Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, April 30, 2004
LEARNING TO PRAY: George Weigel makes an important point about prayer in his weekly column:

Looking through the well-stocked "spirituality" section in your local bookstore, you may think that Americans are doing the same; in today's jargon, there seem to be a lot of "searchers" out there. Catholic faith, exemplified in this season's readings from Acts, teaches us something different about searching, however. Catholic faith teaches us that the spiritual life is not our search for God, but God's search for us --- and our learning to take the same path through history that God does. Our prayer must somehow reflect that truth.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:35 PM
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MCCARRICK: NCR has posted the transcript of John Allen's interview with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. McCarrick comments on a wide range of issues, including the bishops' role in politics, abortion, war, and the United Nations to name just a few. Allen's weekly column is here.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:31 PM
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CATHOLICS AND POLITICS: I saw several stories today about Catholic bishops in other countries commenting on certain political issues. In Kenya, the Bishops have appealed to the wrangling factions in the ruling coalition to put an end to their power struggles. In the Philippines, a spokesperson for Bishops Conference reiterated that the Church will not be endorsing political candidates, although lay movements like El-Shaddai may do so. In Uganda, the Bishops there are calling for a "transparent" transition to multi-party government. In the United Kingdom, the Bishops Conference issued a statement on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:16 PM
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THE BARQUE OF PETER: A friend of mine once joked that I was the “last man standing,” by which he meant that I’m the only person in my family who actively practices his faith.

But if you are looking for the family saint, don’t look here. My sister eclipses the rest of us in that regard. She is the mother of four children, one of whom has a genetic condition. When she was working, she was an early-childhood special education teacher who volunteered to teach in urban school districts because, as she once put it “these kids really need good teachers.” She would regularly tell me stories about her students that would have me in tears.

So I’ve never really cottoned to the idea that Catholics or Christians or even religious folks generally have cornered the market on holiness. The Spirit bloweth where She willeth and all that.

Which sort of raises the question: why bother? Why should someone pray, or believe in God, or follow Jesus, or do any of the things that believers tend to think are “necessary?”

I’ve tried
in the past to offer answers to that question, but the truth is that I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer it. Because in the end, for me at least, it wasn’t a choice. I’ve never really sat down and analyzed the pros and cons of belief versus unbelief, or tried to compare the relative merits of various religious traditions. In my late teens, I tried to walk away from all of it. But in the end I was seized by something that pulled me back.

It’s one of the reasons I find the doctrine of “election” so interesting. Because that’s the way it feels sometimes. As the force of habit and custom in determining religious practice declines, it seems the churches are increasingly filled with people who need to be there, who were somehow called to be there.

And what of those who don’t have this call? I’m not sure. Subjectively, at least, it seems to describe a fair number of people I know, many of whom are “good people” by any reasonable standard. They are happy, well adjusted, and don’t give any outward sign that their lives are somehow deeply uncentered because they are oblivious to a central aspect of reality. Perhaps there’s something going on inside, but usually I can’t see it.

Since I’m still more of a failed poet than a theologian, I can take refuge in metaphor. It seems to me sometimes that the Church is a large ship manned by a reasonably competent but fractious crew who have been pressed into service. The ship sails through the seas, leaving a great wake behind it. There are many smaller craft who sail in the great space of calm created by this wake, sometimes unaware of its source. Perhaps it would be better to be aboard the great ship; certainly it would be safer. But as long as the great ship continues to move forward, the armada in its wake has a good chance of making it home.

But dangit, I’m never going to get the hang of tying these knots…

posted by Peter Nixon 9:58 AM
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Thursday, April 29, 2004
WHY RAISING KIDS IN CALIFORNIA IS DIFFERENT: Yesterday my wife and 3 year old daughter were shopping in one of those premium grocery stores that are very popular out here when my daughter saw some snails--excuse me, escargot. She asked my wife about them and my wife told her that people ate snails. My daughter was very excited and said that she wanted to try them. So my wife bought two, along with some pesto sauce for dipping. My daughter loved them!

Let's just say that no one ever offered me snails for dinner when I was growing up in New Jersey. Of course, if they had, I probably would have had the same reaction my son had when my daughter cheerfully informed him he would be eating snails for lunch: he burst into tears!

posted by Peter Nixon 7:42 PM
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THERE'S NOTHING ORIGINAL IN ME, EXCEPT... Eve Tushnet has a fine post about the meaning of original sin. Much better than simply repeating that old Reinhold Niebuhr quote...

posted by Peter Nixon 2:04 PM
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VOTING: Well, if you want to get the spectrum of Catholic opinion on what issues should influence our voting, you can read this post from Fr. Rob Johansen and this editorial from the National Catholic Reporter.

