The Mystery of the Mass

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Few things are more frequently given as evidence for the Catholic Church being on the ropes of history than Mass attendance for young people. Mishel Stefanac shows us why we may have been misdiagnosing the problem which means hope for the future…..

Bored, disengaged, uninterested; three words that any teacher would prefer not to use to describe students in a class… let alone during Mass.

In order to understand my students more I reflect on my own experiences as a student in school. As I reminisce the dread of mathematics classes is the first memory that comes to mind. When I think of mathematics all I remember is nerves and anxiety whenever the teacher would ask me a question about fractions or ratios. I would warily respond with an answer that I guessed because I hardly ever listened to what the teacher was saying. I hated mathematics, I was never engaged and evidently I found it boring. However, I wasn’t bored because of the topics we learnt; rather I was bored because I didn’t know why we needed to know these things. The reason for learning ratios and linear equations was never discussed; we just had to know it. I never saw reason, and it all seemed unimportant.

I tell this story because our students experience this same disengagement during Mass. Of course, I cannot say all children find it boring. However I can say, from experience, that most children and teenagers do. We, as teachers in Catholic schools, know the battle we are up against before we even step foot into a church for a class or school Mass. We cringe when we see students irreverently walking into a church, we are disappointed when they chat during the Eucharistic prayer and we feel annoyed when they are unresponsive. The big question is ‘how can we fix this?’

Bishop Fulton Sheen preached on this very issue saying, ‘children don’t enjoy mass because they don’t bring anything to it.’ His analogy was the opera. Many people find the opera boring because they bring no knowledge of music with them. Regarding the Mass, Bishop Sheen said ‘certainly you won’t get anything out of it, because you’ve made no effort to understand it.’ It is only when we strive to make an effort to understand the Mass that we will begin to get something out of it. So in overcoming the difficult task of engaging our students in Mass, we must first begin with explaining why we go.

Students are resistant because they are bored and they are bored because they don’t understand why they are there. Students simply see Mass as a duty or an obligation to fulfil. While it is our obligation as Catholics to attend mass regularly, it is imperative for them to understand why. The first step in engaging our students is to explain the whys, such as why do we attend Mass, why do we sing and why does the priest do the things he does. This in itself is a challenge because many teachers don’t know the answer to these questions. One suggestion is to go straight to the Catechism. Start with only one statement, such as ‘we go to Mass because Our Blessed Lord commanded this on Holy Thursday “Do this in remembrance of me.”’

Of course questions will arise from the children, such as ‘what do we remember?’ And the simple answer is ‘we celebrate and remember the Lord’s sacrifice, his passion, death and resurrection. Of course, there are also many graces that derive from the Mass. However the aforementioned statement, which is taken straight from the Catechism, can be a simple starting point. Once children understand that the Mass is a memorial of Christ’s passion, they will recognise it as a solemn and sacred occasion. Begin by explaining the solemnity of the Mass, and the memorial of Christ’s passion

I have heard this question asked by a priest, and I use it with my students ‘When the Virgin Mary and Saint John were standing at the foot of the cross between 12.00 and 3.00 on Good Friday would they have thought that the death of Jesus was exciting or solemn?’ When I recently asked my students this question, their responses were incredible. Nine year olds suddenly realised that at Mass we recall the death of Christ. Most of these children always thought of Mass as a time to gather together and celebrate. While they are not wrong, they have missed out on a very important aspect; the memorial of Christ’s passion and resurrection. We cannot entirely blame children for being irreverent at Mass if they merely saw it as an obligation and a time to celebrate. Once children understand that the Mass is a remembrance, or memorial, of Christ’s passion their behaviour begins to change.

If we make an effort to help our students understand the reason why we attend Mass, they will be able to bring some knowledge with them and perhaps become slightly more engaged. Even if it is only one point to begin with, namely that Mass is a memorial, then at the very least they are beginning to understand the sacred nature of the event.

Once children have begun to understand the solemnity of the occasion, the next step is to help them realise the true and real presence of Christ at Mass. This is a much more complex subject, which will be further developed. Nevertheless, it is a fundamental aspect of the Mass and if children recognise the true presence of Christ, their manner will change. A question I asked my children was ‘how would you behave if the Queen came to our classroom?’ They all giggled at this question but responded that they would be on their best behaviour and ensure they were dressed well. Then I asked how they would react if the Pope came to our class. Well, the students thought they would behave even better for the Pope. Finally, I asked how they would respond if Our Blessed Lord entered our classroom. The giggles were no longer present. They were serious. They recognised the fact that Christ’s presence would be incredible. I reminded them that we do experience this presence, and He is there during Mass. Educating them on the true presence of Christ is absolutely essential. A few days after having taught this class, we went to Mass. I was intrigued when I saw one little boy licking the palm of his hand and scrubbing the ink off his arm. When I asked why he was doing such a thing his response was ‘I can’t have these pictures on my arm if I am going to receive Jesus.’

Many teachers, I included, often assume that children know why they attend Mass. We always think it was taught by a teacher in earlier years. Don’t be fooled. If our children seem bored or disengaged in Mass, it’s not because they aren’t altar serving, reading or bringing up the offertory gifts. Most certainly, they are bored because they are unaware of why they are there. Allocating jobs and making our students feel like they are ‘doing something’ has not, and will not, engage them. Although it is important to include students in the liturgy, it is even more fundamental for them to understand the purpose of the Mass. When we see that our students are irreverent, it’s not because they are disrespectful but because they don’t recognise the true presence of Christ.

Many educators have tried to make Mass an exciting experience. They try to include new and popular songs and have students acting and dancing. These novelties are great for a quick fix, but as we know novelties wear off and we’re back at square one. A simple suggestion for overcoming the issue of disengagement is to educate students on the solemnity, sacredness and true presence of Christ in the Mass. When children realise that Mass is sacred, and is a time to recall the Lord’s passion, they become aware of the importance of their attendance. As they come to understand the true presence of Christ, they will be intrigued by mystery.

