Roman Catholic Church

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Franciscus in 2015.jpg
Pope Francis
Basic data
head Pope Francis
Members 1,313,000,000 (as of 2017)
priest 414,582 (as of 2017)
Religious 815,237 (as of 2008)
address Via della Conciliazione 54
SCV-00120 Vatican City

The Roman Catholic Church ("Catholic" from Greek καθολικός kathikós "concerning the whole, general, continuous") is the largest church within Christianity . In a broader sense, it comprises 24 particular churches of their own law with their own rite : on the one hand the Latin Church (or Western Church ) as by far the largest in terms of membership, on the other hand the 23 other ritual churches collectively referred to as Eastern Catholic Churches . According to others, for example in Austria The prevailing linguistic usage calls the entirety of the “Catholic Church”, while the “Roman Catholic Church” is used restricted to the Latin Church and contrasted with the other, such as “Greek Catholic” or “Armenian Catholic” rites.

Like the Orthodox Churches , the Anglican Communion, and the Old Catholic Church , the Catholic Church dispenses seven sacraments . The distinguishing feature is the recognition of the primacy of the Roman bishop over the universal Church. The Roman Catholic Church has around 1.329 billion members worldwide through baptism (as of 2018). The number of Catholics rose by almost 6 percent between 2013 and 2018. It is directed by the Pope. Since March 13, 2013 this has been Pope Francis . On that day, the 2013 conclave elected the previous Archbishop of Buenos Aires and Primate of Argentina, Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio , as successor to the resigned German Pope Benedict XVI.


The St. Peter's Basilica is one of the most important pilgrimage sites of the Roman Catholic Church.

The term “Roman Catholic Church” only emerged in the wake of the Reformation to make it easier to distinguish the divided Christian creeds and means the church that recognizes the primacy of the Pope as head and representative of Jesus Christ .

As a rule, the Roman Catholic Church describes itself only as "the Church" or "the Catholic Church" or theologically in detail as "the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church ". Nevertheless, documents sometimes use the term “Roman Catholic” in ecumenical dialogue.

In general and official usage, especially in Western countries, the terms “Catholic Church” and “Roman Catholic Church” are used synonymously . In addition, "Roman Catholic Church" is sometimes used both in literature and in publications of church bodies as a name for the Latin Church in comparison to the Eastern Catholic Churches , which then correspondingly "Greek Catholic Churches", "Syrian Catholic Church" and so on called, used; In this usage, “Roman” refers to the rite of the particular Latin (Western) Church.

In Austria, for example, “Catholic” is the state as well as the proper name of the Catholic Church in Austria , while “Roman Catholic” is used exclusively for the Latin rite of this church.


The Roman Catholic Church traditionally refers to the foundation by Jesus Christ himself, in particular to the so-called "rock word" to the apostle Peter ( Mt 16 : 18-19  EU ). Whether it can actually be assumed historically from an actual act of founding a church by Jesus Christ is also controversial among Roman Catholic theologians. Mostly in today's ecclesiology a combination of pre-Easter roots (Jesus eschatological gathering of the people of God), an Easter impulse (church as community of those who follow the risen Jesus Christ) and Pentecostal gift of the Spirit (church as community in which the Holy Spirit is present) regarded as the origin of the church.

It is therefore assumed that the first communities, i.e. the early church , came into being around the years 30 to 33 . The Roman Catholic Church considers itself to be in uninterrupted continuity with this early church and also claims the direct foundation by Jesus Christ. She sees this connection institutionally, insofar as the Christian community of Rome is traditionally seen as the foundation of the Apostle Peter and the Pope, as Bishop of Rome, is the direct successor of Peter.

The self-image as standing in uninterrupted tradition with the early church is not a Roman Catholic peculiarity; other Christian denominations also refer to this tradition. To what extent this self-image is justified or not has long been the subject of polemical controversy among the denominations and is now an essential point of ecumenical dialogue .

