Spring 1988, Vol.40 No. 1, pp. 4-17.

Mary O'Driscoll:
      Catherine the Theologian

As a theologian and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena drew on her experience of God's transforming love to create an original body of Christian doctrine, prayer, and counsel.

Mary O'Driscoll, O.P., is an Irish Dominican sister currently teaching at the An gelicum University, Rome. Her doctoral work concentrated on the theology of Catherine of Siena. This article has been adapted from a chapter of a forthcoming book on Catherine's theology and appears by permission of the publisher, Michael Glazier (Wilmington, DE).

ON 4 October 1970, Pope Paul VI declared Catherine of Siena Doctor Ecclesiae, Doctor of the Church.(1) This title has been conferred on relatively few Christian saints and on no woman before 1970. It places Catherine among the Church's major theologians and recognizes the relevance of her teaching for the whole Church and for all time.(2)

Since the title 'doctor' means at best an eminent and effective teacher, the official Church proclaims with this title that Catherine, a holy lay woman, shares in a remarkable way in the teaching function of the Church. In fact, in his homily elevating her to the doctorate, the pope makes special note of the "charism of exhortation" which Catherine possessed. This charism, which St. Paul describes as being in operation in the early Christian communities (cf. 1 Cor. 12:8), enabled her to communicate to others "the word of wisdom" and "the word of knowledge." It is, as the Pope reminds us, a gift given to Catherine not so much for her own benefit as for the whole body of the Church.


Catherine's right to be ranked among the doctors of the Church rests principally, we are told, on "the peculiar excellence of her doctrine." In what does this 'peculiar excellence' consist? Even a cursory perusal of her writings makes it clear that it does not consist in the apologetic and reasoned argument which is the characteristic of the early Doctors of the Church. Nor is it to be found in the highly speculative and systematic presentation of theology which is the mark of the medieval scholastic Doctors. Rather, it consists in her intuitive grasp of what is essential in the Christian life, and flowing from that, her ability to offer new depths of insight into the central Christian mystery of God's love for humanity in Jesus Christ. This is what Paul VI is referring to when he speaks of her "lucid, profound and inebriating absorption of divine truths."

Catherine's intuitive grasp of the truth and her lucid and profound exposition of that truth are the consequence of another charism with which she was gifted by the Holy Spirit, that of wisdom. This gift gave her the ability to judge rightly concerning God and divine things through a special instinct and movement of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul reminds us that no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:10). The Spirit alone therefore can lead women and men into 'the depths of God.' When this happens the person so graced has a knowledge of God which, while in harmony with the knowledge arrived at by one's faith-enlightened intellect, is deeper and more perfect. This knowledge can be described as mystical. For this reason Paul VI alludes to Catherine's charism of wisdom as a "mystic charism."(3)


The essential characteristic of mystical knowledge is its affective dimension. It is an intuitive knowledge rooted in love. It allows one therefore to know about God and divine things not merely through one's faith-enlightened intellect which draws conclusions from the data of nature and of divine revelation, but also more deeply and directly through the awareness of union with God experienced within oneself. Catherine describes this affective awareness as a light which brings clarity even to the light of faith and which somehow adds assurance to what one already holds by faith. Through this light, she states, she herself has been able to taste and see the depths of the Trinity. Catherine also emphasizes the affective dimension of mystical knowledge when she states that those who have it "taste it and know it and experience it and feel it in their very souls."(4)

Out of her own affective, intuitive knowledge of God Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church, theologizes. She seems to be alluding to this fact when, in a letter to Raymond of Capua, she explains that the gift of writing was given to her so that "when I came down from the heights I should have some way to pour out my heart so that it would not burst."(5)

If Catherine's knowledge of God is mystical and if her theology has its source in the Holy Spirit who instructs her interiorly through the gift of wisdom, does this mean that her theological insights and conclusions are not the result of learning? Did she not have to walk the hard road of research, study and reflection? The answer to these questions is both negative and positive, depending on the significance we give to the above terms.

On the one hand, Catherine was an unlettered person. Like most women of her day, she did not receive any formal education. We are told that she learned to read only when she was already a Dominican mantellata and wanted to be able to recite the Office of the Church. She learned to write much later in her life, possibly around the age of thirty.(6) She did not therefore study theology from books and certainly she did not engage in scientific theological research.