I'm still a little skeptical of this idea that you can create some kind of algorithm in which you crossmatch Catholic teaching with the candidates' positions and "poof" out pops the appropriate way for a Catholic to vote. What if, for example, you are opposed to the death penalty, but doubt that there will be any legislation of significance on this topic during the next four years. How does that weigh in your consideration? Does the possibility of a candidate doing something positive in one area outweigh the certainty that he will do something negative in another?

Or let's take another thought experiment: let's assume that one candidate wanted to strongly increase the penalties for infanticide, while the other candidate thought they were fine the way they were. Let's even assume that the penalties in that state were rather mild compared to neighboring states. Do I have to vote for the candidate who wants to increase the penalties, even if I think the legislation is mostly symbolic and will have no impact on the rate of infanticide?

One might argue that these scenarios bear little resemblance to reality, and I'm willing to concede the point. But if you are going to articulate some kind of "general theory of Catholic voting," you need to take into account that there is often a very large gap between what candidates say and promise and what ultimately ends up happening in the legislative process.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:26 AM
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MICROCREDIT: The NYT takes a look at "microcredit." Organizations like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh have been offering small loans--mostly to poor women living in rural areas--to encourage them to start small businesses. The idea has captivated development experts around the world, although the jury is still out on their overall impact on poverty and economic development.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:24 AM
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Wednesday, April 28, 2004
PLEASE PRAY for a friend, a pastor, who is going through a very difficult trial right now.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:09 PM
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TALES FROM THE BART: I had an interesting experience this morning as I was riding the train on the way into work. I had my bible open and was reading the Book of Job when a man across the aisle leaned over and asked “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” I replied. “Where do you fellowship?” I told him the name of my parish, which he didn’t recognize. “Where are you getting off?” he asked. “19th Street,” I told him. “I’m going to 12th. I’ll get off with you. I want to ask you a couple of questions and maybe we can pray.” “Sure,” I told him.

When we got off, I got a better look at him. He was a tall, slender African-American man with an unruly beard that was speckled with gray. He wore thick glasses that were in need of repair, and that magnified two eyes whose gaze was uncomfortable in its intensity. He had a green roll-away suitcase in reasonably good condition, a thick winter coat over his arm, and a cloth briefcase that was stuffed with papers. I strongly suspected that he was carrying everything he owned.

There are some homeless guys who tell you their stories, and there are some whose stories tell them. This guy was one of the latter. It all came out in a torrent, rising and falling like an arpeggio, with the occasional observation about Christianity, 9-11 and the Veterans Administration offered as asides. He showed me a veteran’s ID card that was obviously fake as well as a beat up credit card with the activation sticker still on it that looked like it had been fished out of the trash. The ID card said Albert, which for all I know was his real name.

He talked about money and I kept waiting for him to ask for it, but it was almost as if he couldn’t stop. He just kept telling his story, adding a detail here, a flourish there. But his eyes pleaded, and it was almost if what he was pleading for was not so much money as for me to break in and given him a brief moment of respite from the power of his disordered imagination.

I pressed some money into his palm. Then I asked him if we could pray together. We held hands and I asked Jesus to watch over Albert, to let him know that he wasn’t alone, to give him peace and health. It seemed to comfort and calm him, if only for a moment. Then we parted. I headed up the escalator and Albert boarded the next train, perhaps to tell his story—or an entirely different story—to someone else.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:59 AM
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Tuesday, April 27, 2004
CATHOLIC IRELAND: An Irish Catholic blog (from the old sod and everything!).

posted by Peter Nixon 5:30 PM
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195 DAYS TO GO: Are we really going to have to sit through six more months of this?

posted by Peter Nixon 5:19 PM
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DEBUNKING DA VINCI: The New York Times notices, although no mention of our friend Amy Welborn's new book.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:23 PM
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THE WRONG DEBATE: Richard Clarke argues the key to victory in "the war on terrorism" is the outcome of an internal struggle within Islam rather than a "clash of civilizations" between East and West. Interesting reading.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:20 PM
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THE MARCHING SEASON: Some interesting discussion of the March for Women’s Lives over at After Abortion, Open Book, and Scandal of Particularity. Lynn at Noli Irritate Leones has some good links. Annie Banno and her colleagues at Silent No More seem to have had a rough time of it at the hands of some particularly vociferous pro-choice demonstrators.

