather in Valletta to mark the occasion and to celebrate what has happened since.  After all those centuries the Maltese at last rule themselves, and the knights and dames of Malta have rededicated themselves to their original charism of service to the sick and the poor.  The festivities in Malta will remind them of that latter commitment when they tour the vast 16th-century hospital in Valletta.

Meanwhile, at HMML the work of the Malta Study Center continues, as does its efforts in various archives in Malta and more recently at the Grand Magistry in Rome.  This week HMML marks the event with the opening of an exhibit of books and documents on the history of the Order of Malta, as well as a lecture on the siege by Dr. Emanuel Buttigieg of the University of Malta.

imageSince my first visit to Malta I’ve had the chance to lead several tours to the island, and to a person the place leaves each and every visitor in awe.  Each invariably has the same reaction as I did when I first looked down from the bastions of Villetta to an aircraft  carrier docked directly below.  And for knights and dames who visit Malta, there’s a sense of respect for what their predecessors in the Order sacrificed.  Thankfully we no longer serve on the battlefield or on the seas, because at our age and physical condition we wouldn’t last ten minutes.  But we can be grateful for what others did to keep the ideal of service alive.  Those who sacrificed their lives in 1565 ensured that later generations in the Order would continue their care of the sick and the poor.  Thankfully the siege did not mean the end of the history of the Order;  rather, it was the opening of several new chapters.

To all this I must append a footnote.  Some people find history boring and tedious, but at the end of my first trip to Malta I learned how important it is to remember the lessons of history.  As we drove our rental car onto the highway to return to the airport, the three of us were chatting away as we breezed down the road.  Suddenly one of our number pointed out one great legacy of the English occupation.  Had it been Minneapolis, driving on the right side of the road would have been just fine.  But this was Malta, and just as in England they drive on the left side of the road.  There we were, tooling merrily down the wrong side of a divided highway.  We all shreiked and sweat bullets, and I thought of Saint Benedict’s advice to “keep death daily before our eyes.”  That morning history was no longer an academic exercise.


+On August 28th the freshmen at Saint John’s University joined the monks for vespers.  And as is the custom of many years, they broke into small groups afterwards in order to “meet a monk” and learn about our life in the monastery.

+On September 1st I presided at the burial service of Mary Foley, wife of Saint John’s University alumnus Dr. Bob Foley.  The burial took place in the abbey cemetery.

+On September 3rd I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  You can access the sermon through this link to The Lord’s Demands on Us.

+On September 5th I attended the opening game of the Saint John’s University football season.  We hosted the University of Dubuque, and happily our team won the game rather handily, 45-9.

image+Dr. Daniel Gullo, the Joseph S. Micallef Curator of the Malta Study Center at HMML, kindly supplied five images from HMML’s current exhibit of books and documents illustrating the history of the Order of Malta.  The first is a book of Statutes of the Order, printed in 1556.  The second is a map of 1597, showing the harbor of Valletta, with the new city scarcely developed on the left of the map.  In the map of 1762 you see the fully-developed city, built on a modern grid pattern.  The fourth page opens the 1480 edition of Pierre D’Aubusson’s narrative of the siege of Rhodes; while the fifth image is taken from the Statutes, printed in 1588.  All are in the collection of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.  In a separate gallery I have presented some of my favorite photos, illustrating the architecture of the Island of Malta.

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