On the other hand, her teaching displays a rich knowledge of Scripture as well as a certain familiarity with patristic and medieval theology. If she did not receive this knowledge through study of the written word, we have to assume that it came to her through the spoken word: through the liturgy, through the preaching of the Dominican friars in the near-by church of San Domenico, through the popular theological and devotional books which were read aloud in her home, and through the theological conversations she would have had with the theologians among her followers, particularly with Raymond of Capua.(7) Catherine was a remarkably intelligent and perceptive person with a capacity for attentive listening and with a retentive memory. With the aid of her intellectual gifts she would have reflected prayerfully on what she heard, the Holy Spirit's gift of wisdom enabling her to taste its truth.

This then was how Catherine did theology. It was a process whereby she as a woman, with her gifts of nature and grace, interacted with the knowledge which she received, directly or indirectly, from biblical, patristic, and medieval sources. To this, she brought her own interpretation and development. Her theology as presented in her writings can thus be regarded as a manifestation of her freely-given human cooperation with the Holy Spirit's action not only on her intellect but in her whole being. We find that her teaching, because it is rooted in her experience, for all its sublimity has a common-sense, down-toearth quality about it.

In her manner of being a theologian Catherine is an excellent example of the principle that any person genuinely trying to live the Christian life, having active faith and intellectual ability, can theologize creatively. She contradicts the assumption that theology is a highly specialized and abstract study reserved for academic experts. What the International Theological Commission concluded about the doing of theology can be applied very fittingly to her:

Any baptized person who both actively lives the life of the Church and enjoys scholarly competence can undertake the theologian's task. This task receives its dynamism from the life of the Spirit in the Church which is communicated through sacraments, the preaching of the word of God and the communion of charity.(8)
In declaring the lay woman Catherine of Siena a Doctor of the Church, Paul VI recalled to our minds that the theological teaching function of the Church can be shared by all its members, whatever their status.(9)


Catherine's theological output is not extensive. It consists of three works: the Dialogue, her Letters, and her Prayers. Each of these belongs to a different literary genre. Fortunately, a critical edition of the Dialogue and the Prayers, as well as of some of the Letters, is available.(l0)

The Dialogue, which is her principal work, can be regarded as a compendium of all Catherine's theological teaching. Originally it was called simply 'Il Libro.'(11) Later it became known as 'Il Dialogo' because its contents are in the form of a dialogue between herself and God. In it she addresses God most often as 'father' or 'eternal father; and she is addressed by God as 'dearest daughter.' Throughout there is a close familiarity between the two: in one place she tells God playfully that she feels free to babble on and on because she is sure of being listened to with immense love and mercy.(12)

Contrary to a pious legend that the Dialogue was composed during a five-day ecstasy, historical evidence indicates that Catherine probably dictated it over a period of many months between December, 1377, and October, 1378. Some time before that, she had already drawn up a basic plan for the book.(13) In her introduction she sets the stage by making four petitions to God: for herself, for the Church, for the whole world, and for the assurance of God's providence in all things, particularly with regard to a certain case of which she is aware. The rest of the book is taken up with God's response to these four petitions. Here and there there are interjections from Catherine. At the end there is a short conclusion which brings the principal themes together. This structure, as Giuliana Cavallini has conclusively shown, unfolds in a recurring pattern of petition-responsethanksgiving.(14) The work is fittingly called the Dialogue for it tells of the great dialogue between God and humanity in which Jesus Christ is the reconciling Word.

In her Letters Catherine of Siena treats of the same theological topics as in the Dialogue, but often in a more easily digestible manner. The reason for this is that she usually confines these to a few, or simply one, of her themes and presents her thought in a lively, forceful style. Almost four hundred of her letters have been preserved. They are written to all types of people: members of her family, her friends and acquaintances, and public figures in church and state. Her correspondents can be said to represent the famous and the infamous, as well as the ordinary woman and man of her day. she displays delicate sensitivity and good sense as she deals with the different temperaments, needs and circumstances of the persons to whom she writes. (15) Besides their theological value, her Letters are important in that they provide interesting autobiographical and historical facts. Considered as literature, they rank Catherine among the great Italian letterwriters of the fourteenth century.(16)

The Prayers of Catherine number twenty-six. They were written down by her followers as she prayed aloud in ecstasy, and they all belong to the last four years of her life. These prayers impress us by their simplicity, their intense concentration on God, and their passionate desire for the salvation of others. They have a sound theological basis, being rooted in the same great truths of the Christian faith as are her Letters and Dialogue. Yves Congar describes Catherine's prayers as theology "transformed into fire and fervor," and as "theology converted into doxology."(17) To read her prayers is to have a privileged glimpse into her mystical theology in its most affective dimension.