Historical derivation of the structure

In the early church there were originally several models of church leadership: leadership by a group of elders (presbyter constitution, Jerusalem), supervision by traveling preachers (Syria) and functional church leadership (Pauline congregations). From around 80 AD, the bishops (from Greek ἐπίσκοπος, “guardians, overseers”) were responsible for the leadership of the community, although it was initially a collective body, the Monepiscopate only prevailed from the second century onwards. The tripartite system known today, with the bishop at the head, the priests and the deacons as its supporters, developed from the end of the first to the second century.

The area of ​​a bishop is called in the west the bishopric or diocese (from the Greek διοίκησις "administration"), while the church took over the names for territorial divisions introduced by Diocletian in the Roman Empire .

The ecclesiastical provinces emerged in the first three centuries . An ecclesiastical province comprises several dioceses , their head is called Metropolitan . The seat of a metropolitan is the metropolis (from Greek Μητρόπολις "mother city"). Today the metropolitans of the Roman Catholic Church usually hold the rank of archbishop and, as metropolitan archbishop , preside over an archbishopric . They chair regional bishops 'conferences (e.g. the Freising Bishops' Conference ) and have further powers over the suffragan dioceses subordinate to the archdiocese .

By 451 AD, the five “most important” metropolitans of Rome, Constantinople , Alexandria , Antioch and Jerusalem became patriarchs. The dispute between Rome and Constantinople led to the fact that the Western Church finally separated from the Eastern (Orthodox) Church in the great Eastern Schism .

The Patriarchate of Rome (or: of the West, the West, the Western Church) was the only western of the five original patriarchates of the early Church. The remainder form the early church Orthodox patriarchates. There are currently four Patriarchs within the Latin Church . Three of them head dioceses with patriarchal seats, one heads an archbishopric as archbishop (cf. in detail Roman Catholic patriarchates ).

The patriarchs of the churches of the Eastern rites united with Rome are to be distinguished from the patriarchs of the Latin rite (except Jerusalem) , who as heads of their churches have powers of their own right ( sui iuris ) over and above the rights of honor (separate jurisdiction). The major archbishops as heads of some United Churches have the same position as the patriarchs - with the exception of priority of honor .

Some eastern dioceses have reconciled (united) with Rome in the course of history, mostly under the influence of secular rulers such as in Transylvania and the Ukraine . With the exception of the Syrian-Maronite and the Italo-Albanian Church , all United Churches can be assigned to an Orthodox or Oriental church of origin, from which they have split off with their subordination to the Pope. As a result of these historical developments, there are now several bishops in some places, such as an Orthodox bishop, a bishop of the Church united with Rome and a Latin bishop. The United Churches have generally kept the rites of their churches of origin and are designated accordingly. For example, churches whose Byzantine rite goes back to the Greek culture of the ancient Eastern Roman Empire are called "Greek Catholic".

Determination of essence

Church as a sacrament

The Second Vatican Council dedicated its dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium to a definition of the essence of the Church. Accordingly, the church is the "basic sacrament", God's fundamental way of salvation to people:

"In Christ the church is, as it were, the sacrament, that is, the sign and instrument for the most intimate union with God as well as for the unity of all humanity."

People of god

The council referred to the community of believers in the church as the people of God.

"But God liked it not to sanctify and save people individually, regardless of any mutual connection, but to make them a people who should recognize him in truth and serve him in holiness."

One is accepted into this community through baptism , which, according to the teaching of the Church, impresses an indelible seal on the person being baptized . Every Catholic participates in the mission of the Church into the world through baptism and confirmation ( lay apostolate ). Notwithstanding the particular ministry of some members of the Church as teachers or pastors, the Council recognizes “true equality in the dignity and activity common to all believers in building up the body of Christ . The difference that the Lord has made between consecrated ministers and the rest of the people of God includes a bond, since the shepherds and the other believers are closely related. The pastors of the church [...] should serve one another and the other believers, but these should zealously work closely with the shepherds and teachers. In this way, all in diversity give testimony to the wonderful unity in the body of Christ: for it is precisely the diversity of graces, services and activities that unites the children of God, because 'all this is done by one and the same Spirit'. "

Basic Executions

The Catholic tradition mentions the following as the basic features through which the Church presents itself in society:

The church thus adopts the early Christian conception of the threefold office of Christ and sees a participation in these offices in every member of the church, clerics as well as laypeople.

