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The Conversation: We Formed a Beautiful CommunityThe Conversation: We Formed a Beautiful Community

The Conversation: We Formed a Beautiful Community

Ten years ago, in July 2002, World Youth Day national director Father Tom Rosica and his young staff welcomed the world to Toronto. The guest of honour was no less than Pope John Paul II, who presided over what would be the last World Youth Day of his lifetime. For six days, an estimated 850,000 young Christians from all over the globe sang, prayed and celebrated their faith in public.

23 minute read
The Conversation: We Formed a Beautiful Community July 1, 2012  |  By Thomas Rosica
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Convivium: One of the things that I'm curious about, going back even before World Youth Day, is how you got tapped as the national director for World Youth Day in Toronto. Did someone just call you one day and say "This is what you're going to be doing for the next several years?"

Father Tom Rosica: Well, anybody in their right mind would not apply for this. In fact, a couple of months ago, I was at a public function, and a lady asked me, "When you were a little boy did you ever dream that when you grew up you would lead a World Youth Day?" And I said, "No ma'am, that would be a " [Laughs.] I was minding my business as chaplain of the University of Toronto, head of the Newman Centre, teaching scripture, and in December of 1998 it was recommended to me by a group of bishops to let my name stand as one of the candidates for World Youth Day. Then Archbishop Anthony Meagher [former auxiliary bishop of Toronto and then Archbishop of Kingston] asked me, "What qualities do you think this person should have?" So I said, "Well, nerves of steel to start. And the poor guy should be a man of great faith and good health. I'll pray for that poor guy." [Laughs.] So he said, "Well, we'll put your name in." 

It was in December, the week before Christmas 1998. I didn't hear anything until the week before Holy Week 1999, when I was called by the Conference of Bishops in Ottawa and they said, "Your name is on the short list. Can you come for an interview on Easter Tuesday?" I took the train to Ottawa. I was the last person to be interviewed. There was a team of bishops around the table, English and French. I went through the interview and I remember distinctly two questions. One of them was, "What do you hope this event to be?" The second one was, "What are your limitations for this?" I said: "I hope that this would be an incredible retreat for the whole country, that it really be an opportunity to deepen our faith, renew our commitment and rediscover who we are as a Christian nation." 

Second, I said, "If you want somebody to do a one-night event, a big splash, you have to get somebody else." And the last thing I said at that meeting was that it's gotta be by young people and for young people. It can't be put on for them by well-meaning adults. When we finished the interview about 6:30, the General Secretary walked me downstairs. I got in a taxi to go back to the train station, and he said to me, "That was very well done, and you'll hear from us." Thursday of that week, I got the phone call saying, "It's yours if you want it."

C: So it was kind of "hurry up and wait?" Put your name in, then wait, and then suddenly it's done.

Ftr: They wanted me to move to Ottawa and open up an office. And I said, no, no, no. First—this was in 1999—we can't do anything until this is announced at the World Youth Day in Rome in 2000, because that's when the Pope announces the next event. Second, it would make no sense to have an office in Ottawa if the event is going to be [in Toronto], unless I fly back to Toronto every day. [Laughs.]

So for the first year, from June 1999 until June 2000, I worked very quietly in establishing government relations. Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger of France was my mentor through the whole process. He headed the World Youth Day in Paris; he was a very dear friend who took me by the hand and walked me through all the steps. One of the things he told me was to make sure to establish solid government relations at all the different levels. So I spent that year doing that. We had an excellent rapport with Mayor [Mel] Lastman, then with Premier Mike Harris. He was very good to deal with. And also with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his wife, Aline. We laid the foundation for all of that. From January 2000 onward, I started going to meetings in Rome because they were in the throes of planning their big World Youth Day, the Jubilee event, and we followed that very closely from the inside.

C: You had some sense of what you might expect?

Ftr: Oh, yes, especially from Paris. Paris and Denver, because the other thing I did that year was deal with the whole infrastructure in Denver, with the people who were still in place, because it was there in '93. I remember dealing with the mayor of Denver, all the secular people, the municipal people, dealing with the U.S. Conference of Bishops. I went to Washington to go through all the files to learn what happened in Denver, and then Paris. And one of the unique things we did—and this kind of started with our World Youth Day—was to convince the team in Rome, as well as the Council for theLaity, that we have a team shadow the World Youth Day in Rome. So in July of 2000, I moved to Rome with 10 of my staff, and we followed the final preparations. We were there maybe six weeks. It was a really good experience because we learned everything we would never want to do.