Catherine's style of writing is spontaneous, energetic and passionate. Much of its vitality comes from her superb use of imagery. Generally speaking, mystics like poets cannot express themselves without symbol or image. Catherine the mystic, in attempting to communicate her experience of God, knows that the reality of that experience is inexpressible, and so she relies on some hint or parallel, contained in one image or another, to stimulate the dormant intuition of her readers, and to convey to them something beyond the surface sense of her words. In her writings, metaphor trips over metaphor, and one image, barely formed, gives way to another. It is as if her words cannot keep up with her desire to communicate what she knows and has experienced. It follows that Catherine's use of imagery is not simply a rhetorical device, but is rather the best way she knows of penetratingto the core of a particular truth and savoring it. When she uses an image or a symbol she invites us to enter with her into its meaning, to experience its transforming power and allow ourselves to be challenged by the possibilities for growth which it proposes. Through this process we are offered new ways of perceiving reality and living our lives, for by the power of the image, we have been put in touch in a new way with God's activity in our world. The images which Catherine uses are not invented but come rather from her observation of life around her: light filtering through a dark passage, a building in the course of construction, the kitchen fire eagerly consuming the wood thrown onto it, a tall tree laden with fruit, the bridge across the Arno in Florence, a Tuscan vineyard, the mirror in which she sees her own reflection, the vast ocean with its peaceful surface. All of these images, as well as many more, draw her beyond their physical reality to a further spiritual reality.

Catherine's language is distinctly her own. This is particularly evident in her use of anthropomorphic terms to speak about God. Like others, from the authors of the books of the Bible to the theologians of our own time, she comes closer to understanding God by applying human terms to God's action in the world. The character of knowledge demands this, for to be known, an object must in some way be assimilated to the knower. What is interesting in her use of anthropomorphic language is that she describes God and divine activity in terms that are in keeping with her own energetic and passionate personality. Her God is "mad with love" and "drunk with love," and acts "as if he cannot live" without us. While her anthropomorphism, like her imagery, is a testimony to the inadequacy of human language to speak about the divine, it is also an expression of Catherine's own lively faith in a personal God in whose image she believes she is made.

Yet for all their freshness and vigor, the style and language of Catherine of Siena can make for difficult reading. She can be very wordy, diffuse, and repetitive, and her sentences can be long and complicated. In the development of her thought she can reach conclusions without sharing with the reader the preparatory logical steps. She offers no precise definitions and frequently no theological discussion on an issue. For these reasons it is not always easy to follow her nor to extricate her theological understanding precisely on a given topic. However, the nuggets of theological gold buried in her writings are worth all the digging required to find them.


Catherine was obviously influenced by the current of theological thought and the devotional emphases prevalent in her day. Within that context she was influenced in a particular way by the Dominican milieu in which her theology was nurtured and developed.

The first and most important source of Catherine's theology is scripture. She seems to have had a profound knowledge of the Bible, particularly of the Johannine and Pauline writings. However, as has already been remarked, she listened to rather than read Scripture. Consequently, her ability to quote accurately was limited. In her writings we find that biblical references are introduced with ease, and that sometimes she combines two or more unconnected passages into a single whole. Throughout, she interprets Scripture freely in such a way that it fits in with her own understanding of Christian revelation. The result is that Catherine's message and that of Scripture fuse into one.(18)