I’ve been to my share of demonstrations—all kinds of demonstrations—where things have gotten ugly. In the summer of 1989—the last time when abortion was as much of a front-burner issue as it is now—it seemed like things were getting ugly all the time in Washington, DC. In addition to the big NOW march in April, there were numerous other smaller demonstrations, as well as regular battles at local abortion clinics between Operational Rescue and the local clinic defenders.

And I was in the middle of all of it, because as longtime readers know I was strongly pro-choice in those days. So I spent a lot of time at demonstrations.

And boy did it get ugly. I remember a surreal moment in front of the Supreme Court where it just degenerated into one side yelling “Baby Killers! Baby Killers!” and the other side shouting “Women Killers! Women Killers!” I have photographs of that demonstration where a pro-life demonstrator (a young man) and a pro-choice demonstrator (an older woman) are just screaming at each other and shaking their fingers in each other’s faces.

I did some things back then I’m not proud off. There was the time at a clinic during a face off with Operation Rescue, I was asked to shadow a guy who was walking around with a sign that read “Hurting After an Abortion? Call xxx-xxxx.” I kept putting my placard up to block his, and we engaged in this absurd little dance for about 30 minutes.

Why did I do this? Well, he was…well…one of them, you know, the bad guys. And I was a good guy. Except he was the one who seemed peaceful and calm and I was the one who was flushed and angry.

At the same demonstration, I ran into an older couple. Among the 20 or so other buttons and stickers I had on, I was wearing a Catholics for a Free Choice sticker. At that time in my life, I was wearing it pretty much for its propaganda value. Or maybe not, given my subsequent direction in life. In any case, the conversation turned round to religion.

“Well, do you go to mass?” said the man, looking at the sticker. He seemed confused more than anything else.

“Uh…well no, actually,” I admitted. “I’ve got some problems with the Church.”

“Oh, that’s very sad,” he said. “Well we’ll pray for you to come back.” His wife nodded.

“Uh…thanks,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

There I was, ready to argue, to go eyeball to eyeball, to match angry word for angry word. And what I got was a “we’ll pray for you.”

I remember feeling ashamed. Not because I suddenly decided at that moment that I was wrong about abortion and this old man was right. But because I wanted to be the kind of guy who prayed for his “enemies” rather than harassing them and trying to prevent them from getting their message across.

I guess what impresses me the most about what Annie and the other folks at Silent No More did was the way they did it. No screaming, no getting in people’s faces. They just stood there silently holding signs that read “I Regret My Abortion” or “I Regret My Lost Fatherhood.” They absorbed a torrent of verbal abuse and did not return it.

I have to wonder whether among the hundreds of thousands of folks walking by SNM last Sunday, there were a few who looked at some of their comrades in struggle hurling insults, and then looked at the small crowd of peaceful, silent witnesses and asked themselves a question: not “who’s right and who’s wrong,” but rather “what kind of person would I rather be?”

posted by Peter Nixon 3:01 PM
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Monday, April 26, 2004
ROLHESIER ON TPOTC: Fr. Ron Rolheiser has some balanced commentary on The Passion of the Christ. After reviewing the film's strengths and weaknesses, he concludes with a good point:

In an age obsessed with celebrity, reality-TV, entertainment as an anesthetic, in an age which has turned with a nasty adolescent grandiosity upon its Christian roots and thinks "The Da Vinci Code" carries theological depth and meaning, perhaps this kind of portrayal of Jesus is a wake-up call. A wake-up call isn't intended to be deep, it's intended to rouse you from sleep.

Tens of millions of people are flocking to see this movie. Whatever else, they're leaving the theater a bit more awake and infinitely more cognizant of what it cost Jesus to die for us.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:15 PM
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GLOBAL SOLIDARITY: Interesting piece in U.S. Catholic about the work of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati's Global Solidarity Initiative. The initiative is trying to raise awareness among area Catholics--including local business leaders--about the impact of economic globalization. Many companies in Cincinnati--including the well-known Chiquita fruit company--have a strong presence in Central America. The Global Solidarity initiative is raising a number of important questions:

What responsibilities do Catholic business executives have to seek the greater good, even when it may be in conflict with achieving financial goals or other corporate objectives? What can individuals do to effect change, to make sure that their own companies are doing what they can to provide for the poor?

