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‘Humana Communitas’ Human life in the drama of relationships

Carlo Casalone, SJ - L aCiviltà Cattolica - Tue, Jan 21st 2020

On the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL), Pope Francis sent a letter of gratitude in recognition of its service and to relaunch its mission for the future. Recalling the communal origin and destiny of the human family, the pope widens the horizon in which human life is to be understood.

Life must be protected throughout its entire development, and the Academy is urged to address the issues posed by global bioethics and technologies, proceeding with discernment and fostering dialogue in the plurality of scientific wisdom traditions, religious perspectives and worldviews. The author is a member of the PAL and teaches Moral Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome January 6, 2019, Pope Francis sent a letter to the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL) for the 25th anniversary of its foundation.[1]


Even the date, the feast of the Epiphany, together with the title itself, indicates the universal horizon in which the Holy Father intends to situate the questions that are posed today with regard to the human person, to life and corporeality.

In what follows we examine the text of Francis’ letter, highlighting the difficulties and main implications, paying special attention to the points relevant to ethics.

Relationship as a fulcrum

The introduction to the document highlights the central role of relationships in the understanding of human life.

It not only looks to the relationship between individuals, but also the bond that, beginning with the more immediate sentiments felt in the family context, extends through neighbor to neighbor to the entire human community. Of course, here we perceive the great attention that Francis reserves for the notion of a people and the dynamics of its progressive constitution.[2]

Even the etymology of the word communitas offers us an interpretive key. It suggests, in fact, a group of subjects who recognize themselves to have received together (cum) the same munus. Now, since munus signifies “gift,” and, more precisely, a specific modality of gift that bears with it a “duty,” the community is that group of persons who, sharing the same gift, assume responsibility for it.[3]

Such a munus is defined in a radical way: “The human family is a community with a common origin and a common goal” (Introduction). At the beginning we find “our common origin in God’s love and creative act. Christian faith confesses the begetting of the Son as the ineffable mystery of the eternal unity between ‘bringing into being’ and ‘benevolent love’ within the life of the Triune God” (ibid.). With regard to the destination toward which we are headed, it consists in “the heavenly home that is our destiny (2 Cor 5:1) where we will live fully our communion with God and with all others” (ibid.).

The path between origin and destination has its mediator in the mission fulfilled by the only-begotten Son, being made one of us, who reveals to us the passion of God for the redemption and completion of human beings through the mystery of his cross and resurrection, which renders him the firstborn of many brothers. We have here a conception of the origin of humanity that takes a stance in regard to current political philosophies.

The meaning of the capacity to generate proper to the origin must be understood according to the logic of gift. Only thus does it become comprehensible “that life does not come from life, but from love, therefore, from a reality of good which expresses itself by sharing the good itself and originating the other from itself.”[4] The creature made in the image of God as “male and female” (Gen 1:27) is constituted as a relationship in the difference between man and woman, “the primary place where all creation speaks with God and bears witness to his love” (ibid).

In this framework lies the mission that the Church is called upon to undertake today: “to propose the humanism of the life that bursts forth from God’s passion for human beings. Our commitment to valuing, supporting and defending the life of every human being is ultimately motivated by God’s unconditional love. Such is the beauty and the allure of the Gospel, which does not reduce love of neighbor to criteria of economic or political convenience, or to ‘certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 39)” (ibid.).

The PAL between history and the present

The history of the PAL has been characterized by a passion “from the time it was created twenty-five years ago by Saint John Paul II at the prompting of the eminent scientist and Servant of God Jérôme Lejeune” (No. 1).[5] The rapid socio-cultural events of recent years led to a new Statute (October 18, 2016) giving it further momentum. Above all, this means enlarging the horizon of reflection, not limiting itself to confronting “specific ethical, social or legal conflict situations” (ibid.), to articulate an anthropology that posits the theoretical premises for “conduct consistent with human dignity” (ibid.) and of giving itself the instruments to examine critically “the theory and practice of science and technology in terms of their overall approach to life, its meaning and its value” (ibid).