C: Did it still catch you by surprise?

Ftr: We knew from watching the World Youth Day in Rome that ours would never be of that magnitude. The one in Rome was on the scale of the Great Jubilee. It was incredibly huge and very complicated. I was kind of glad that I knew ours would be scaled down. There was one moment in particular—we were at the opening ceremony of World Youth Day 2000 on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, and I was with Mayor Lastman. At one point, when the Mayor was watching the scene of the Pope coming down the Via Conciliazione with 500,000-plus people present, Mel said, "Tom, we've got to build something like this! How can we do this in Toronto?" I said, "Mel, we don't have to do this." He said, "Well we need something with those big arms, the colonnade." I said, "We've got Toronto City Hall. It kind of looks like that."

C: Yes, I guess Toronto City Hall looks like St. Peter's. To a Torontonian anyway. "We've got to build something like this." That's very funny.

Ftr: Aside from all the bravado and Mel's unique personality, he was absolutely outstanding to deal with. We became very good friends through the process. He was genuinely invested in the project, and I thank God that it was him and not the subsequent mayors.

C: Was it because he's a person of faith himself or was it because he saw the benefits for the city of Toronto? Or was it a combination?

Ftr: He is a good Jew and a man of passion. He was the best cheerleader. Toronto had just lost the Olympic bid, so this was viewed as something else. He believed in the goodness of it, and he loved Pope John Paul II. I had the privilege of introducing him three times, I think, to the Pope, and it was quite a moving thing. The other helpful one from the city was [then Toronto Police Chief] Julian Fantino.

C: In the aftermath of World Youth Day, you said that the most powerful image for you was that of the Holy Father coming down the steps of the plane on his own. Is that still the image that endures for you?

Ftr: Certainly that's the enduring and endearing image for me. I asked the Pope three months later why he did that. He wasn't supposed to; everything was planned for him to come down a lift. We were sitting at the table at lunch in Rome. He invited us to lunch, and I asked him that. He looked over and said, "When I saw everything that you went through to prepare this, I wanted you to know that I was with you."

C: And being with you means being physically present...

Ftr: The powerful image that sent. You know, it sent shock waves through the world, that image. When he died, it was played all over the world. It was the last time he walked. Afterwards, when he got to Mexico and Guatemala, he was on the lift. He was in real bad shape. To see him... I still have the image of him coming down the steps. The second image for me was the Stations of the Cross. That's the imprint on the city. When you talk about an imprint, people still speak about that.

C: How many people would have been involved in that?

Ftr: Well, on the streets, the police told us there were between 550,000 and 600,000. And the CBC told me afterwards that it was a television audience of over one billion people in 160 countries that took the feed that night. I remember someone from the CBC telling me just before we started: "Pray to God that there's no catastrophe in the world tonight because all of our equipment is here." It was the biggest production they've ever done.

C: If not as complex as Rome, it still must have been logistically complicated. But I don't think we actually grasp the sheer scale of it. It's right up there with the Calgary and Vancouver Olympics.

Ftr: The only difference is that the Olympics is primarily for a television audience; they have tons of money, and it's for the elite. Ours was for a television audience; but it was done with no money, and it was for everybody.

C: Do you actually remember individual events or a sequence of events, or does it all just kind of blur together as one mad rush to get problems sorted out?

Ftr: I remember the incredible events. Wherever I walk now, if I happen to walk down University Avenue, if I have to go to work, I remember very distinctly which station was here, which grouping of people was there, what happened in this particular place. The beautiful thing was that we had done our work, and I prayed very hard that once the event started, I would go through it and try to benefit from it as much as humanly possible. Now, granted, there were difficulties and some challenges during the week, but for the most part... The night of the Stations of the Cross, particularly, I walked up the street behind the [lead actors and procession]. 

