Eucharist: Sacrament of Reconciliation in a Melanesian Context Part I

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2007 »Volume 44 2007 Number 2 »Eucharist Sacrament Of Reconciliation In A Melanesian Context Part I

Rose Mary Harbinson, R.N.D.M.

Rosemary  Harbison RNDM holds a B.Ed from Trent University, Nottingham. UK, a Certificate in Pastoral Liturgy from the Pastoral Liturgy Institute, Carlow, Ireland, an MA in Theology/Liturgy from Washington Theological Union, Washington, D.C., USA.  She was missioned in Kenya and Senegal, Africa, before being assigned in 1988 to Papua New Guinea where she has taught Liturgical Studies at Catholic Theological Institute, Port Moresby.  As a member of the National Sub-Commission for Liturgy (PNG/Solomon Islands) she has given liturgical seminars to ordained ministers and catechists.

"The Eucharist has power to transform lives, indeed to transform the life of the world" (La Verdiere 1993:378).


Cultural and Christian Practice in Melanesia

It can be said that the Eucharist has been instrumental in bringing to people’s consciousness a corporate experience of and a sense of being actively in communion with the whole Church as the community gathers around the table of the Lord. Yet, how is it that nearly 40 years after the Second Vatican Council, diocesan renewal teams and various groups of Christians are still trying to articulate sacramental doctrine in a way that it will fully and unreservedly embrace the ever-changing face of the Church? In the attempt to capture the same Spirit that energized the early apostolic Church, the authors of Sacrosantum Concilium (SC) [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy] set as their goal for the Council and the universal Church "…to intensify the daily growth of Catholics in Christian living: to make more responsive to the requirements of our times those Church observances which are open to adaptation; to nurture whatever can contribute to the unity of all who believe in Christ…" (SC, 1) [Abbot 1996].

The purpose of this paper is to highlight certain areas of catechetical teaching, which I have found to be very ineffectual in their effort to be more responsive to the adaptation of the Eucharistic Liturgy and the Sacrament of Reconciliation in a cross-cultural situation. To highlight some of these areas, I will deal with pastoral issues that have serious implications for the daily growth of a young Christian community in the Pacific, the peoples of Melanesia, i.e., Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

Because of the universality of the Church, pointing to problematic issues in a Melanesian context will highlight the same problems we experience in other parts of the world. More and more, our Eucharistic communities are becoming progressively multivalent in terms of the increase of immigrants and shifting populations; as a result, it will not be long before we see the same problems reflected on the face of our parishes, demanding the same changes and adaptation.

The documents Instruction on Eucharistic Worship (1967) and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal(1975) both state that the Eucharist is not only a sacrament of praise and thanksgiving, but also one of "reconciliation and expiation."1 The earlier document of 1967, closer in mind to the tradition of the early apostolic Church, states more clearly that Eucharist is an "antidote by which we are freed from our daily faults and preserved from mortal sin" (#35), (Quinn 1968:281). This would seem more in keeping with the goal of the Eucharistic Liturgy proposed by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, that is, to "intensify the daily growth of Catholics" (SC, 1) and to reinforce the commitment to baptism.

The dissolution of the rite of Christian initiation into "three separate, and dislocated moments of water-baptism, confirmation, and eucharist" (Mir has failed to recognize these cultural features) (Mitchell 1976:50) may give the impression that each sacrament became a "source of grace" of varying degree. As John J. Quinn points out in his essay "The Lord’s Supper and Forgiveness of Sin," for centuries prior to the Middle Ages, the Church recognized and lived out the unique relationship between the sacraments of initiation and the role of the sacrament of reconciliation. Quinn writes that baptism "has a continuing effect of pardon and the Eucharist is the perfection of the remission of sins because of the cross, the mystery of reconciliation, is present in it alone" (Mitchell, 50).

Quinn’s article tries to gather evidence supporting his effort to give a balanced approach to the relationship between the sacraments which has been lost over the years. Given that this article was written in 1968, so soon after Vatican II, he very carefully uncovers supportive material and arguments that give credence to his study. He concludes, as one would expect, given his time in history and training, and rightly so, that even though both the sacrament of Penance and Eucharist have their own distinctive and somewhat separate roles, the Church should not return to the pre-conciliar attitude it imposed on the faithful. This imposition was the notion of being unworthy to partake of communion because of the nature of the sin committed.