Moreover, the new Statute prompts the Academy to become more a place of competent and respectful meeting and dialogue between experts coming from other religious traditions and upholders of visions of the world with whom it is important to come face to face in order to have a broader view of things. Since we know the mandate of Francis according to which “it is necessary to promote, at all levels of ecclesial life, the right synodality,”[6] we may consider the new Statute as encouragement for the Academy to develop, in accord with its own modalities, a synodal approach.

It is therefore necessary to take into account that tensions or differences of opinion may arise. The pope himself made this known in the conclusion of the III Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family: “Personally I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St. Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace.”[7] Therefore, we may assure ourselves that similar tensions will come to light. It is necessary to learn to live through them without fear, with the prospect of more profound research into the truth and an authentic consensus.

A final consideration concerns the role of theological reflection, including in the field of ethics, and its rapport with the Magisterium. It is useful to remember what Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller said, explaining the role of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which he was then prefect. Above all, he starts from the premise that “the great mission of Pope Francis is to unify the world […]. He reminds everyone that there is but one only humanity, one only earth, with one universal responsibility.”[8] Therefore, he specifies that theological reflection has the duty of interpreting and elaborating conceptually the charism and ministerial activity of pastors at both a local and universal level.[9] This means, on one hand, frequenting communities in their productive life – and this holds by analogy for the “scientific community” – and, on the other hand, exploring in theological research the methods of the “cultural laboratory.”[10] And Francis expects a serious contribution from the theological debate, affirming that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium” (Amoris Laetitia, No. 3).

Novelty and meanings of the current context

In order to delineate the characteristic traits of the contemporary context, the pope turns to indications that he had already proposed in his other documents.[11] Above all, the profound wearing thin of the fabric of family and other social relationships is highlighted, in a logic of closing in upon oneself and one’s own personal interests,[12] leading us to think that “the gap between concern with one’s own well-being and that of the larger human family seems to be stretching to the point of complete division” (No. 2), with grave consequences for “the decisive global issue of the unity of the human family and its future” (ibid.). In this way a dramatic paradox is revealed: just when humanity possesses the techno-scientific capacity to obtain widespread well-being, which should favor an effective universal distribution of goods under the auspices of God, we see instead the flaring up of conflicts, fueled by growing inequality. We are all familiar with the decline of the enlightenment myth of progress and the turning of the tide of the techno-scientific endeavor, when, from a positive instrument of well-being, it becomes a negative menace to life, since it augments the risk and uncertainty facing society.[13]

The pope does not limit himself to stating the problem; rather he interprets it as an opportunity to understand the contradiction.[14] Trying to suppress or anesthetize it means blocking ourselves from receiving its message. The paradox warned against constitutes an alarm bell, a disturbing factor in the course of events which one would wish to flow without a hitch: it expresses, in fact, “the ennui of a life lacking in a purpose that can satisfy its spiritual yearning” (No. 3). And, in the vision of Francis, it is precisely from the defects found in the system – perhaps marginal, but repeated – that the breakthrough may come.

Besides, this is a conviction that emerges from the biblical account. It shows how surprisingly the people of the covenant proceeds “through a difficult history the important moments of which are marked by strongly negative elements – exodus and exile – which have remained inevitable stages in the history of humanity and are moreover criteria of sense and action which move us still today.”[15] Thus emerges the opinion according to which the criterion that governs the history of the world and humanity would be the optimization of resources and the evolutionary advantage of a continual empowerment of the human person.

