A VEYM Youth Leader’s Reflection

On Saturday September 19, 2020, I along with several colleagues from the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement (VEYM) St. Thomas Thiện Chapter in Toronto were sworn in as official youth leaders. This was a milestone as it was ultimately, a culmination of nearly 12 years of formation and journeying with the movement since the local chapter opened in 2008. The Saturday evening Mass not only saw the installation of 10 youth leaders (six for level-1, and four for level-2), but also a celebration of the VEYM chapter’s patron, St. Thomas Thiện. It was a small Mass with social distancing measures strictly observed but nevertheless, it was beautiful and reverent. I posted this reflection on my Facebook status a couple hours after the Mass as a testament to my journey with VEYM. I share it here so if others have been in similar shoes will know that you are not alone – keep your head high! Please note, there are some terms in Vietnamese which I have put in [square brackets] to facilitate easier understanding.

I am starting to write this reflection exactly a month before today. In all honesty, I did not think that I was ever able to reach this day.

The reason behind this is something I rarely speak about publicly, especially on this public Facebook page.

But let me go back a bit so you can understand where I’m coming from. Growing up in Vietnamese-Catholic culture, parents only want the best for their children physically, academically and spiritually. For that I am grateful. As a result, some are very active in the church, taking on many hats within a liturgical year as altar server, choir member, orchestra member, Dâng Hoa member, Thiếu Nhi Thánh Thể (TNTT – Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement), Youth and Young Adults Ministries group (YaYA) and other ministries. Priests and bishops who have come to Vietnamese Martyrs Parish are always amazed at the presence of youth in the parish.

Things around 2015-2017 just became too much for me and from what I understand, several other of my peers my age as well. That period of trial was not only a result of what came up during those three years but it was more so a culmination of no so great experiences in parish ministry. On a bigger picture youth at the parish were pulled into too many directions and tensions among ministries resulted in lack of unity, lack of dialogue and priorities were not properly set among youth.

I have said to many that the lack of unity, dialogue and organization really do not hurt the core-team leaders that run ministries. Those who suffer the most are the youth. There were many youth ministries in the parish (don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about that) but lack of communication among ministries. Core-team leaders never once met face-to-face to discuss their events with others, each ministry set up their own calendar. There seemed to be no time made for spiritual refreshment for youth in the parish as there was no such effort to find a date of Spiritual Recollection during Advent and/or Lent or anytime during the year. When attempts were made, ministries quietly refused, citing busy schedules to practice for this and that event or people just found no value in such retreats.

The lack of spiritual refreshment really took a toll on me as slowly, I find little value in my work particularly in 2015-2017. Everything was done for the sake of it with little to no meaning at all. I kept those thoughts quietly for myself as I feared judgement from others. I feared others would look to me as a bad example if I said such things and left.

However, through all this, God never abandoned me. I know I’ve spoken highly about Thầy Tuấn at our parish and I was blessed to have him as my Vietnamese school teacher and Catechist for the 2016-2017 academic year. Having actively taken part in the life of our parish in various aspects inside and outside. He understood the difficulties that our parish youth faith. Thầy Tuấn saw things different than most Vietnamese Catholic parents do. Something he said once in class stuck with me even to today and I wish to say it first in Vietnamese, then with English translation. “Khi mình làm bất cứ công việc gì, dù là trong Giáo xứ hay là ở ngoài đời, mình phải luôn luôn biết mục đích của việc mình đang làm. Nếu mình không biết mục đích của công việc làm gì thì lập tức, hãy ngưng công việc đó và xác định lại cái mục đích của mình.” (Whenever you do anything whether it be within the parish or in the secular world, you always need to know the objective of the work you are doing. If you cannot yet determine the objective, then stop that work and redetermine your goals and objectives.” It was like an “Examination of Conscience” for me – did I really lose the objective of what I was doing at the parish?