Julian Fantino was walking behind me, and I had remote controls and [other things]. I said, "Julian, please, just carry the stuff tonight, just so I can go through this." And he carried it. There was one incident [where] I had to respond right away. And I said, "Just handle it." But I went through it. Earlier that day [Friday], I took the 14 young people from around the world for lunch with the Pope at Strawberry Island. I didn't answer any calls on the way up or down. We prepared together for our special encounter at the Island.

C: You just savoured what I guess you knew would be a moment for the rest of your life?

Ftr: On the Saturday night at the vigil, I was standing on the side of the altar just looking out over the crowd. I was standing next to the chiefs of police and the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, and he just put his arm around me and said, "Look at this." It was a very beautiful moment. I remember particularly when they were singing the Magnificat and John Michael Talbot was leading it. It was really quite remarkable.

C: Certainly a lifetime of movement of the heart and memory. Someone who was, say, 18 at the time, who is now 28 years old, is probably through university, maybe at the tail end of a PhD, maybe starting a family. I was thinking about how those people would have carried that with them, from the edge of adolescence, the last, late days of childhood, through the formative years of adulthood, and how that week, those days would have changed their perception of life over the last 10 years.

Ftr: In the years after the event, I received over 6,000 messages, letters to me, from people who were touched by the event. Many messages and letters from people who made life-changing decisions, life-altering decisions, because of the event. Now I can narrow that. For example, we had 405 people on staff, at the peak of the staff. About 295 were young adults. They came from 40 countries of the world and 38 cities in Canada. So together, we formed a beautiful community. We were spread out through three or four buildings, and we had Mass every day. That was really the centrepiece. We had retreats several times for the whole staff. But the young adults who were part of the staff, many of them have remained very close. Of that group, I've celebrated about 15 weddings and there have been ordinations to the priesthood.

In consecrated life, there have been several women who [joined] religious orders. Then you break it down into the portageurs, the young people who carried the Cross from Montreal to Toronto, they've remained in an email loop for the past 10 years. I'm in their loop; I get all their stuff. The international liturgy group, created especially for Toronto's World Youth Day is still in an email loop, and I receive all of their news several times each month. We had young people from 70 countries who came two weeks in advance, and they were the people who were featured in the ceremonies. Out of that group, there have been many ordinations and women who went into religious life. They have a little thing: every month, on the 28th, we send something out to one another, because that was the closing day of World Youth Day. And that's gone on for 10 years. So there are bonds that formed. That's all the back-end of it that people don't see.

C: Lives that have shifted from a course that might otherwise have been followed...

Ftr: Some of my senior people on staff who had been with me at the Newman Centre, who then joined our World Youth Day staff, went on to do lay missionary work for two or three years. They went to Africa, different countries, did some really heroic things.

C: You had a wonderful phrase at the time: World Youth Day is a time-release capsule...

Ftr: ... is a timed-release capsule...

C: It doesn't just sort of go "poof" and magic happens and all things change. It's a very slow release. What you've described at the personal level is a profound transformation, but in the life of the Church, have you seen what you thought you were going to see? Has it moved faster? Slower? Not at all?

Ftr: It moved. It did move. In Canada, I think there was some expectation on the part of people that there would be instant change or transformation. I kept reminding people, hey, this takes time. If the seeds were sown well, in terms of vocations, in terms of marriage, in terms of commitment, it will bear fruit in time. So I was not let down whatsoever. In fact, it surpassed what I expected. I knew there would be transformations and changes, and I've been very moved when I hear the stories. 

Wherever I go in Canada now, people stop me. A month ago, I gave the address at the [Catholic Women's League] convention in London, Ont. In a conference centre ballroom full of women. I gave my talk on media, and a woman stood at the end and said, ' I never had the chance to meet you and thank you.' And then she started crying at the microphone and said, "I want to thank you for what you did for my kids, what you did for me." She said, "You revived me." It was really so very, very moving. Ten years later.

C: So you still encounter that timed-release capsule?

Ftr: It's not the panacea, nor is it the quick solution. But it's probably the most powerful instrument the Church has in terms of reaching young people.

C: You also said at that time, "We're just beginning to scratch the surface of our Youth Ministry." Have we gotten down below the surface yet?