Do Catholics have an obligation within their secular vocations to place the church's call for social justice in front of other demands? In a difficult economic environment, how should a company deal with issues such as just wages and workforce reductions? Do Catholic businesspeople actually embrace the tenets of Catholic social teaching and act upon them, or do they either ignore or pay lip service to them and carry on with business as usual?

posted by Peter Nixon 10:11 PM
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ALL OF IT: I accidently left off about half of Fr. Shawn O'Neal's homily yesterday, for which I apologize. Click here to go read the rest of it now.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:03 PM
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BODY AND BLOOD: Catholic News Service provides a summary of 28 "grave matters" that the recent instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship "put at risk the validity and dignity of the most holy Eucharist."

One thing that caught my attention was the moderately negative attitude expressed toward communion under both kinds (i.e. bread and wine). The instruction argues the practice should be avoided in situations where there is such a large number of communicants that is difficult to gauge the amount of wine for the Eucharist and there is a danger that "more than a reasonable quantity" will remain to be consumed after communion. In my experience, large numbers are the rule, but long experience has allowed for fairly accurate estimates of how much wine is needed. Usually, the problem is one of running short rather than having too much.

A related instruction proscribes the widespread practice in the United States of pouring the blood of Christ from one vessel (e.g. a large glass container) to another after the consecration. However, there is no problem with having multiple chalices filled with wine on the altar during the consecration as long as the main chalice is larger than the others.

I have to say that--in terms of something happening that would "be to the detriment of so great a mystery"--I'm a little more nervous about having so many chalices on the altar. The priest's hands are moving around a fair bit during this process: finding pages in the Sacramentary, the epiclesis, raising the bread and the wine during the institution narrative, etc. Lots of chalices creates what one might call a "target rich environment." This may be more of a problem in very large parishes. But I recognize that there are problems the other way too. My gut tells me that with sufficient intentionality, either approach could be done reverently.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:49 PM
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A DAY IN THE LIFE: Fr. Jim Tucker offers his readers "a day in the life" for readers who are interested in what a priest does.

On a humorous note (which I hope that Fr. Jim will take in the spirit it is given), I would observe that--judging from his choices of beverage and food--Fr. Jim has a slightly more refined palate than the rest of us. You can take the boy out of Rome, but you can't take Rome...:-)

On the other hand, given my recent digestive troubles, perhaps I should follow his example!

posted by Peter Nixon 10:29 AM
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TILLMAN: I’ve been thinking a lot about Pat Tillman over the last few days. Tillman was the Arizona Cardinals football player who walked away from a multimillion dollar contract to join the U.S. Army in the wake of September 11th. He was killed in a firefight in Afghanistan last Thursday.

Tillman himself was extraordinarily private about his
reasons for this decision and refused all requests for media interviews. His family is continuing that tradition. Some of his friends who have commented suggested that Tillman was not known among his peers as particularly patriotic. “He just seemed to think that something had to be done,” said his college football coach, who talked to Tillman about his decision.

Pat Tillman’s life stands in judgment of our own. Not because that was the way he wanted it, but because looking at Tillman’s choices forces us to examine the ones that we’ve made. We wonder if we would have been willing to walk away from $3.6 million to put ourselves at risk of death on behalf of others. Even if the money wasn’t involved, we wonder if we would have had the courage to do the “something” that Tillman thought had to be done. Tillman had what our culture prizes above all—fame and fortune—and he walked away from all of it.

It may seem odd to compare a warrior like Tillman to a 13th century pacifist like Saint Francis of Assisi, but there are a few striking similarities. Both were men who gave up careers that would have assured them wealth and comfort to pursue a path that required arduous labor and even danger. Both men seemed to sense that life had a deeper purpose than the pursuit of comfort and security. And because they chose to pursue that deeper purpose, the lives of both men posed a challenge to the times in which they lived.

There have been times throughout its history when Christianity has been a movement that challenged people in the way that Pat Tillman’s life and death challenge us now. But are we still? Have we become so suburbanized that our lives have become indistinguishable from those who do not follow the Crucified One? What are we willing to walk away from? How much are we willing to risk?

posted by Peter Nixon 7:00 AM
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Sunday, April 25, 2004
COMMENTS: I get the impression that a couple of comments people posted in the last few days have mysteriously gone missing. I don't know what's up with Haloscan. In any case, I just wanted people to know you hadn't been banned or anything.

posted by Peter Nixon 7:32 PM
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Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Sunday Homily

Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41
Ps 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13
Rv 5:11-14
Jn 21:1-19

This is a wonderful day for all of you, for your families, and for this parish. I thank God that I am able to offer you the Eucharist for the first time during this Mass. Also, I thank God that I will be able to baptize one of you in a few minutes. All of this is truly an honor for me to celebrate with you, I must say.