It is this point in Quinn’s article that I would like to develop and try to take the argument further. It will not be possible to cover all the developments he has made in this paper. However, it is my intention to highlight some historical and social issues related to why I feel it necessary to take Quinn’s position. If possible, I wish to extend his position by further relating it to pastoral concerns within the Melanesian Church.

Quinn sets the tone of a very serious pastoral problem facing the Church in the third millennium, one that he possibly never even dreamed of, that is, that today many Christians "come as sinners seeking forgiveness in the Eucharist" but are moving further away from the sacrament of reconciliation. By not listening or observing the action of her people, the Church is not "responsive to the requirements of our times" and is not attentive to "those Church observances which are open to adaptation" (SC, 1).

The catechetical praxis of the Church certainly has failed to apply the hopes of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which makes a distinction between the responsibility of safeguarding "things old" as well as "examining and prudently bringing forth ‘things new’" (GIRM, 15).2 This is mostly evident when missionaries go to "new" areas of the world where the culture may seem to threaten the integrity of the gospel which they were accustomed to preaching. A suggested reason for this could be that, because the culture is not understood, it is often considered to be in opposition to a catechesis that has a fixed and normative European pedagogic structure.

It is only in recent years that local communities are beginning to experience tensions between traditional western methods of learning gospel values, introduced by early institutional churches, and that of fundamental Christian groups and religious sects, who, over the last 20 years, have flooded the country. Until the middle of the 20th century many parts of Papua New Guinea were still considered primary evangelization areas where the gospel was still relatively unknown. This new fundamentalism and an evangelical non-structured approach to Christianity have shaken the sound foundations of many Catholics, and are proving to be harmful to the future of the young and emerging Church and its leaders. As a pastoral worker and teacher of future leaders in Papua New Guinea, I am fully aware of what has weakened the confidence of our Catholic people.

In the course of this paper, I hope to unpack, based on my own experience, the areas that I would consider to be the most critical and in need of serious consideration. However, to place this paper in context, it will be necessary to give a general overview of the cultural and social life of Melanesians and their first contact with the outside world and Christianity, and to highlight the models of adaptation that were used by pioneer missionaries, as a process of communication in a foreign land. Firstly, my intention is to show how these early missionaries tried to interpret and interact in a cross-cultural situation. In this way it might be easier to understand why so many missionaries thought that the people’s response to Christianity was purely syncretistic and not necessarily genuinely indigenous conversion.

Secondly, I would like to show that in some cases, in the Melanesian context, catechesis has failed to accentuate the relevance of the liturgical and sacramental life. This, I believe, is due to a misunderstanding of some of the basic elements of language and symbolism, keeping in mind that culture is a mixture of economical, ideological, and social relationships, that are expressed in the everyday life of the people.

It is in this context of cultural adaptation that I would like to show how catechesis, relating to the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation, has failed to capture the imagination of pastoral workers over the years, and may be the reason why Melanesian Christians sometimes find themselves alienated from their own culture, while at the same time never really feeling "one" with the universal Church. The last section of the paper will take specific areas of the culture—for example, ritual celebrations, gift-exchange, maintaining and restoring relationships—so as to explore ways by which they relate to certain aspects of Eucharist.

It is through the action of the liturgy, especially through the Eucharist and Reconciliation, that people are inspired to become "of one heart in love," (and) the liturgy prays that, "they (the faithful) may grasp by deed what they hold by creed" (SC, 10). In the quest of uncovering some of the pastoral problems of "deed and creed" that face the young Church of Papua New Guinea, I hope to find solutions and possible ways forward, whereby ministers of the gospel can be true catalysts of "sound attitudes" towards a contextual theology that allows dialogue and reflection on all the essential elements that would enable the Melanesian Church to flourish and be nurtured.

Catechesis above Culture

By way of introduction, it is necessary to give an overview of the culture of the people of Melanesia. Care will be taken to develop each aspect of the culture in relation to the emergence of Christianity, in the hope of expanding and raising pertinent questions that might lead the way to a more reflective discernment about how best to present the sacraments as a source of transformation, rather than acting as functional practices.