Since the Second Vatican Council a fourth basic dimension of the church has been described, the community ( communio / koinonia ), in which the Christian community also finds its expression. Lumen gentium speaks of the church as "the community of faith, hope and love" and understands it both as "the visible assembly" and as "the spiritual community"


The Second Vatican Council emphasized that the ecclesiastical beliefs differ in weight: “When comparing the doctrines with one another, one should not forget that there is an order or hierarchy of truths within Catholic doctrine, depending on the various ways in which they are related to Foundation of the Christian Faith. "

  • Trinity : God is one in three persons: Jesus Christ , as the Son of God, is of one being with God, the Father and Creator of the world, and is worshiped and glorified together with him and the Holy Spirit as one God (see Incarnation of God ). Through his death on the cross and his resurrection , the second divine person, the Son of God , took upon himself the sins of the world and opened the way to redemption from sin and death for all human beings.
  • God's work in the world: God is not only the creator , but out of love for each individual person, he actively intervenes in the world ( redemptive action ); According to the theodicy question, however, his work is not fully comprehensible by human standards.
  • The Catholic Church sees itself in the succession of the Apostles , whose creed it preserves in the power of the Holy Spirit through the ages, deepened and clarified in the face of new questions. This tradition of the church, of which the most important and therefore separately named (“Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture”), but not the only part of which is the Bible , forms its doctrinal basis. The apostolic succession guarantees the apostolicity of the Church and the preservation of tradition. It says that the bishops follow the apostles through an unbroken chain of the laying on of hands.
  • Sacraments :
    The Virgin Mary with Angels, painting by William Adolphe Bouguereau
    According to Catholic teaching, God gives people salvation through the sacraments. The Catholic Church knows seven sacraments: Baptism , Confirmation , Eucharist , Penitential Sacrament , Anointing of the Sick , Sacrament of Orders and
    Sacrament of Marriage . In principle, the sacraments can only be mediated in and through the church. Special features apply to the donation of the sacrament of baptism and marriage.
  • Last judgment and life after death ( eschatology ): The Catholic Church expects the return of Christ in glory and the judgment on all people. The yardstick of judgment will be faith and good works done according to the measure of the gifts . The redeemed receive eternal life in close proximity to God (“see” God face to face, heavenly wedding feast). Everyone who turns away from God is threatened with eternal damnation in hell .
  • Adoration of Mary and saints : People who have led their lives towards Christ can serve as role models for other believers. Among the saints, Mary, the Mother of God, serves as a model, among other things, she is venerated as the “archetype of the Church”. The saints are considered to be intercessors with God because it is believed that they are already in fellowship with God. Christ's universal mediation of salvation, to which all saints refer, is not called into question, but underlined. The processes of beatification and canonization of the Catholic Church are very extensive and can take several decades. This also applies to the recognition of the apparitions of Christ, Mary and saints on which the pilgrimage sites are based.
  • In the Catholic Church, in addition to intercession for the living, prayer for the dead is customary. This is to help the poor souls who are still in the purification state of purgatory . Obtaining indulgences for the deceased is therefore also part of the practice of piety.

Understanding of the Eucharist

Because of its understanding of the church, of ministry and, in particular, of the Eucharist, the Roman Catholic Church forbids intercelebration and intercommunion (see also: Lima Declaration of the WCC and transubstantiation ). According to Catholic teaching, Jesus Christ is truly present with his body and blood in the changed bread and wine. This view is represented in various forms by Orthodox , Anglicans , Old Catholics , Lutherans and Methodists . The Reformed reject the real presence and see the Lord's Supper exclusively as a symbolic act of remembrance. The Roman Catholic Church allows the faithful to receive liturgies of separate denominations only under special circumstances, as well as to receive communion from members of these denominations. In the event of mortal danger, a Catholic priest may donate the sacraments to members of other denominations . Orthodox believers, on the other hand, may always be given the sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick if they ask for it of their own accord and if they are properly disposed. In 2004, in the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia , Pope John Paul II once again emphasized the importance of the Eucharist as the central secret of faith of the Roman Catholic Church and for the Catholic Churches that are in communion with it in faith, prayer and sacrament, and called on everyone to do so Prevent abuse.