I really took Thầy’s words to heart and pondered upon it. For me, TNTT and YaYA were starting to look like similar youth groups. Choir became unmotivating because there was lack of leadership… in general, I found youth ministry was becoming more of a burden than a joy like it was years ago. Parish leadership in general, I recognized, was no longer geared towards young people like myself.

However, I thought to myself one day that if we truly wanted to find joy in parish youth ministry, there needed to be change things. I recognized that I could not do it myself and that we needed a group that would spear head changes. It seemed though, many young people in the parish were experiencing the same thing as me. I spoke to Thầy Tuấn about this casually and he recognized the same about the youth at the parish. It was about early 2017 and it was then that thoughts of a Parish Youth Pastoral Plan were born.

I remember going to Steubenville Toronto in July 2017. Having gone the previous year, I really had different expectations. Rather than being isolated to our parish group, I remember interacting with different people. There was something within the other youth groups that the Vietnamese Youth Ministries did not yet have. I think it was the joy and passion for their faith and really understanding the purpose of what and why of what they do.

Having had such a positive from Steubenville Toronto, I began writing the Youth Pastoral Plan… okay not everything… just the introduction to it. However, like any project I began, that slowly died down and buried among other Google Docs.

While I had plans to quietly leave TNTT at the end of Nghĩa Sĩ, I decided not to after Steubenville Toronto. I understood there was a Tĩnh Huấn Hiệp Sĩ [a retreat] coming up in October during Thanksgiving and I thought, “This is the last straw – if this is anything like the standard Vietnamese-Catholic retreats, my journey with TNTT is coming to an end.” I did not know what to expect from Tĩnh Huấn weekend – it was something unfamiliar to me. However, I let God take over the boat and indeed he did. I have to sincerely say, I felt a change in the way I saw and understood TNTT after that weekend. It was like a repeat of Steubenville Toronto, but on a much smaller, intimate level. However, what resonated with me the most was Adoration. Being at the far back, behind everyone and help leading some of the prayers and songs was something beautiful because rather than worrying about logistics, I immersed myself into the prayers and songs. “Open the eyes of my heart Lord, open the eyes of my heart. I want  to see you. I want to see you.” I prayed that sincerely.

After the Tĩnh Huấn weekend, I felt pumped. As Hiệp Sĩ, we were not only learning about the faith, but starting to serve others. Some images from my time there were the Halloween Party, the Hội Chợ Tết booth both at church and Viet school. All fun times. The time after New Year’s 2018 was fairly interesting and I would say turbulent times. Thầy Tuấn, a figure who was well loved by so many parish youth and a mentor for myself and others was battling cancer. The Youth Pastoral Plan slowly faded as if something in the past but came to mind as I talked with Thầy for the last time. I promised Thầy that the Pastoral Plan was going to be completed to carry on the torch of those who truly believed in the youth and those who believed that through dialogue and unity, Catholic youth can do great things.

Just weeks after TNTT Summer Camp of 2018, I started picking up on the Pastoral Plan again, this time with more motivation and direction. It was precisely at this point that I really began to find a deeper sense of purpose of TNTT and the many youth ministries in our parish. TNTT is a movement that has a different spirituality, teaching methods, and different mission thats other groups like YaYA or LifeTeen in other parishes. I slowly began to understand that there was something special in each group and that just like there are so many different religious orders in the world, there could be different youth groups. It was then that I committed myself to continue with youth parish ministry. I had finally found a better sense of direction of where things were going in our parish.

I was pumped for the upcoming academic year as I was in grade 12 and excited to come back to ministry as I had a “compass” on hand. In December, there was a job posting for a posting as assistant Sacristan at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica and a number of people advised me about it. The only concern I had was that the job description required Saturdays and Sundays. I was hesitant at first but applied anyways. I got a call back in early January saying that I was accepted for the job but asked for time to think about it. I was aware of what I had to give up when accepting the job, but weighed against the learning opportunities and experiences I would get… it was a tough decision. After some time of prayer and coincidentally, Cha’s announcement about my job offer in the presence of some youth ministry leaders, I felt at peace making the decision to go take the job at the Cathedral and up to now, I have to say I have learned a lot of new things that supplements my liturgical experience at my home parish.