Demographically, Melanesia has the most languages in the world. An estimated 1,200 languages, of which 800 are spoken in Papua New Guinea, make communication one of the most difficult elements in social life. Today, despite years of communication with the outside world, there are pockets of people still living in remote areas that have not traveled a radius of 10 miles from their homes. The sense of social unity has and will always be a source of concern and challenge for the country, precisely because each language group has its own prehistory, ancestry, and culture.

Early missionaries often only dealt with the headmen of the tribes, and because of the system of exchange and a cargo-cult ethic,3 whole villages were converted to Christianity as economic, or status conquests. It was not unknown to have rivalry among the missionary churches; hence, we note, in an effort to conquer regions and name them Catholic, Lutheran, or Anglican villages, there was a persistent urgency among missionaries to teach religion and catechetics without first understanding the culture of the people.

The rugged, swampy terrain of the highlands and tropical forested areas of the country naturally cut the mountain tribes off from the nambis4 (tribes living on the coastal shores and on the various Islands). Anthropologists acknowledge that this geographical isolation would account for the diversity among the Papuans, a Malay word meaning "frizzy haired," and for their inherent fear of each other and tribal behavior of persistent warfare.

In relation to the social system, missionaries first had to relate to the headmen, often more than one in each region, and to do this they had to consolidate dispersed hamlets into villages. "When Melanesians converted to Christianity, they frequently made a geographical change as well as a mental and spiritual change" (Whiteman 1984:89). Despite this effort to bring some political and economic organization into the country, the complexities around kinship, culture, and language have remained to this day features of organizational diversity and fragmentation rather than uniformity. The Christian Church in its attempt to bring the people into a conscious awareness of the One Body, the Church, has failed to recognize these cultural features.

There are many opinions as to whether missionaries can be held responsible for extensive cultural changes, and certainly some would accept that the early days of enthusiastic proselytism have played a major role in the problems being faced today. However, it can be added that some positive changes introduced by missionaries did act as a buffer between and were a preparation for the inevitable intrusion of the outside world. There was an effort made to introduce a lingua franca, Melanesian Pidgin, that would act as a primary medium of communication, not only to learn about the gospel, but to move tribes beyond the "narrow confines of their own small ethno-linguistic group" (Whiteman, 96).

Of the three commonly known cultural systems found in the world, that is, (1) tribal or kinship, (2) peasant or feudal, (3) industrial or market-dominated, Church workers will find that, since the 19th century, Melanesia has a blend of all three systems. This cultural fusion is a result of an overzealous religious intrusion from Europe, leaving in its trail complex implications of cultural fragmentation and gross religious confusion. In fact, one can summarize these early days of evangelization as Christianity being taught in the "crucible of peasant societies" by missionaries who themselves were classic "products of an industrial society system" and who aimed to form Melanesians in like manner. It is this dilemma of cross-cultural communication that has led to irrelevant and ineffective interpretations of both basic theology and catechesis.

With this historical background, covering a period of less than 200 years on the islands, and less than 50 years in some remote areas of the Highlands, catechesis and training of local church leaders has been flooded with a "proliferation of various Christian theologies."5 Certainly, there has been a constant struggle among informed missionaries to "nurture whatever can contribute to the unity of all who believe in Christ" (SC, 10). There are small pockets of missionary activity where there is evidence to show efforts of understanding the diverse cultures of the people and of appreciating the integrity of local leaders. Such initiatives have led to concerted attempts, on the part of national catechists, together with western pastoral ministers, to grapple with gospel values by putting them into some perspective for the people.

One is left with the question: What aspects of theology, as it is taught today, are seen as a stumbling block to the ongoing teaching of the Church and its relevance to the formation of its future leaders? To attempt an answer, it is necessary to retrace the missionary practice of the early ministers of the gospel. To survive and cope with the diverse culture and language patterns, many early missionaries communicated as agents of change, whereby they became advocators or innovators. Hence, mission stations were established with a school, health clinic and a local store. And in some very prominent areas of the country, such as coastal areas, and accessible places in the highland regions, they set up local businesses, such as printing, carpentry shops, and the building of harbors and fisheries. The receptors consequently would liken and interpret Christianity only by what they experienced. And from this expectation, an industrial, merit-oriented model of theology developed. It is from this Euro-American cultural pattern that Christianity took shape in Papua New Guinea.