There has been much controversial discussion concerning the other sources of Catherine's thought. Certainly there is evidence in her writings of some acquaintance with patristic literature. Possibly this came to her indirectly through the works of the Dominican Cavalca, whose Lo Specchio di Croce and Vita Patrum enjoyed great popularity in her day. There is more evidence of her familiarity with St. Augustine. This is not surprising, for Augustinian theological thought was the most prevalent in the Church of the fourteenth century. We can also find in her writings many traces of the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas. While Augustinianism was the theology best known, the Dominicans, with whom Catherine had so much contact, were beginning to adopt Thomistic teaching. They had been urged to do so by several General Chapters of the Order and by popes Clement VI and Urban V. The writings of St. Bernard and of Cassian also left their mark on Catherine. Her theology therefore can be regarded as having many sources. Catherine seemingly had no problem in bringing together and weaving into an original whole whatever appealed to her from the various currents of thought available to her.(19)


Although Catherine's theology is not presented in speculative scholastic terms nor as a logically developed doctrinal system, it does have its own inner consistency and unity, as well as its own organization and sequences. The central mystical intuition in all that she writes is the love of God for humanity manifested in Christ crucified. In the light of this mystery she discusses the great truths of the Christian faith: the Trinity, creation, redemption, the Church, grace, life after death, and the communion of saints.

As we read her theology we discover that while her life may present us with extraordinary phenomena, her doctrine deals with the ordinary path of holiness open to all Christians: the way of faith, hope, and love. She writes to Francesco, a tailor in Florence: "The way has been made. It is the doctrine of the Christ crucified. Whoever walks along this way. ..reaches the most perfect light."(20) All her teaching is concerned with this way. She follows its every turn from its fearful, faltering beginning to its last stage of loving union.

What strikes us in the first place about Catherine's theological content is that its starting-point is not a theory about God, but the human situation as she personally experiences it. For this reason her theology can be described broadly as a self-understanding that becomes a God-understanding, which in turn leads to further self-understanding.

Catherine first considers her own human existence and that of others. Reaching down to the deepest roots of such existence she is aware that it is limited, incomplete, imperfect. Her experience of and reflection on the human condition brings her face to face with the humbling fact of her creatureliness, a creatureliness that not only did not cause itself but also alone cannot understand itself. The anthropological premise behind this approach is that human existence must be taken seriously. This is certainly how Catherine takes it. However, the only way she can take human existence seriously is by accepting some unconditional being or ground outside and yet underlying human reality, some absolute other than self, by which she can comprehend who she is and what the meaning of human existence is. For her, this absolute, unconditional other is God. Consequently, in the broad sweep of her theology, God and the human person exist in a kind of polarity. She expresses this truth often and variously as: God as the one who is and she as the one who is not; God as creator and she as creature; God as provider and she as receiver; God as redeemer and she as sinner; God as light and she as darkness; God as wisdom and she as foolishness.

According to Catherine, therefore, human persons confronted with their creatureliness seek self-understanding in and through the Other who is radically different from themselves. Obviously, in order to enter into this process they need to be able to face towards and relate in some way to that other who is God their creator. In this movement the human 'turning towards' becomes profound conversion, effected by the grace of God; and at every stage the polarity between what is divine and what is human is utterly dynamic.

How does this happen? In answering this question Catherine begins by showing that in spite of their radical oppositeness there is an affinity between God and humanity, one that arises from the fact that human creatures are made in God's image. This gives them the ability to turn towards God and in so doing to see something of who they themselves are. Catherine speaks of God as the mirror in which one can see oneself. Conversely, one finds some reflection of God when one looks into oneself.

However, this answers our question only at a preliminary level. Catherine gives us her fuller answer when she points us towards Jesus Christ. She explains that it is only in and through him that we can relate to God in such a way as to be able to come close and thus gain the deepest self-understanding. This is so because in Jesus the human and the divine meet perfectly, and because through his redemptive death and resurrection Jesus Christ has reconciled sinful humanity to God.

Catherine sees Jesus Christ as the connecting link, the Bridge, between limited human nature seeking self-understanding and unlimited divine nature offering that understanding. She insists there is no other way for human persons to relate to God in such a way that they can find and understand themselves, except through him. In Jesus she sees the embodiment of all that we seek. He is the one who, like us in all things except sin (Heb. 4:15), took human existence most seriously. He is the one who most fully sought and found self-understanding by relating intimately to the God whom he called'Father.' Because of him and in him the human creature and God are no longer 'poles apart.'