Sometimes I am asked whether we can read happy readings now and then, especially during a First Communion Mass or a Mass within which we celebrate a baptism. Some of the people could be wondering why we have used a Gospel reading with a scary ending. I mean, could we not use a cute, nice, and happy reading on a day such as today that does not talk about either being told to go where someone did not want to go or signifying death? We could do that, but what is talked about within the Gospel is a part of history. You see, Peter was crucified, too. He was killed almost in the same manner as Jesus was. He was killed in the city of Rome – the city that is now the capital of Italy. Peter did not believe he was worthy enough to die in the same manner as Our Lord; therefore, he asked to be crucified upside down. His killers agreed to his request.

Now, if I end there, I end the story too soon. You see, the people who killed Peter did that because they did not like that he believed Jesus was the Son of God. They thought that Peter and other Christians were trouble. That was not a correct thought then and it should not be a correct thought now, but the Roman emperor and his friends thought that Christians were trouble; therefore, they had to be killed. It is as if they thought that by killing all the Christians they could find, people would not hear about Jesus anymore and there would be less trouble. Their thoughts were wrong. Even as Christians were sent to die, more people came to believe that Jesus is the Lord. Why? The power of the Holy Spirit helped them to believe what they refused to believe in the past. These Christians believed – and we believe the same thing – that as long as we seek to be united in Jesus, we can never die. The bodies we have here on earth are going to die one day whether we like it or not, but as long as we seek to be united with Jesus, our souls are never going to die.

I must admit that people have asked me what a soul looks like and how we can tell that this has happened. I do not know what a soul looks like and no person from heaven has stopped me and told me how it all works, but I believe in my heart that all of this is going to happen.

We can be united with Jesus by praying to Him and with Him. We can ask for His help. We can also pray as He taught us to pray. For example, He told us how to pray the “Our Father”. We didn’t make up that prayer; Jesus taught the first believers how to pray that prayer and Christians throughout the years have taught other Christians how to pray that prayer.

We can be united with Jesus by acting as He has told us to act. Do you know anyone who has a "What Would Jesus Do?" item? Those things can help us think about what we should do, but if we truly want to know what Jesus did and what He told us to do, then we need to read the Bible and pay attention to our parents, our teachers, and the priests. We are here to help teach you what Jesus did so you can do every day what Jesus did.

You can also be united with Jesus through the Sacraments of the Church. “Sacrament” means “mystery”; we do not know how they work, but we believe that, for example, through Baptism, through going to Confession and doing Penance, and through being confirmed, we grow closer to God and we become united with God in a way that we believe is so beautiful that it is beyond words. The greatest example of this union is by receiving the Eucharist. We call it “Eucharist” because that word comes from the Greek verb for “to give thanks”. When we receive the Eucharist, we should be thankful. We do not deserve something so great – and what I mean in saying that is that the best thing we ever do does not mean that we automatically deserve the Eucharist. When we get all the answers correct on a test, we deserve to get an “A” on the test. The Eucharist does not work in the same way. It is always a gift. When Jesus gave of Himself in the Eucharist to the men at the Last Supper, He did not tell them, “I am giving you this because you deserve it”; Jesus told them, “I am giving you this because I love you and I want you to never forget how much I love you. I want you to be with me so much that I am giving you myself to eat and drink so that I can be in you and you can be in me.” It was difficult for people who lived many years ago to understand and it continues to be something difficult to understand, but whether you understand it or not, bread and wine change into the Body and Blood of Christ. We might not understand it, but that does not mean that we should not say “Thank you.”

When I say, “The Body of Christ”, you respond with “Amen” as a way of showing that we believe together. Do not say “Amen” first before a priest or another minister of the Eucharist says “The Body of Christ”; as we say “Please” before we say “Thank you”, so we say “Amen” after someone says “The Body of Christ”. Also, you do not have to say “Amen” so that all the people can hear it; you can say it softly and that does the job.

One last thing about what Jesus told Peter at the end of the Gospel reading: moments will come in the lives of all people when we must be led to go where we do not want to go. That is part of life. But before anyone becomes sad because of that, remember that Jesus told the first people who followed Him that He would always be with them. Those words remain true today. God is with us and He wants us always to be with Him. Moments will come when we believe the only thing we can do is cry, but Jesus wants us to be with Him because He wants to share His happiness with all people forever. No matter how a story might end from what we hear at Mass, the ending is always meant to be happy because God wants it to be that way.

Fr. Shawn O'Neal is the Pastoral Administrator at Saint Joseph's Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Bryson City, NC and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Cherokee, NC.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:54 PM
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