Unfortunately, this model of expectation and security still exists and it is very difficult to encourage Melanesians to let go of the known, to trust in their pre-existing configuration of ideas, and to try and build on that to incorporate the new. One little glimmer of hope is that in recent years, with the influx of religious fundamentalists into the country, most people were able to put up a solid wall of resistance on the grounds that older institutional religions had not, consciously or unconsciously, required the burning of traditional ceremonial objects as a pre-requisite for baptism, but had simply encouraged a renouncement of practices that were in opposition to gospel values.

This, in recent years, has opened up discussion with local Church leaders and catechists about the relevance of culture in Christian practice. There is little doubt that early conversions were motivated by the fact that, if Melanesians adopted the Whiteman’sbelief, they too would benefit from the wealth attached to "white" culture. However, there is another side to this that is of interest to my study, that is, that many Melanesians saw the Gospel message, as it was represented, only in spiritual terms. Therefore, they only had to apply it to spiritual things, like attending Sunday Eucharist, or when the community gathered for Christian prayer. Because of its irrelevance to everyday life, they resorted very easily, and without guilty conscience, to these cultural values, which they still consider to be the foundation of their behavioral patterns. Hence, tribal violence, the practices of bride-price, and polygamy still exist unchallenged by the Christian community. Very often they are unable to make the connection between gospel values and their own pasin bilong mipela (Melanesian manner of behavior).6 This is a typical saying in Melanesia to mean an unwillingness to step outside of their culture when they see themselves challenged by gospel values that require a drastic conversion and open mind.

In his extensive research and study of the Melanesian culture, Ennio Mantovani, S.V.D., relates the law which directs the behavior of Melanesians, as follows: "What helps the community is ethically good, what harms the community is ethically bad and what is indifferent to the community is indifferent" (Mantovani 1991:7:9). Consequently, any catechesis or Christian praxis that is not relevant for the good of the whole community remains just a superficial belief, which results in a half-hearted commitment and a false understand-ding of their Melanesian Christian identity and a sense of belonging to a universal Church.

Melanesian Identity in the Context of a Universal Church

One of the major reasons, and there are many factors at play here, why Melanesians may not totally have an identity and a sense of belonging to a larger Church is possibly the failure on the part of catechists and pastoral workers to recognize the differences between one culture and another. Many pioneer missionaries coming into a foreign country had no other experience of anything other than their own culture and traditional way of doing and understanding things. Anthropologists and scholars today realize that it is not just enough to study a culture, one must take into account social behavior, which would include rituals, celebrations, initiations, and taboos,7 such as those which express all the rules that organize the daily life of a people (Geertz 1973:89).

In observing society and people this way, it becomes evident that culture is public and transmitted by a system of "meanings embodied in the symbols that people in a particular culture inherit from the past and transmit to future generations" (ibid., 30). As a consequence, catechesis can only become relevant if it touches the heart and essence of a people, so that they, the new Christians, embody symbolism as having some meaning and context in relation to their own understanding of life and its mystery now being brought to fulfillment in Christ.

One can read any of the works by Aylward Shorter (1994), David J.Bosch (1991), Louis J. Luzbetak (1963), Anscar J. Chupungco (1982), to support the fact that history is full of abusive, cultural domination, and what was thought of as being indigenization, inculturation, and adaptation was, in fact, acculturation: a dominance of the stronger and more superior culture over the other! The agents of change often misunderstood the mandate of a true catechesis: "No one can arrive at the whole truth on the basis solely of some simple private experience, that is to say, without an adequate explanation of the message of Christ…" (Miller 1998:82). The receptors, often headmen, as mentioned before, would never fully see the necessity of interiorizing the gospel, because for them, no real cultural exchange had taken place. As Gerald Arbuckle quotes from W.H. Auden: "What we have not named or beheld as a symbol escapes our notice" (Arbuckle 1987:8:7). So it can be said here that the Christian message, with all its symbolism, was accepted without being named or assimilated in a Melanesian consciousness.