From February to mid-October 2019, I sort of took a leave from regular TNTT activities because of the new job. Yet, TNTT was still on my heart. I did take weekends off for the Summer Camp, Đại Hội Nghĩa Hiệp and also, Huấn Luyện Huynh Trưởng cấp 1 [Youth Leader training, level 1] Giudea XIII. After cấp 1 camp, I seriously thought about how I would continue actively with TNTT. It was then that I thought of the newly opened Đoàn Emmanuel. I decided to start my time with them the Thanksgiving Sunday (mid-October) and what I have received from them was warm hospitality and felt at home.

Liên Đoàn Kateri Tekakwitha [League of Chapters] was shortly formed after I attended cấp 1 training and positions were open for a variety of roles on the Executive Committee. Though no proper qualifications yet, I took on the role of Uỷ Viên Phụng Vụ [Liturgical Commissioner] as I found liturgical planning and liturgy in general to be my forte.

Now on to more recent stories – there were many plans over the past months. I was supposed to Tuyên Hứa Huynh Trưởng some time in April after Easter. Like almost everything else in the world, that was postponed. However, I have to say, the pandemic has truly been a time of discernment and a time of grace for me. I had no work at the Cathedral as churches throughout the Archdiocese of Toronto were closed for three months. However, I was able to use that time to help with online sinh hoạt on Zoom with both Tôma Thiện and Emmanuel. Indeed, these months were not only a “homecoming” in a sense, but were also valuable preparation for the mission I was about to take on. Through planning and giving lessons on various topics, interacting with youth, learning and receiving feedback from others, there could not have been a better way I could have used those three months.

It was also during these three months that I, along with many of my colleagues on the Liên Đoàn Executive team. Were they busy months? I’d argue to say it as packed… but it kept me busy and seeing the critical feedback from various projects and virtual events gave me something work with and improve. The past months, I grew less and less “offended” by negative feedback and instead, I have been striving to replace that with humility. It is humbling to hear feedback and critiques from others as that shows you still have room for improvement. There is nothing worse than everyone saying that and event or project was good, but in reality, it wasn’t.

It has been a long journey to reach the Mass and ceremony today. The installation ceremony today coincides with Đoàn Tôma Thiện’s celebration of our patronal feast day (transferred from September 21), a saint who was martyred at the same age that many of my peers of swearing in today – 18, 19, 20 year olds… Some people may say the Catholic Church is too old. However, looking around me, I find hope because there are still youth that have that zeal for their faith and are committed to living it.

I am wrote this reflection because I wanted this to serve as a testimony that I have been through a number of hardships and “turbulence” in order to reach this day. However, even in the lowest points of life, lowest points of ministry, God was there and continues to journey with me and with those who open their hearts to have a “heart-to-heart” relationship with Him. I am not saying that I have reached that “heart-to-heart” relationship with Jesus Christ – I humbly say that it really takes effort, commitment and an open heart. However, the thing is, are we ready and willing to take a “leap of faith”? Are we willing to be generous with our time, talents and gifts?

What my colleagues and I promised today are not just words. It is a culmination of months and years of discernment and a number of them I know have been through various trials and tribulations as well. Today, I promise, with the help of God, to be an instrument of the Gospel in all aspects of life, and particularly as a youth leader of Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement.

I cannot promise or guarantee that I will be the perfect huynh trưởng. However, what I can promise to the Church and the Movement is that whatever I take on, I will do it to the best of my abilities and means given at a particular point in time. I will use my gifts and talents for the Glory of God and His Church and I am humbled and glad to say, that I will not be the only one doing so, but rather, I will be doing this alongside wonderful brothers and sisters of our TNTT family who have such great passion and zeal in the work they undertake.