Hierarchical structure

Peter as Pope , depicted with a pallium and the keys of Peter , oil painting by Peter Paul Rubens (1610–1612)

The Petrine ministry with its claim to primacy is seen as an indispensable structural element , which according to the Catholic teaching of Peter ( Mt 16 : 18-19  EU ) is passed on to all of his successors in the Roman episcopate. The Catholic Church is structured hierarchically ; Hierarchy is understood to mean the fixed structure according to which the church is led by ordained ministers . In the Catholic Church only men can receive the sacrament of ordination (see also ordination of women ). The local bishop , who as the locally responsible part of the hierarchy in the Eastern Churches is also called “hierarch”, has the authority of leadership, teaching and sanctification for his area. Clerics and, to a limited extent, specially commissioned lay people are involved in all three powers . The highest authority in the universal Church has both the Pope and the College of Bishops in union with the Pope.

The Pope is head of the college of bishops and exercises the highest, full, immediate and universal jurisdiction over the whole Church. He is not restricted in the exercise of his rights (can. 331 CIC). This violence is also known as primatial violence . The Pope is advised in his duties by the Synod of Bishops and the College of Cardinals . In addition, the Curia exists as an authoritative body for the government of the Church. The seat of the Pope, sometimes in union with the Curia, is called the Holy See ; under this name the Pope acts as a subject of international law . Usually the Pope resides in Vatican City , which has statehood.

The college of all bishops is a legal subject. According to more recent canon law, it is always, not only during an ecumenical council , the bearer of authority. The Second Vatican Council and the CIC of 1983 ascribe to the College of Bishops supreme and full authority over the whole Church, which it exercises jointly with the Pope as head of the College of Bishops. However, it is not possible to exercise violence against the Pope.
The ecumenical council is an assembly at which the college of bishops solemnly exercises its power over the whole Church (can. 337 CIC). Ecumenical councils must be convened by the Pope, who exercises the right of presidency. In addition, the decisions need the approval of the Pope to be valid. All who have received episcopal ordination are properly entitled to participate. In addition, in an extraordinary way eligible to those of the supreme authority of the Council are appointed. The eligibility also obliges to participate.
The highest and full authority of the college of bishops comes from can. 337 § 2 CIC also expressed through collegial resolution of the bishops who remained in their place ("remote council"). Here the resolutions are only effective if they have subsequently been promulgated by the Pope . In contrast to the Ecumenical Council, however, no initiative from the Pope is necessary.

Below the highest authority of the universal church, particular church associations are the associations of particular churches (especially dioceses ) provided for in the constitutional law of the church . They serve as an expression of the Communio Ecclesiarum, the relationship between the universal Church and the particular Church. Canon law only deals with the ecclesiastical province and the ecclesiastical region under canons 432 to 434 , since only these institutions have legal personality. Above this, however, is the Bishops' Conference , whose territory, however, does not have legal personality.

The Bishops' Conference is a permanent institution of the bishops of a nation, in which they discuss and resolve special tasks together. It is also possible to convene a plenary council for this level of the church constitution . The Eastern particular Churches do not have such an institution.

The ecclesiastical region is a possible intermediate division between the area of ​​a bishops' conference and an ecclesiastical province (can. 433 § 1 CIC). This form is also not provided for in the law of the Eastern particular Churches.

The ecclesiastical province is an association that encompasses several particular churches and is presided over by a metropolitan . A provincial council can be convened at the level of an ecclesiastical province . With a few exceptions, all particular churches are grouped together in ecclesiastical provinces. However, the metropolitan only has legally comprehensible powers over the particular churches to a very limited extent.

Particular churches are primarily the dioceses, but also their substitute forms such as the regional prelature , the territorial abbey , the apostolic vicariate , the apostolic prefecture and the apostolic administration . In addition, there may be individual churches - so-called personal prelatures - currently Opus Dei , the military ordinariats and the apostolic personnel administration in Campos .