In a society so immersed in community symbolic exchange, which involves, for the most part, communal distribution and eating as a means of making peace between one tribe and another, what must have entered the minds of Melanesians as they were introduced to another form of eating or sharing food from the one table? How did they first reconcile the Eucharist as "partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread," in which they are "taken up into communion with him and with one another" (LG, 7), with their own forms of communal eating? In eating the body of another person in the context of sacrifice there is a very fine line between that and an ancient practice held secretly within Melanesian culture. There are stories told by anthropologists and missionaries that in certain parts of Melanesia, particularly in the Solomon Islands, some early converts perceived Eucharist as a "magico-religious ritual" which gave them mana (power), much the same way as eating the flesh and drinking the blood "of their deposed enemies" had done a few generations before.8 What is still more common today is the secret practice of leaving food in the forest for the dema deities (lesser spirits) or well-known culture-heroes, common in Melanesian myth stories and legends, which, for them, are associated with food production and ceremonial exchange (Trompt 1991). Mary MacDonald, in her book Symbols of Life (1994:6) would call these the nature spirits, which for the people would maintain welfare for the village and tribe.

Anthropologists have long understood this confusion of symbol and language, knowing also the misunderstanding they can cause in ministry. But often what anthropologists tell us has not always been accepted in religious terms and considered counter to the more recent idea of letting symbols speak for themselves. It is not my purpose here to discuss anthropology. As a pastoral worker, I have been forced to take the time to stop and consider such major works on this topic, and have, in my research, found comparable theologians grappling at long last with the same problems surrounding language and symbolism. For so many centuries the Church has taken these features for granted. This has led us to believe that there is only one Christian way of defining symbol and that this certainly has missed the human imagination and activity where symbols find their ultimate meaning.

As early as 1979, Louis-Marie Chauvet (1997:21) spoke in terms of diverse levels filets du langage (layers of language), whereby one cannot even begin to speak of symbols without being netted or enmeshed in the total life experience of the human being in relation to the cognitive levels of knowing who they are as subjects. Chauvet maintains that to understand symbolism in this light would situate human subjects in a symbolic exchange where they echappe a l’imaginaire (escape imagination). Here, Chauvet does not mean that imagination is a bad thing, but to become "subjects" one must seek reality within the realm of the concrete. If one is trapped in imagination there is a fear of being "detached from reality," because for Chauvet, "just like language, our body mediates in our expression" (De Volder 2001:39). Imagination is born of the illusion of immediacy and ambiguity, and "keeps alive confusion between self and oneself, self and the other, self and the world" (De Volder, 15, own translation).

More than 20 years later, Chauvet persists in his conviction that what makes a person a human being is his or her ability to speak and to know language and not to invent it as one would a skill. Therefore, he would maintain that language can only be expressed from within its natural milieu "in which the subject becomes subject" (Chauvet 2001:7). If we accept this understanding of language we will have to forego many assumptions about the world and who we are in relation to it, which we have learned through the lens of a former philosophical and theological system, namely Aristotelian-Neo-Platonic scholasticism. It was thought that philosophers and theologians could only explain the totality of being within that metaphysical world-view. Whereas, Chauvet and others have dared to distance themselves from this pattern of thought and to suggest that both "language and corporality is a process of mediation" of becoming, as always unterwegs, always "on the way" toward the word that goes ahead of them (De Volder, 37). "In other words, human beings are realized only in as much as they subject what is "in process of becoming" to what is "essence" (ibid., 5).

As a pastoral worker it is important then to realize that any catechesis that introduces instrumental formulas as a means of attaining the Christian life and its values, risks being an obstacle to truth, thus leading candidates to walk "hand in hand with the most characteristic dualisms which we have inherited from the dominant scholastic metaphysical tradition: visible/invisible; body/soul; internal/external; in-process-of becoming/essence" (ibid., 6). By contrast, it is imperative that we enable Melanesians to enjoy the fullness of life so that they do not feel as if they must live in two worlds, one as a Christian and another as a Melanesian. It is in the world that they "recognize aspects of their identity… and human personality (all that is Melanesian) projected into the social, physical and temporal spheres of the cosmos" (Fugmann 1985:83), by a process of mediating the reality rather than an assimilation of a world construct that is outside their realm of reasoning.