Ftr: Oh, no, we have a long way to go yet. A long, long way to go. Because if we're serious about the investment we made, it requires a lot of follow-up. Some dioceses really did a superb job; I would even go so far as to name them publicly. But certainly Vancouver is a light. It's a beacon in terms of preparation for the World Youth Day—its participation in it and building on it. It's truly outstanding. Just look at the results last summer in Madrid. The delegations from Edmonton, Vancouver and Ottawa were outstanding. Montreal, believe it or not, is absolutely superb in terms of its outreach with Youth Ministry. Isabelle Correa, who I hold in great esteem, was on our World Youth Day team. In preparation for the World Youth Day and on the day itself, the Province of Quebec let us down. However with new Episcopal and lay pastoral leadership following World Youth Day, several Quebec dioceses have begun to build on the solid foundation that was laid for Toronto 2002.

C: In what way?

Ftr: Cardinal Marc Ouellet told me many times that had it not been for the World Youth Day, he could not have had the Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City in 2008. So the World Youth Day surfaced incredible young leaders in Quebec City and in Montreal in the years afterwards. So it served its purpose to stir things up.

C: So there's hope even for Quebec? [Laughs.]

Ftr: Oh, yes.

C: I was in Vancouver in February for the annual Catholic educators' conference, and then there was a follow-up one-day conference that Archbishop Michael Miller led. They were absolutely on fire.

Ftr: It's amazing what Michael Miller is doing. It's a wonderful thing. He's the right person. He came along to reap the harvest. [Archbishop of Edmonton] Richard Smith has come along to reap the harvest. Archbishop Lacroix in Quebec City is a great leader. Cardinal Collins served as one of the four bishops who oversaw World Youth Day 2002 in Canada. At the time, he was Archbishop of Edmonton. He appointed a wonderful man to head Youth Ministry Edmonton, Andrew Pappenbrock. Andrew, who is still in office, represents what youth ministers are all about: mature, wise, committed to the Church, collaborative and focused on the big picture and not small, one-time events and projects.

C: Can you explain how Salt + Light came out of World Youth Day?

Ftr: Nobody went looking for it. Nobody in their right mind would try to start something like this. And it was in the months right afterwards, in November, right after World Youth Day, I was called to a meeting by the Gagliano family in Toronto and I thought it was for an unpaid bill or something. [Laughs.] They had done some printing and were one of our sponsors. It was a very formal meeting in a boardroom, and Mr. Gagliano Sr., who's 95 now, holds up this piece of paper and says, "We have a licence here from the CRTC. We tried to do this with the Church several times and they weren't interested, so I went ahead and did it."

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So I'm looking at him and I said, "What's this got to do with me?" And he said, 'We saw what you did on television with the World Youth Day and we saw you speak, and we want you to take this and run with it.' And I remember thinking, "This is impossible. You know, I want to go rest now." So I went to Rome with Cardinal Ambrozic to give the reports to the Council for the Laity, and the Pope invited us to lunch. And then the topic arose. It was kind of in jest. I had spoken to the Pope's secretary, he was sitting next to me at lunch, and he said, "What have they asked you to do?" And I said, "Well... they want me to start a television network." So he looked at me and smiled. And as we were leaving the dining room, the Pope asked me, "So what have they asked you to do?"

I wasn't going to tell him, but the secretary said, "Tell the Holy Father!" So I told him, "Well, in fact, these people want me to start a Catholic television network in Canada." And he took me by the sleeve and he said: "Televisione cattolica"—you know, in a deep voice—"you take the television and start it. You're on a mission." It continued with Cardinal Sodano, who was Secretary of State, and then with Father Lombardi and Joaquín Navarro-Valls [the Pope's spokesperson]. I asked, "Is this an option for Canada? Because it seems to be." And they said, "If you accept this, you'll have the full co-operation of the Holy See."

C: That's worth something. [Laughs.]