Last thing: The kids and youth of VEYM do not need perfect youth leaders. From my experience, especially that from the recent year, I have learned that the young members of VEYM need leaders who are on fire with the faith. They need youth leaders who are honest. They need youth leaders who are on fire with love for our Eucharistic Lord. They need your accompaniment in their faith life. If we can be merely that, I think we can be leaders that would truly bring the young people to a “heart-to-heart” relationship with Our Lord.

My Eucharistic Lord, I love you. Please come and dwell in my soul not only for a moment, but forever. Let my actions and those of VEYM youth leaders be reflective of that. Amen.

I thank the many people who lead me to this day, namely TNTT Toronto – Đoàn Tôma Thiện who has always been there since day 1 when I was in Ấu Nhi. I give a special thank you to Đoàn Emmanuel – North York for your great hospitality and opportunities you gave me, especially in the past year. I also thank the many members of VEYM, and in particular those in TNTT Canada and Veym-Usa Tntt whom I have encountered online and on Facebook. God bless everyone!

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Reflection: Glory and Triumph in the Cross of Christ

September 14 is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and it is one of my favourite feasts of the Liturgical year. It is said that the day commemorates the occasion in which St. Helen (mother of Emperor Constantine) found the wood of the True Cross in Jerusalem.

While that is just one part of the feast, it is worth noting that the Cross of Jesus is spoken of prominently twice in the liturgical year, namely on Good Friday at the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion, specifically at the Veneration of the Cross after the Liturgy of the Word, and September 14, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. It seems that Good Friday takes on a number of different dimensions, and so does Holy Thursday. Thus, we notice that even though the Church celebrates the institution of the most Holy Eucharist, we celebrate the solemnity of Corpus Christi on the second Sunday after Pentecost. Again, even though the Cross is solemnly venerated in the liturgy of Good Friday, the Church has a feast to once again speak of the prominence of this cruel instrument of torture which has now become the sign in which Christianity is known by.

When speaking of the Cross, I immediately think of the Entrance Antiphon of Holy Thursday:

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

Roman Missal, Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper 6

These words are based on the letter of St. Paul to the Galatians, chapter 6 verse 14 in which he says, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Wow! What is St. Paul saying when he says that he may “boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”? I like how Bishop Barron speaks of the cross on countless occasions, but in particular, one occasion that stuck with me was the time he spoke to youth gathered at the Mercy Centre at World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, Poland,

“…the cross of Jesus Christ from the beginning of Christianity to today is a kind of taunt that was meant to terrify the whole world. The cross… there is nothing more horrific, nothing more terrifying.” The first Christians held it up as if to say, “You think that scares us? We’re not afraid because God’s love, God’s mercy has conquered all that that world can throw at it.”‘

Bishop Robert Barron, July 27 2016 at Mercy Centre in Krakow, Poland

The Cross, to a non-Christian it may seem like a historical instrument of torture, or simply a lower-case ‘t’, or merely two sticks placed on top of each other. However, for us Christians, it is a sign of salvation. It is a sign that “IC XC NIKA – Jesus Christ Conquers.” God is greater than any pain and suffering. He had to go through pain and suffering to grant us salvation. However, that pain and suffering was something so selfless because one man suffered, but many are saved because of the death on that instrument of torture.

The first Christians held [the cross] up as if to say, “You think that scares us? We’re not afraid because God’s love, God’s mercy has conquered all that that world can throw at it.”‘

Bishop Robert Barron, July 27 2016 at Mercy Centre in Krakow, Poland

That is the power of the Cross. Something so horrific became the icon of Christianity. It is because of that Cross, that sign of the witness of love that we have seen so many people willing to lay down their lives for a faith and salvation drawn from the Cross.