The Church listens to the cries of humanity, cries that arise because of injustice. And it seeks to find the root from which injustice emerges: an erroneous vision of the person, of relationships, and of responsibility toward the whole of creation.[16]

Within this framework, the Church is also aware of her own difficulties and contradictions, which exist not only in the past but also in the present. We must acknowledge a level of engagement not always engaged with murky questions and a tendency toward societal hegemony not lacking in a certain search after its own interests. Since the communication of the message it proclaims is greatly hindered, it must recognize the necessity of continual conversion. It is necessary to bring to the center, with greater awareness and determination, the care for humanity, involving every human being and in the construction of universal brotherhood, as clearly occurs also in the magisterium of the most recent popes, from Saint Paul VI to Saint John Paul II.[17]

Pope Francis, however, also recalls signs of hope.[18] He takes up again those things already pointed out by Saint John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, No. 27: “the many efforts to welcome and defend human life, the growing opposition to war and to the death penalty, and a greater concern for the quality of life and ecology.” And again, the diffusion of bioethics, as “‘reflection and dialogue – between believers and nonbelievers, as well as between believers of different religions – on ethical problems, even the most fundamental ones, that affect our lives” (No. 8).

In view of these signs of hope, Francis goes on to point out some paths for the future work of the Academy. In fact, the growth of sensibility and dedication to our common home, which permits us to enlarge the field in the direction of integral ecology, and the attention being given in the sphere of bioethics to the phenomenon of globalization with regard to the subjects of health and human life, may both be considered signs by which to recognize the working of the Spirit in today’s world. These, therefore, should be taken up as places of cooperation with men and women of goodwill.

The ‘flesh’ and life

Before, however, pointing out the principal fronts toward which to direct ourselves, as if as a premise, the pope puts us on guard against a risk present in the field of bioethics: that of reflecting on human life by disassociating it from experience and reducing it to a biological notion or an abstract universal, divested from relationships and history. To avoid this reductionism, he uses the terminology of the flesh and refers to the dynamic of generation.[19] The flesh indicates the most profound locus of the familiarity between body and earth, on account of which all creatures share the same elements of which they are composed. A truth often overlooked and undervalued: “We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters” (LS 2).[20]

Beginning from our origin in the one Father “all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family” (LS 89). On account of this we find ourselves to be in solidarity with the earth: the damage of the soil is like a disease, and the extinction of a species like a mutilating wound for each of us (cf. ibid.). It is, besides, an interaction with a dual meaning: “The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology” (LS 155).

This profound bond between the earth and body, which also goes beyond the flesh, is manifested also in their reciprocal need for one another: “all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another” (LS 42). Need, as opposed to what is generally thought in the wake of the latest versions of Gnosticism (cf. Gaudete et Exsultate, Nos. 35-46), points us to something else, beyond, which is to that reality which can correspond to it, just as thirst points us to water. “The first burst of transcendence is precisely in the immanence of needy flesh.”[21]

Need teaches us in various ways. However, limiting ourselves to the most obvious, we may say it constitutes a continuous reminder of birth. Just as in the maternal womb every physiological need is met in the immediateness of the relationship between mother and child, so too in birth such a way of satisfying need is transformed, and a new balance is begun between the voluntary and the involuntary.[22] Being brought into the light, the newborn can only continue life by intentionally expressing its requests and finding someone who responds. “Need teaches us to seek and ask others for what guarantees life, reminding each of us of our own filial identity: ‘I would not live if I had not received and I if did not continue to receive.’”[23]

The pope evokes the dynamic of generation as a process in which passive reception constitutes the prerequisite for every successive activity, which leads to recognizing that we are children, welcome and cared for, though not always adequately. This is where reciprocity starts, which asks us to take responsibility for others: “It thus seems reasonable to build a connection between the care we have received from the beginning of life, that enabled it to grow and develop, and the responsible care we in turn give to others” (No. 9).

Naturally, this manner of understanding human life, beginning from the experiences that look back to the relationships that from the very beginning constitute it, demands to be adequately connected to the many ways in which bioethics finds itself confronting the questions of life. This orientation remains therefore a reference point not only for the ethical questions that are posed at the beginning and the end of life, but also for the questions about synthetic biology and about the organisms that combine biological tissue and electronic devices.