In any form of catechesis that relies heavily on language translation, as would be the case in Melanesia, the above exposition by Chauvet would make sense, and certainly would explain why there is a feeling of incompetence and reticence among so many so-called religiously trained Papua New Guineans to make relative associations between Christian values and those of Melanesian society. Christian symbolism somehow has remained outside the realm of their experience of how they relate their own lives to the ecclesial life. In fact, I would go as far as to say that, in some cases, Christianity has given them another cognitive layer, or level of self-identity. It is not as Melanesian Christians, but as Roman Christians! It is hopeful to know that today we are able to talk in these terms and to open up areas of research, that may often require a rethinking of the way we even engage in ‘God-talk,’ and present a method of catechesis by which the Church reaches beyond the boundaries of Western and Roman culture and language.

My concern about catechesis is enhanced by the 1980 work of Jean-Yves Quellec, who acclaims the contribution of Chauvet: "the principal merit of this work (Chauvet 1997:21), is to show with force and insistence that the sacramental life is an integral part of the faith of the Church, that a confession of faith could not know this without the church’s own ability to persist, and by the effects and products of the existence of the believing community."9 If the people and culture are seen to have an intrinsic value, presupposed by Vatican II, faith cannot be defined apart from their own social network of ideas and understanding. If people are excluded from their own expressions of identity, how can we expect a true conversion, a conviction of belief, or even a true existence of a believing community?

The statement of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that "in the liturgy the sanctification of man (sic) is manifested by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which is proper to each of these signs" (SC, 7), surely presupposes that we, the ministers and teachers of the sacraments, must be attentive to both the language and symbolism "perceptible to their senses" (ibid.). This leads us to the consideration of the language of Eucharist. How can Melanesians appropriate a Christian meaning to their participation in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ? Many pastoral workers would see this as an identity transcending all ties with blood or common ground, which for Melanesians is "ethically revolutionary" (Fugmann, 86).

With the help of Chauvet and others, I intend in the second part of this paper to outline some of the fundamental and ethical issues which may have a bearing on some of the tensions that need more profound pastoral attention, namely, the area of ritual and gift-exchange in relation to Eucharist and all that it means. What might be considered as normative, Western, Christian ritual might, in fact, be quite contradictory and offensive in another culture. This might be the cause of misunderstandings, for example, in the use of language or symbols, mentioned earlier, even to the point of estranging Melanesian ritual as being possible channels of expressing Christian values.

As was suggested at the beginning of this paper, one must attempt to grasp the ritual, celebration, and taboos of a people to fully appreciate their own struggle to "grapple with the Word of God as it penetrates their Melanesian world" (Fugmann, 98). In doing so one hopes this might assist them to confront misunderstandings in the local context and to grow in maturity, applying with courage the words of Paul: "… do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink, or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ" (Col 2, 16-17).



1. "Eucharisticum: Mysterium, on Worship of the Eucharist." Documents on the Liturgy: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts 1963-1979.

2. "General Instruction of the Roman Missal," The Liturgy Documents: Volume One: A Parish Resource, third edition (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1991), 49.

3. Exchange, cargo-cult: two terms that, when used in a Melanesian context, mean systems of bartering and cargo-exchange that developed between headmen and early white settlers. See reference to cargo-myths: Flannery 1979:435-49.

4. Nambis – Pidgin term given to coastal tribes and peoples from the Islands.

5. Occasional phrases or terms thus marked ‘ ’ taken from Whiteman. Op.cit.

6. Pasin bilong mipela - is a common phrase used by many Melanesians when they feel challenged to consider change. Pasin refers to their own manner of behavior because they are Melanesian, which to them defines the reason why and how they do things.

7. Tambu or taboo - something that is forbidden, or pertaining to the sacred. Certain actions or customs are considered tambu, for example, women touching food during their menstrual cycle.

8. See reference to mana infootnote 52. Cannibalism is a disputed practice in Papua New Guinea, but with a more informed understanding of culture, many of the elders refer to it as a secret ritual practice. See Whiteman 1984: 73, 130.

9. Jean-Yves Quellec, Communuates et Liturgies (1980) 62:31.


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