The pandemic has out a number of events I was anticipating on hold. However, that has allowed myself and some from the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement Kateri League of Chapters in Ontario to plan some interesting events, including a three-day Spiritual Exercises retreat at the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario in 2021. It is the hope that on the second day of the retreat, we will be able to have Mass celebrated at St. Ignace II, the site where Sts. Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant, Jesuit missionaries were totured and martyred. As part of the liturgical planning process, I was finding hymns, a mix of English and Vietnamese for this specific Mass which I believe to be a spiritually powerful experience. While I could not help but put Faith of Our Fathers, I was struggling to find an opening hymn. I was going through my library of hymns in Vietnamese, and found the hymn, Niềm Vinh Dự (The Honour), which I have only heard used at my parish once every year as the opening hymn for Holy Thursday. I chose this because the lives of the saints of martyrs are examples of the Triumph of the Cross. In fact, at home, I have a biography of the Jesuit Martyrs of North America in comic book style titled, Triumph of the Cross. No matter how much torture, threats and ultimately death that they faced, they persevered until the end, fixing their eyes on the Cross of Christ.

When we celebrate and venerate the Cross of Jesus, let us be reminded of the Triumph of the Cross. Let us live the spirit of the Cross, meaning, making little sacrifices from time to time, allowing our lives to be reflective of the mystery of the Cross. May our lives be a reflection of the Cross, and like St. Paul, a “boasting of the Cross.” By doing so, we shed ourselves of our ego, in order to embrace something that will bring about benefit to all. That is the core of the Cross – a love conquering the selfish ways of man, agape love.

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Charities Must Be Transparent – Column for The Catholic Register

I served two-terms with The Catholic Register as a member of its Youth Speak News Team. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute from time to time.
While the summer has been busy and my blogging has been on hiatus on recent weeks, I am still writing in various capacities. The WE Charity Scandal that has been unfolding in recent weeks is baffling. In this column for this week’s issue of The Catholic Register, I speak about the importance of transparency within charities, especially during these times.

WE Charity is a Canadian non-profit organization that I contributed time and effort to throughout my years in elementary and secondary school.

I remember when I was in Grade 2, some Grade 7 students went classroom to classroom encouraging students to put spare change in a can to support WE Charity causes. When I was in Grade 7, I actively engaged in several Me to WE initiatives, kicking off with the 2014 WE Day in the fall and then a series of fundraisers throughout the year. I remember distributing small cardboard houses that year to all the classes in the school. The change collected supported WE Charity’s mission of building schools in impoverished countries.

In short, WE was the “go-to” charity in my years in elementary and secondary school as it seemed to be the favoured charity by the schools I attended, though it is not affiliated with the Church.

However, as the WE scandal emerged in recent weeks I started to have second thoughts about WE. The revelations have simply been baffling. While I have always supported the work of WE, the complexity of its organization, lack of concrete answers from the founders and apparent lack of transparency in funding is concerning. 

Continue reading at catholicregister.org.

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Some thoughts and reflections for the Class of 2020

As I sit on my sofa, taking in the fact that my first year of university is now complete, the state of emergency in Ontario possibly extended to July and churches throughout the Archdiocese of Toronto will open their doors for Sunday Mass this week, the members of the Class of 2020 from Chaminade College School and other Class of 2020 graduates from their respective schools (my sister and her friends from St. Joseph’s College School included) are fresh in my mind and are in my thoughts and prayers during this time. It is for that reason that as the school year winds down for students in secondary school, I want to deliver a few words of advice and encouragement. More in-depth advice can be found in my post about my first-year U of T experience and the Class of 2019 Valedictory speech.

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Lectionary Reflection: Solemnity of Pentecost (Mass During the Day), Year A

With the Solemnity of Pentecost this Sunday, we conclude the Season of Easter. What a journey it has been! We went through the 50 days of Easter reading of the various accounts of Jesus’ appearances after rising from the dead, and read of his Ascension last week. This week, we actually come back to where we started – with the Sunday of the Lord’s resurrection as John notes, “It was evening on the day Jesus rose from the dead, the first day of the week.” (Jn 20:19)

Why does the Gospel read today sound so familiar? Didn’t we just hear this Gospel some time this Easter? Your assumptions are correct. The Gospel today is John 20 verse 19-23 and we heard this portion of the Gospel in its longer form this past Second Sunday of Easter where we read the Gospel of Doubting Thomas which goes up to verse 31. It is interesting that even though this comes from the same Gospel from the Second Sunday of Easter, the emphasis of what is in that Gospel is completely different. That week, we focused more on the figure of Thomas. This week, without the latter portion of Thomas, we focus on the ten disciples that were locked in the room. 