Global bioethics and ‘convergent technology’

The Letter then weighs in on some more precise issues. First of all, it encourages the Academy to participate actively in the debate that is animating bioethical reflection under the influence of globalization (cf. Nos. 10-11). There is a pressing need to find ethical reference points with which to understand the bearing of the ever-new discoveries of the natural sciences and biotechnology, in such a way as to be able to regulate not only the work but also the product. Given the intense interaction between diverse cultures, it is necessary to work out universally shared operative criteria that bear upon national and international politics. Human rights are in many ways the terrain upon which this confrontation takes place, which brings with it a series of questions, to which tradition has responded with the doctrine of natural law in the search for a universal ethic.[24]

The process of globalization, beyond presenting more wide-ranging and radical questions, may also offer suggestions on how to articulate in a more convincing manner the relation between the universal and the particular. New conceptual instruments appear, like the notion of common heredity and common goods – which were discussed in relation to Laudato Si’[25] – which show how the universal validity of a good may occur only from within specific cultures and precisely in the name of their diversity.[26]

A second front Francis indicates as a field to investigate is one that considers the “new technologies described as ‘emergent’ and ‘convergent’” (No. 12). Such terms cover nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and the cognitive sciences.[27] Their eruption into the processes of research and industry accelerates the changes, widening the space for the intervention upon reality. More effective actions become available that are not only therapeutic ones, but also the strengthening of living organisms, not to mention new organizational procedures for work or health, up to the transfer of functions previously carried out by the human body and in the future by artificial systems.[28]

We are confronted not only with new technological instruments, but also changes that profoundly affect our relationship with the world: new computerized devices are placed with growing pervasiveness in various sectors of reality, including our bodies, which are more and more exposed to the dynamics of bio-politics and psycho-politics.[29] There is, then, a need to participate in the discussion, in which it is important that all the subjects involved may intervene, in such a way that the development and use of these extraordinary resources are oriented toward the promotion of the dignity of the person and the most universal good. 

Between norms and conscience: discernment

Faced with these developments in scientific research that put in motion profound dynamics and imply unforeseeable consequences, the pope reminds us of the need for an attentive discernment. Certainly, this means listening without excluding, to interpret with wisdom and reason ethically in a way comprehensible for all.[30] But it is interesting that in this regard the Letter cites the recent Synod of Bishops on Young People, where discernment is described as a “sincere work of conscience, in our duty to know the good that is possible, on the basis of which to make responsible decisions as to the right exercise of practical reason.”[31] We cannot of course deduce from these brief remarks a complete theory of the moral conscience or of human action. We may however highlight some suggestions to examine further.

First of all, a conception of the conscience appears, which is not just a faculty for applying a general norm to a concrete case, but which involves the whole person. A decision, in fact, does not merely concern a single act to perform, as if it were something external that is presented by the theoretical intellect to the will so that it might carry it out. Rather, the text signifies that a decision concerns the person in its complexity, which in the act puts itself in play. It is as if it attempts, even though briefly, to overcome the contradistinction between the subject and the object, in awareness that reality is not placed in front of the subject, since the latter is already from the beginning a part of reality itself. The two are then related to one another by an irreducible circularity and are not dualistically separable.[32]

The conscience thus comes to define not only an applicative function, but also the heart of the person globally understood. The decision the moral subject makes certainly concerns a particular action, so a serious consideration of the relevant norms is absolutely necessary, but at the same time it is a decision about itself, about the entire orientation of the life of the subject. Along these lines, the reference to practical reason and its right use signifies that the moral judgment does not coincide with the mechanical application of abstract knowledge to concrete circumstances, since it cannot lack a mediation that traverses the concreteness of the situation and the history of the one who makes it.