Gradually and painstakingly Catherine develops her theology. In it she tells the story of the back-and-forth movement between the two protagonists, God and humanity, focusing now on the one, now on the other, as they connect by means of the bridge, Jesus Christ. In the interplay she shows how every new insight into self on the part of each human person leads to a little more understanding of who God is, just as each new insight into God leads to a little more self-understanding. And as the knowledge of God and of self grows, the distance between the two gradually closes. The climax occurs when an understanding is reached of God as Love and of the human creature as the one loved. Now the relationship between the two is one of love, which makes possible a very close and intimate bonding. At this point, the movement which began for the human person as a desire for selfunderstanding is transformed into a desire for union with the one who most completely gives that self-understanding.


The proclamation that God is Love is the ultimate and definitive Christian truth about God. Once Catherine's theological thought arrives here she has brought us to the heart not only of Christian self-understanding but also of the Christian way of life, for by contemplating in God the most authentic meaning of love, the Christian is called to respond by loving all others. Here the implicit development of Catherine's thought is similar to that of the Johannine writings. The First Letter of John teaches that the response we are asked to make to the overwhelming love of God is to love all our brothers and sisters (1 Jn. 4:11). The essential proposition in Catherine is likewise that we necessarily move from an understanding of self as loved by God to an active love of others. In keeping with this thought she sees the Church as a community of love "founded on love."(21)

This, very briefly, is the theological approach of Catherine of Siena. We note that it describes a spiraling movement which begins when the human person seeks self-knowledge. The movement reaches its apex in the intimate bond of love which that person experiences with the absolute other, God known as Love, and with all other human persons. At whatever point we pause along the spiral we are aware of the dynamic relationship between God and humanity; the divine-human dialectic at work. At whatever stage we enter Catherine's thought we discover that the key to her synthesis is Jesus Christ.


Every human aspect of dialectic is a reaching out for truth. Catherine the theologian is a constant truth-seeker. Significantly, her Dialogue opens with her desire to "pursue truth and clothe herself in it," and it closes with the prayer: "Clothe, clothe me with yourself, eternal Truth." The theme running through all her theology can rightly be described as the quest for truth. She wants to know the truth of who she is and she wants to know the truth of who God is. Within these two parameters she wants to know the truth about everything else: the Church, her neighbor, the world, sin, salvation. She understands that the more she knows of the truth, the more she can love, for "love follows knowledge." Throughout her quest she appreciates that she can grow in knowledge of the truth only when she is enlightened by God, whom she delights in referring to as "First Truth," and by Jesus Christ who is "Gentle Truth." In one of her Prayers she tells God:

It is your truth that offers truth,
and with your truth I speak the truth ....
Nor is your truth separate from you:
in fact, you are truth.(22)

As we make our way through Catherine of Siena's theology we find that we are not equally attracted by all that she presents. That is only to be expected. Her historical, cultural, and ecclesial circumstances were very different from ours. Consequently, some of her statements simply will not fit into our world view or theological perspective. However, and this is the point that was made in declaring her a Doctor of the Church, most of her teaching has universal relevance. We shall realize the truth of this statement if we ask her our questions and discover that she gives us satisfactory answers: not necessarily rounded, conclusive answers, but answers that encourage us anew in our pursuit of the truth. As Jean Leclercq comments, referring to Catherine of Siena, "a true doctor is one who pushes the Church forward." (23)