Each diocese is presided over by a bishop who is as such a successor to the apostles. He has all power over his particular church, with the exception of what has been assigned to a higher authority by the highest church authority. The authority of the bishops is based on can. 381 § 1 does not depend on the Pope, so the bishops are by no means merely “local representatives of the Pope”, but rather independent leaders of their particular Church. The episcopal heads of a diocese are more precisely referred to as diocesan bishops , in contrast to all those who have only received episcopal ordination but do not lead a diocese. These are called titular bishops and receive a submerged diocese as a titular bishopric . Every other ordinary head of a particular church, i.e. all territorial abbots and prelates, apostolic vicars, apostolic prefects and apostolic administrators is legally equivalent to the diocesan bishops. In contrast to bishops, however, the latter derive their power from the papal authorization and could therefore actually be designated as its local representative.

Procession in Becora ( East Timor ) for the 50th anniversary of the parish (2014)

Every particular Church must be subdivided into parishes (can. 374 § 1 CIC). A priest is assigned to her as pastor . In addition to territorially delimited parishes, there are also, in a limited form, personal parishes, such as parishes for Catholics with other mother tongues. In addition, there is categorical pastoral care, i.e. work in hospitals, schools, military pastoral care, youth work, prisons, course pastoral care. The Catholic university communities should also be mentioned here.

An association of parishes can be combined to form a deanery , the head of which is called the deacon (also: dean, archpriest). The dean is mostly a pastor of the deanery, under canon law he only has to be a priest. He is usually appointed by the local bishop and for a limited period of time.

Celibacy is regularly prescribed in the Latin Church for all three degrees of ordination of the clergy - bishop, priest and deacon . The permanent diaconate , which was reintroduced after the Second Vatican Council, is an exception . However, marriage is only possible before the ordination as permanent deacon. In the United Churches, other regulations apply in part; celibacy is required there for the office of bishop, so that bishops mostly come from the monastic class.


At the beginning of the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church was hostile to the emerging ecumenical movement , for example in Pope Pius XI's encyclical Mortalium animos . from 1928. Church unity was understood in the sense of an ecumenical return as the conversion of people of different denominations to the Roman Catholic mother church. Before the Second Vatican Council there were efforts to further strengthen this attitude - for example, the encyclical Mystici corporis by Pope Pius XII. from 1943 - as well as tendencies towards ecumenical openness. With the establishment of the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the appointment of Cardinal Augustine Bea as its President, Pope John XXIII. that the ecumenical concern at Vatican II became an important topic. The ecumenical decree Unitatis redintegratio of the council forms a departure from the ecumenical return and creates the basis for the participation of the Roman Catholic Church in the ecumenical movement.

Today the understanding and exchange with other Christian denominations is sought and cultivated, especially with the Eastern Orthodox Churches , the Anglican and Old Catholic Churches as well as the Protestant Churches and Communities. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC) , but there has been a joint working group since 1965. She is also a full member of the Faith and Order Commission and advises the World Mission and Evangelism Commission . The Roman Catholic Church is a member of numerous ecumenical organizations at regional, national and local levels.

The Catholic Church relies on dialogue with other religions, as shown by worldwide religious meetings that go back to initiatives of the Holy See .

Moral teaching

Sermon on the Mount and Livable

The moral teaching of the Catholic Church has been shaped from the beginning by adhering to the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount and at the same time taking into account the conditions of earthly reality. In earlier centuries, the accusation of being too lax was a regular reason for criticism and sometimes a reason for splitting off the Montanists , Novatianists, Donatists , Cathars and Waldensians . Today, criticism of the church is mostly ignited by ideals that are too high and difficult, paired with the accusation of hypocrisy and double standards, for example in relation to sexuality, but also on eclectic and inconsistent interpretation of the Bible in relation to morality and incoherent application of what is called Moral teaching of the Catholic Church is called. In the context of the discovery of cases of abuse in Roman Catholic institutions , this criticism increased.

Following the Sermon on the Mount, the central Catholic values ​​are love, truth, non-violence , renunciation of property, justice , loyalty , chastity . The implementation in church and, where possible, state law takes place in ever new attempts and under internal church and social conflicts. For a long time, topics such as oath , conscription or capitalism were controversial. Here, Catholic moral teaching is traditionally more willing to compromise.