The paragraph’s concluding reference to one’s relationship with the Lord Jesus indicates that, even for the believer, discernment occurs, as for everyone else, through the dynamics proper to the moral conscience. But the meeting in grace with the Lord and following him permits us to experience and evaluate relationships and situations, progressively taking on his perspective, his “sentiments” – as we usually translate Phil 2:5 (cited in No. 12), which, more precisely, uses the Greek term phronein, which means something very near to “discernment” – his criteria, and his entire intentionality.[33]

Many other connections could be examined with the documents and activities of Pope Francis with regard to this theme; but this is precisely the work that needs to be undertaken in the future. And he entrusts to the reflections of the Academy those subjects that seriously question the contemporary world, which, in the faith, we are called upon to live in, applying a logic of fraternity and responsibility.

[1] Francis, “Humana Communitas”: Letter to the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Pontifical Academy (February 11, 1994 – February 11, 2019). The letter will be cited in the text bearing the numerical reference in parentheses. The letter itself may be found at

[2] Cf. Id., Evangelii gaudium (EG), Nos. 110-134; E. Cuda, Leggere Francesco. Teologia, etica e politica, Turin, Bollati Boringhieri, 2018.

[3] Cf. R. Esposito, Communitas. Origine e destino della comunità, Turin, Einaudi, 2006, VIII-XIV. The author develops his reflections by criticizing the forms of relationships with an origin which leads to the construction of violent and self-centered communal identities. For a reflection which values the most valid contributions of such a criticism, affirming also, however, the importance of the recognition of origin for the construction of the community and for its eschatological completion, see R. Mancini, L’ uomo e la comunità, Magnano (Bi), Qiqajon, 2004.

[4] Ibid, 81.

[5] The PAL was instituted with the Motu Proprio Vitae Mysterium, February 11, 1994.

[6] Francis, Address to the participants in the Plenary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (January 29, 2016), in Cf. also A. Spadaro – C. Galli, “La sinodalità nella vita e nella missione della Chiesa,” in Civ. Catt. 2018 IV 55-70.

[7] Francis, Speech at the conclusion of the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 18, 2014, in

[8] G. L. Müller, “La mission du pape est d’unifier le monde,” in La Croix, March 29, 2015.

[9] Cf. S. Dianich, Magistero in movimento. Il caso di papa Francesco, Bologna, EDB, 2016, 15-17.

[10] The suggestion comes from the Apostolic Constitution Veritatis Gaudium, No. 3.

[11] An example for all: “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience” (EG 2).

[12] On the subject of contemporary culture, cf. V. Paglia, Il crollo del noi, Bari – Rome, Laterza, 2017; P. Sequeri, La cruna dell’ego. Uscire dal monoteismo del sé, Milan, Vita & Pensiero, 2017.

[13] Cf. S. Natoli, Progresso e catastrofe. Dinamiche della modernità, Milan, Marinotti, 1999; U. Beck, La società del rischio. Verso una seconda modernità, Rome, Carocci, 2000; M. Magatti, Oltre l’infinito. Storia della potenza dal sacro alla tecnica, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2018, in particular chapters 5-6.

[14] In harmony with the Ignatian rule for the discernment of spirits, according to which to one who walks in a dehumanizing direction the “good spirit” speaks through the unease and restlessness of the conscience (Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, No. 314).

[15] G. Lafont, Piccolo saggio sul tempo di papa Francesco, Bologna, EDB, 2018, Edizioni Kindle, pos. 987.

[16] Cf. Francis, Laudato si’ (LS), Nos. 11, 70, 82, 92, 201, 228, where the pope insists upon our interconnection with other creatures, not to be considered as foreign and distant objects, but, rather, in so far as they proceed from God’s unique love, included within a relationship of brotherhood (cf. T. Rossi, “Dall’‘Evangelium Vitae’ alla ‘Laudato Si’’: prospettive di ricerca,” in Pontifical Academy for Life, Enciclica “Evangelium vitae”. Vent’anni dopo, Roma, PAV, 2016, 80).

[17] The Letter cites the encyclicals Ecclesiam Suam (1964) and Redemptor Hominis (1979).