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Looking Back at First Year U of T: An Experience

My first year of university was gone in a blink of an eye and wow, what a roller-coaster! I think that is the case for many first-year students like myself did not expect to end our first year with online classes and online exams. For grade 12 students like my sister probably did not expect to continue their classes through online means, nor expected the fate of their prom and their graduation. I remember my grade 12 year at Chaminade vividly and the last months of secondary school are supposed to be the most memorable time with classmates, awaiting their Graduation Ceremonies.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down for many first world countries like Canada, and even Catholicism. Being at home for Holy Week and “attending” Mass online was not the same and felt in a sense…”weird”.

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The Catholic Man’s Top 10 Catholic Reads for Quarantine

1. The Miracle of Hope: Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận; Political Prisoner, Prophet Of Peace

The late-Cardinal Francis Xavier Thuận Văn Nguyễn persevered through the darkest nights – thirteen-years in a communist prison in Vietnam, nine of which spent in solitary confinement. However, even in those dark nights, he kept the flame of faith alive. Some people have commented about how restless they are during this lockdown – but it is nothing compared to what the Venerable Văn Thuận went through during his days in Vietnam. This book opens one’s eyes to the injustices Cardinal Văn Thuận’s family had to endure, and his own personal trials and liberation. This biography of the late Cardinal by Andre Châu sheds light on a life of man who suffered much, but within his suffering, he was a source of hope and light for those around him.

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A Reflection for April 23, 2020

It was in my mental calendar – today, April 23rd, 2020, I would be at the St. Cecilia’s Church for the celebration of Mass to pray for the repose of the soul of Thầy Tuấn – a friend, mentor, and humble “labourer in the Lord’s vineyard”. The Mass was also for thanksgiving of his life. Two years ago the Lord called Thầy Tuấn back to Himself. For those who do not know him, I would honestly find it hard to sum up who Thầy was – he held a variety of roles within his family and within the parish.

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Lectionary Reflection: Second Sunday of Easter, Year A

Lectionary Readings: Acts 2:42-47 / Ps 118 / 1Pt 1:3-9 / Jn 20:19-31

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith — being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

1 Peter 1:7

It is interesting how the Word of God can speak to everyone in times when we need it most. Going on YouTube or various replays of Masses, the homilies of priests and bishops the past month or so have always to some degree addressed the pandemic. The Word of God truly brings us the comfort and inspiration needed during these times. 

The Lectionary Readings today to be upfront, speaks about believing – the attitude we should have as believers in the resurrected Lord. For some who hear the Gospel of Doubting Thomas which is read every year A, B and C on this Sunday, it is easy to laugh at the disciples for being scaredy cats, and Thomas for doubting our resurrected Lord. “It’s so simple!” some may say. However, I hope we will have a different perspective this year when we read the Gospel among the first and second readings, and Psalm 118 in light of these times. 

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Lectionary Reflection: Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord, Year A, B and C

“Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Jn 20:9

Is it Easter already? It is, according to the Liturgical calendar (and probably from the ‘Happy Easter’ messages and posts you have been seeing). Yet, without public Masses and physical participation in the celebrations of the latter half of Lent and Holy Week, doesn’t it feel like like Lent? A Lent that might go on a couple more weeks? I remarked to my family that this past Triduum was a little “weird” as I am so used to a Triduum filled with liturgies and helping at liturgies. I even had notes for 2020 prepared. While the outward celebrations cannot take place throughout the majority of the world, I think that it is important to know that it is Easter.

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