Since around 1968, with the encyclical Humanae vitae, at the same time as the socio-cultural upheavals, marriage and sexual morals have been the focus of attention and debate. The church teaching office has repeatedly spoken out clearly in the sense of the togetherness of sexuality, procreation and lifelong fidelity and thus against divorce and artificial contraception .

The protection of life is even more important, which is why abortion , active euthanasia , cloning , the death penalty , eugenics and war of aggression are rejected. The rejection of the death penalty has also been recorded in the catechism since August 2, 2018 , after various bishops, such as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn , and Pope Francis had already repeatedly declared that it should be rejected and abolished.

Catholic moral theology believes that the values of the Gospel to the natural law does not contradict, but its last and highest expression are.

At the beginning of October 2014, the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization took place in Rome. The deliberations continued in October 2015 at the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of World Bishops.

With the publication of the encyclical Laudato si ', Pope Francis brought the subject areas of environmental and climate protection into focus and also set an example with regard to existing social injustices.

Church commandments

The church teaches the instructions of the church (church commandments) to regulate the relationship of the believer to the community of the church. The five church commandments include attending Holy Mass on Sundays and the Obligatory Holidays, regularly receiving the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist , fasting on Friday, and helping the congregation.

Division into particular churches under their own law

The Catholic Church consists of 24 particular churches of their own law (separate rite), the largest of which is by far the Latin one . The remaining 23 particular churches extend to the other ritual families; there are other churches or their parts that have reconciled with Rome over the last thousand years, but have retained their historically grown rite. The Maronites have their own rite and are united with Rome as a whole.

An external characteristic of belonging to the Catholic Church is, in addition to the common doctrine of faith, the recognition of the papal primacy, that is, the spiritual and legal leadership function of the Pope. However, the latter only exercises patriarchal power over the Latin Church ; the other particular churches usually have their own patriarchs or major archbishops with different jurisdictions .

Church associations

Canon law recognizes various forms of consecrated life , in addition to the institutes of consecrated life, hermits or anchorites ( CIC , Can. 603) and consecrated virgins (Can. 604). Apart from priestly monks, the members of the various consecrated life are not of the hierarchy and are not financially supported by the Church.

There are also numerous lay communities cared for by the Pontifical Council for the Laity . Above all, this includes the numerous spiritual communities . There are also numerous youth associations; in Germany most of them are organized in the Federation of German Catholic Youth (BDKJ).

Figures on the Roman Catholic Church in German-speaking countries
country was standing Members portion Average number of people attending church services
(Sunday mass)
Germany 2018 23,002,000 27.7% approx. 2,133,000 9.3%
Austria 2018 5,050,000 56.9% 568,000-606,000 11.0-11.7%
Switzerland 2016 3,072,000 36.5%
Luxembourg 2008 378,000 68.7%
Liechtenstein 2015 27,599 73.4%


Spread of the Catholic Church:
Share of Catholics in the total population by country
  • 90-100%
  • 80-90%
  • 70-80%
  • 60-70%
  • 50-60%
  • 40-50%
  • 30-40%
  • 20-30%
  • 10-20%
  • 0-10%
  • No data
  • The Catholic Church is widespread in large parts of the world, especially (population share> 30%) in:

    In 2018, 1.329 billion people worldwide were Catholics; In 2011 it was 1.2 billion.

    In 2017, 48.5% of all Catholics were American (comparison: 13.5% of the world population); 21.8% Europeans (world population: 9.7%); 11.1% Asians (world population: 59.8%); 17.8% Africans (world population: 16.5%); 0.8% Oceanians (world population: 0.5%).

    In 2017 there were 5,389 bishops and 414,582 religious and diocesan priests in the Catholic Church. The number of students in the diocesan or religious seminaries was 100,781.

    The share of world priesthood in Europe in 2017 was around 41.9% of priests, in America 29.5%, in Asia 16.3%, in Africa 11.2% and in Oceania 1.1%.

    Catholic Church by continent


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    See also

    Web links

    Individual evidence

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    22. Aymans - Mörsdorf, Canon Law II, p. 222.
    23. Aymans - Mörsdorf, Canonical Law II, p. 271.
    24. Aymans - Mörsdorf, Canonical Law II, p. 274.
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