[18] Often one speaks of “signs of the times,” about the meaning of which there is not, however, a uniformity of opinion. The emphasis on hope permits us to better highlight that the expression does not so much intend to point out problems which need to be resolved, as much as, and above all, indications of God’s working through history. It does not merely concern empirically identifiable external events, but of phenomena to be discerned, among which the mobilization of consciences which engage themselves with free and conscious responsibility makes up an essential part, once the decision is made to cooperate with the perspective of the good. Cf. G. Ruggieri, La verità crocifissa. Il pensiero cristiano di fronte all’alterità, Rome, Carocci, 2007, 81-114; G. Ferretti, Il criterio misericordia. Sfide per la teologia e la prassi della Chiesa, Brescia, Queriniana, 2017, 96-147.

[19] Cf. G. C. Pagazzi, La carne, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 2018, from which we abstract several considerations.

[20] The subject was already very present in the preaching of Cardinal Bergoglio, as one sees in the homilies of his episcopal ministry: cf. for example J.M. Bergoglio, “The earth is our home. The earth is our body. We, also, are the earth,” in J.M. Bergoglio – Pope Francis, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola. Omelie e discorsi di Buenos Aires 1999-2013, Milan, Rizzoli, 2017, 519.

[21] G. C. Pagazzi, La carne, cit., 27.

[22] Cf. M. Chiodi – M. Reichlin, Morale della vita. Bioetica in prospettiva filosofica e teologica, Brescia, Queriniana, 2017, 225-228.

[23] G. C. Pagazzi, La carne, cit., 28.

[24] Cf. International Theological Commission, In Search of Universal Ethic: A New Look at the Natural Law, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2009.

[25] Cf. S. Morandini, “Bene comune e beni comuni: un percorso di ricerca,” in Aggiornamenti Sociali 65 (2014) 327-324; L. Pennacchi – A. Bondolfi, Beni comuni per la democrazia, Padova, Messaggero, 2015.

[26] Cf. H. Ten Have, Global Bioethics. An introduction, London – New York, Routledge, 2016, 50f.

[27] Cf. L. Mariani – R. Pegoraro – L. Simonato, Tecnologie emergenti/ convergenti, Milan, FrancoAngeli, 2016.

[28] Cf. P. Benanti, Le macchine sapienti. Intelligenze artificiali e decisioni umane, Bologna, EDB, 2018; L. Floridi, The Oline Manifesto, Heidelberg – New York – Dordrecht – London, Springer, 2014.

[29] The terms come respectively from Michel Foucault (like control and utilization of the individual body of a person and the species) and from Byung-Chul Han. The latter asserts that in contemporary society the paradigm of “bio-politics” is now in decline, in favor of that of “psycho-politics”: power no longer disciplines bodies but rather it molds minds, it does not force but rather seduces, so that it does not encounter resistance, so that every individual has interiorized, as their own, the needs of the system (cf. Byung-Chul Han, Psicopolitica. Il neoliberismo e le nuove tecniche del potere, Milan, Nottetempo, 2017).

[30] Cf. G. Costa, Discernimento, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 45-48. With regard to the constant renewal of language, cf. EG 41.

[31] Final Document of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment, October 27, 2018, No. 109, in–faith-an.html.

[32] Cf. M. Chiodi, Coscienza e discernimento. Testo e contesto del capitolo VIII di “Amoris laetitia,” Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 2018, 128. On the themes of morality in the magisterium of Pope Francis with particular reference to the relationship between conscience and norms, cf. also P. Carlotti, La morale di papa Francesco, Bologna, EDB, 2017; A. Fumagalli, Camminare nell’amore. La teologia morale di papa Francesco, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2017; A. Thomasset – J.-M. Garrigues, Une morale souple mais non sans boussole. Répondre aux doutes des quatre cardinaux à propos d’“Amoris Laetitia,” Paris, Cerf, 2017.

[33] Cf. S. Bastianel, Coscienza, onestà, fede cristiana. Corso fondamentale di etica teologica, Trapani, Il pozzo di Giacobbe, 2018, 110-115.

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