Ftr: It certainly is. But it all began like that. In the beginning, the Gaglianos, along with two business partners, had hoped that the network would be a multicultural religious project but, you know, with a Catholic flavour. It was for profit and they had given it a name: Inner Peace. So when I came back, I said, 'Look, if you want me to do this, it's gotta be not-for-profit, and I'll only work for one owner.' My superiors, in the meantime, had given me permission to pursue it, but encouraged me to ask the questions. So the Gaglianos paid out the other two partners and bought the network. In 2002, Christmas Eve in the morning, they called me and said, 'It's yours.' For a month or two, I thought about [the name], and I was on a plane one day and I thought, wait a minute, you need four letters for the acronym, so why not call it Salt and Light Television? That was the theme of the World Youth Day. 'You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.' The Pope gave us that as a theme. So, SALT, Sel et Lumière Télévision, Sal e Luce Televisione.... It works in the three languages. We proposed it to the CRTC and it was accepted immediately.

C: Had you ever run a television station before?

Ftr: I went to the Biblical Institute in Rome and the école Biblique in Jerusalem! You don't learn to run a television station at the Biblical Institute. Those are graduate schools for Sacred Scripture. I mean, I'd done stuff on TV. When I was at the Newman Centre, my first foray into television was when Mother Teresa died. We were having a big garage sale on the front lawn. It was in September. Somebody ran out and said, "Hana Gartner wants to speak to you." I said, "For what?" "She wants to know your comments on Mother Teresa."

And I went in and found out from Hana Gartner that Mother Teresa had died. She said, "We're sending over the trucks because we want to film The National from your place tonight." So here we are on the lawn and all this mess and everything else, and The National shows up. From that, I was asked to do the commentary on Mother Teresa's funeral. Well, apparently, it took off and, you know, people commented. 

So I was asked occasionally to go on television in those years, and then for World Youth Day itself, there was a huge amount of television work. We had huge challenges. We were going along fine with the preparations and then September 11 happened. And that was unbelievable. So I said, "Lord, you've got to be with us in all of this." Then January 2002... the sex abuse scandals in the United States. The declining health of the Pope from February onwards... It was constant. I got to know and became friends with a lot of television people. But in terms of producing shows and technical stuff, I didn't know anything about that.

Ftr: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I've learned a lot, and in fact, I still... one of the bright young technology wizards on staff told me last week—we were at a staff meeting and he raised his hand and said, "You know, Father, it's amazing how much you can do knowing so little about technology." [Laughs.] And everybody started laughing. He said, "No, no, I didn't mean to be disrespectful." [Laughs.]

C: It's true, though, isn't it? You actually get better quality journalism when you keep things tight and keep everyone working together.

Ftr: The key is to surround yourself with those who are extremely competent—more competent than you—and entrust them with the project. And it's all young people working here. So you talk about the World Youth Day spirit living on—it really is here. We carry the torch forward. Sometimes I wonder, had we not been around, what would have happened to the memory of the World Youth Day in Canada.

C: Is it worthwhile, 10 years out, for the Church to continue to invest in World Youth Days? Are they the future? Are they where we need to put not just our dollars but our hope?

Ftr: Well now, there's a whole separate question. I addressed this question at the Vatican this spring. There was a big conference on World Youth Days. And there's a lot of concern right now over the World Youth Day in Rio. Is it the best venue? The cost and everything else? What's happened in the past 10 years is the World Youth Days risk losing the dimension that they're supposed to have, which is a one-on-one thing. It's about numbers right now. And I think that's what we have to be very careful of. So I raised these points at this public event at the Vatican. It is worth the investment, provided there's excellent preparation and follow-up. It can't just be done for huge splashes.

C: Do you think that because it bears such an imprint of Pope John Paul II's personality, that as history plays out and as he becomes part of memory and history rather than reality, the motivation, the impulse behind it, the benefits from it, will fade?

Ftr: No, no. What's going to happen is that pastors, bishops and the people at the Vatican have to be very aware of the challenges surrounding it, and to constantly purify it and call it back to what it's meant to be. That's the key. Because there really hasn't been an evaluation for the past 27 years of these events, and so what I'm calling for is that and also for an international advisory group.

C: I'm thinking about our venture in starting Convivium. A propos of your young staffer's comment that small is better... if small isn't better, it's all we've got. [Laughs.] So we're plowing ahead with it. But as you know, our driving idea is the fostering of faith in common life. And I'm wondering, do you think that we do have more faith in common life in Canada in the wake of World Youth Day than we had before it came to Toronto? Or have we kind of skated in the other direction and, despite it, lost some of the faith in common life that we might have had?