  1. The full text appears in AAS LXII 10 (1970): 673-8. An English translation is available in L'Osservatore Romano (Eng. ed.), Oct. 15, 1970, pp. 6-7.
  2. The title Doctor Ecclesiae dates back to the Middle Ages. It has been conferred on relatively few Christian theologians. It recognizes the combination of extraordinary holiness and outstanding learning in a particular person.
  3. For this description of the gift of wisdom I have relied mostly on Thomas Aquinas. For his treatment of the gifts in general, see Summa Theologiae I-11, A. 68, and for his treatment of the gift of wisdom, II-II, A. 45. As we shall see, Catherine's understanding of the charism of wisdom shows much similarity to that of Thomas. See also C. Kearns, "The Wisdom of St. Catherine" Angelicum 57 (1980): 324-43.
  4. See the Dialogue (trans. by Suzanne Noffke, New York: Paulist Press, 1980), chapters 167 and 61. In chapter 86 she refers to "alight beyond any natural light, infused by grace" which enabled the great Doctors of the Church to receive the light and to know the truth.
  5. See Le Lettere di S.Caterina da Siena (ed. P. Misciattelli, Giunti, 1940), 272, VI,172.
  6. See Raymond of Capua, The Life of Catherine of Siena (trans. by Conleth Kearns, Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1980) pp. 104-5; T. Caffarini, Libellus De Supplemento (Edizioni Cateriniane, 1974), p. 16. Although we speak of Catherine's 'writings; almost all of her works were not written by herself but rather dictated to one or other of her friends who acted as secretary to her.
  7. It seems that Raymond was specifically given to Catherine by the Dominican Order to guide her theologically. This appointment by the Order was confirmed in a papal bull of 17 Aug. 1376. Cf. M.-H. Laurent, 11 Processo Castellano con Appendice di Documenti (Milano, 1942) no. 14.
  8. The official Latin text is published in Gregorianum 57 (1976): 548-63. The title of the document is "Theses on the relationship between the ecclesiastical magisterium and theology." It is the result of a discussion on this matter by the ITC in its plenary session held in Rome, 25 Sept: 1 Oct. 1975.
  9. In his Genio di Santa Caterina (Edizioni Cateriniane,1971), the Catherinian expert, G. D'Urso, makes the point that in proclaiming Catherine a Doctor of the Church, Paul VI has recognized that laypeople, women as well as men, can have the gift of "sapiential magisterium."
  10. The critical Italian edition of the Dialogue is Il Dialogo, ed. G. Cavallini (Rome, 1968), English translation by Suzanne Noffke (ed. cit.). The critical edition of the Prayers is also by G. Cavallini, Le Orazioni (Rome, 1978), and the English translation is also by S. Noffke, The Prayers of Catherine of Siena (Paulist Press, 1983). A critical edition of eighty-eight of the Letters is available in Italian, Epistolario, ed. E.Dupré Theseider (Rome, 1940). All the Letters are available in Italian in the six volumes of Le Lettere di S. Caterina da Siena, ed. P. Misciattelli (Giunti, Firenze, 1940). A selection of Letters from both these sources was published in English as I, Catherine (trans. by K. Foster and M.J. Ronayne, London: Collins, 1980). Work on a critical edition of the rest of the Letters, as well as on an English translation, is in progress.
  11. See Le Lettere 373, V, 291.
  12. See Dialogue Chapter 30.
  13. This is obvious from a letter she wrote to Raymond of Capua in October 1377. See Le Lettere 272, IV, 158-72. For researched information on how the Dialogue was written, see E. Dupré Theseider, "Sulla composizione del 'Dialogo' di S. Caterina da Siena," Giornale Storica della Letterature Italiana 117 (1941): 161-202.
  14. See her Preface to S. Noffke (tr.), The Dialogue; also her "La Struttura del Dialogo Caterinianó" Rassegna di Ascetica a Mistica 21 (1970): 343-53.
  15. See Mary O'Driscoll, "Catherine the Letter-Writer," Dominican Ashram 3, 3 (1984): pp. 107-13.
  16. See G. Papini, Storia della Letteratura Italiana (Firenze, 1937), I, pp. 407-32.
  17. See Y. Congar, "Le Saint-Esprit dans Les Prières de Sainte Catherine de Sienne" ATTI, Congresso Internazionale di Studi Cateriniani (Rome, 1981), p. 353.
  18. See G. Cavallini, "Fonte neotestamentarie degli scritte cateriniani," ATTI, pp. 44-69.
  19. See G. D'Urso, Il Genio, pp. 90-191; A. Grion, Santa Caterina da Siena, Dottrina e Fonti (Brescia, 1953); M.G. Bianco, "Temi patristici in Santa Caterina; " ATTI, 60 75; T.S. Centi, "Luci a ombre sul tomismo di S. Caterina da Siena," ATTI, pp. 76 92; M.W. Flood, "St. Thomas' Thought in the Dialogue of St. Catherine," Spirituality Today 32, 1 (1980): 25-35.
  20. See Le Lettere 249, IV, 61.
  21. See Le Lettere 371, V, 274.
  22. See Prayers (ed. cit.) pp. 21, 193.
  23. J. Leclercq, "Deux Nouveaux Docteurs de l'Eglise," La Vie Spirituelle, 1981.

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