Ftr: No, there's certainly been a change. I mean, people are aware that at one moment in history—10 years is not a long time—something extraordinary happened that marked the lives of people. What we need to do is provide forums for these young people to come forward and not be afraid. One of the ways they've done that is through Salt + Light Television. I earmarked as one of the hot points of World Youth Day that we would revivify university chaplaincies. In the United States, they put a heavy emphasis on youth ministry and have gained much as a result. They revived youth ministry. Our event was geared toward university chaplaincies, and things have changed in that regard. But what we need is a constant follow-up on the part of the bishops, on the national level, on the regional level, to draw forth, to call forth, young people, to make sure that the priorities are given to the youth ministry. And that's been hit-and-miss.

C: Why would that be? Why wouldn't there be recognition when 500,000 people were in the streets of Toronto for the Stations of the Cross? Why would there not be an understanding that this is where—as the cliché goes—the future lies? This is the salt and the light.

Ftr: Everything depends on follow-up and priorities. Bishops who have made this a distinct priority, they have followed through. For others that haven't, you just go from one thing to the next. And it all depends on the individuals. And I know them all, and I know which ones have made this a priority. And not only where we invest financially but in terms of time, we will reap the harvest.

C: In terms of the university ministries, has there been a revitalization there? Do we see a renewed spirit on campus?

Ftr: I would hope, for different campus ministries across the country, it did make a difference. See, the goal was to call forth leaders at the World Youth Day, to let people come forward and not be afraid. So I know that for several years we called forth leaders, and many of the key people who were involved in ministry and youth ministry and chaplaincy, and even speaking for the diocese, were the young people.

At the death of Pope John Paul II, I was very involved with the CBC. I remember the afternoon he died, I had been telling the CBC, "Add young people to your Rolodexes to contact. Don't just call your standard negative people, not just your usual point-counterpoint debaters." The power in the media establishment is in the Rolodexes and the contacts. So I'd been giving them names, and I called young people because we had all these young people we trained as spokespersons for the World Youth Day. If you look at some of the press releases and articles—there are thousands of articles and news clippings—it was young people who were speaking. In our office alone, we were functioning in 14 languages.

The day the Pope died, I was on the CBC set when we announced his death. It was a very moving thing. I asked to be unplugged to go put my head down because it was a moving thing to watch all of this and announce it. I went out into the main newsroom and everybody stood up. There were about 200 people working; everybody stood up. They started coming over one by one and offering condolences. It was quite touching. And a guy pointed up to all the monitors above on the wall, and it just so happened that the CBC had cameras across the country: in front of the cathedral in Vancouver, in Edmonton and in Calgary. And all the people who had been speaking were the young people who were on our team. And one of the CBC people who knew what I did said to me, "Look, that's what all this was about." It was about forming them. The young man who was the director of communications for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops was on our staff for World Youth Day. So it's right across the country.

C: What about in terms of moving the broader culture, though, the non-Catholic culture? Do you think these events, and particularly the World Youth Day 10 years ago, moved the broader culture or is it just sort of headed pell-mell wherever it's going and all we can do is...

Ftr: No, it moved people during the event and afterwards. Many of the people who wrote to us had nothing to do with the Church. There were some very, very beautiful testimonies from the [Toronto transit] workers, bus drivers, the public: "World Youth Day comes to transform a city. It doesn't come just to shake up the Church." One of the comments that was so frequent was that we had no crime, I've never seen so much joy, what's all this joy about? The first fax we received... after the opening ceremony at the airport—the welcoming ceremony—my secretary called and said, "There's a fax here from the head of the Islamic Federation." It's a very beautiful thing. I have it in a file. It starts off by saying: "Blessed Be God of Mercy, We praise God for the God of Peace, and we praise God for the figure of John Paul II, who is a man of peace. We hope someday that if we do something like this with our young people, you will help us." And then we had Jewish community leaders supporting us big time. We met with the head of the Canadian Council of Churches afterwards because we put a big emphasis on dealing with ecumenical leaders. She came with three representatives. We met in my office and they said, "We envy very much that you have a magisterium." And I said, "What do you mean?" Because you don't usually hear that. And she said, "It took an old man in white to come and bring the world together, and everybody listened."


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