Don’t be afraid to use words such as sacrifice, solemn, memorial and thanksgiving as it will arouse their interest. Kids are curious. But don’t we all love a sense of mystery? It keeps things interesting.

In order to love something, you must know it first. Educating our students on the purpose of the Mass is the first and most intrinsic element. If they don’t know why they are going to Mass, they will remain disengaged from the very beginning just as I was in my mathematics classes.


Michel Stefanac
Mishel Stefanac
Mishel Stefanac is a teacher in the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. She has studied towards a Postgraduate degree in Theology at the Catholic Theological College in Melbourne. She is also currently undertaking further studies in Religious Education at the John Paul II Institute. Her particular study interests are in the Liturgy as well as Sacramental Theology.

Forum Question

What have you experienced with young people and the Mass? Any more helpful insights to share?

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  • Alan

    Long may you teach, Mishel.

  • Long time listener, first time caller

    Very well written, i’m sure you are an AMAZING teacher. Best of luck with your further studies 🙂

  • Steph

    Excellent. Why haven’t we thought of this before??? Well done, keep going!

  • Rod Thomson fms

    Hitting the nail on the head, Michel. Whenever teaching about the Eucharist to senior students I always teach the Jewish background to the word / concept of memorial – adds a whole new depth to their understanding and therefore appreciation of the Mass, Jesus’ real presence, etc. One huge area, though, that we still have to conquer and that’s how some wonderful prayerful experiences of liturgy occur in schools that really engage young people in a very reverent and meaningful way, speak to their level of faith development and challenge it further, grounded in their experience of journeying in the Christian community of their year level and their school – but that this experience is rarely translated into their experience and appreciation of their Parish community. And once they leave school they can therefore often leave the regular Eucharistic practice of their faith. Somehow schools need to help students engage more with their local Parish, bridging the gap, so that when they leave school they still connect with their Parish experience. Somehow the Parish has to reach in to the school community and bridge this gap also. And somehow practicing families have to be these bridges for their children, relating to the faith as it is practiced in both the Parish and School contexts. Well, now that I’ve solved the problem of enlivening faith life and practice in the church, we just need the magic wand to help make it all happen! – particularly as all these parties can often have good intentions, but the pace and busy-ness of life can often take over.

    • Mishel

      Thank you for your feedback. You also raised some inreresting points Rod.
      “Schools need to help students engage more with their local Parish…” That is definitely an area that needs work as well. It may be good and fine to teach them all about the Sacred Liturgy, but unless they feel connected to their parish they end up forgetting about Mass when they leave school. You also mentioned the importance of the role of practicing families in bridging the gap. This is another important aspect that needs to be revived. I can’t say I have that magic wand, but when teaching my students I refer to the ‘Holy Family’ as an example of a faithful family. Maybe they’ll connect the dots?
      Great points Rod.
      With thanks.

  • Daniel

    Hi Mishel,

    You can blame Jonathon for replying to an email I sent him about this to which he said “You must post this on the forum”.

    Some background on me. I am not actually a teacher at a school but do have an extensive background in youth ministry having led youth groups in my earlier days, a few years involved in Antioch and on to a full year of ministry with NET which I consider my most formative year on faith and liturgy. I then co-led a youth group in Canberra for a couple of years with my wife and another guy.

    Ok, enough of that… if I can sum up what my experience is of youth and exactly what it is we must do to connect and have churches full (everywhere) of young people again (who may just get their parents back in that 30-40 age group!) it is found in one word…


    Do any of us ever do anything in life long term and truly connect with it unless we know why? Yes there is ‘stuff’ we just do because we have to, but how long does that last. Think about mass itself. Where are those now that went to mass just because they ‘had’ to. I do appreciate this is far more complex than just ‘doing’ something too but am keen to keep it simple or it will be too long.

    I was so touched when I read the expressions you shared and the beautiful ways you had to help young people connect with some of the compelling mystery and beauty of mass.

    There are some areas though that I wanted to make further comment on and I do have to say I disagree with components of what you raised, again this is totally based on my experience of seeing what worked with young people in ministry, then expressed in Mass. It’s probably a bit rough in parts but hopefully it adds to the discussion…

    It would take me too long to say all the things I feel like saying in response to your article. Essentially in your article, you struck me as someone with great knowledge about liturgy and theology. I do have to say though that it felt with some of your thoughts there was a miss in terms of how to connect with youth in a big way. I think some of your thoughts would connect with a certain few, but not as many as we could if we really took a long hard look at that word I mentioned before. Relevance.

    My first comment is in response to you saying that more lively music and acting and dancing were quick fixes. I found this a bit shocking. What did they do to ‘celebrate’ in Jesus day. It made me wonder, have we truly completely lost sight of that in the Catholic church. I felt it completely missed some key elements of connecting with young people and you can’t always just ‘tell people’ Jesus is there and have them suddenly connect with that message and believe it more – to me, in seeing what I’ve seen in youth ministry I found it just far-fetched. The simplicity is beautiful but I don’t know the reality is factual.

    Now whilst I certainly don’t believe in ‘entertainment’, a more relevant and lively (I’d just settle for ‘breathing’) liturgy – is going to go a long way. I’ve just finished reading Acts in my time I spend by the river each day, with the trees (it’s ok, no hugging going on), and the way the Church was built was story sharing. The community was built, always, with the disciples sharing their stories. Paul gave many fearless speeches doing what? Aside from completely outwitting those poor fools who took him on, he told his story.

    Tell me where in mass we get to share our story with each other. We don’t, we sit and ‘watch a movie’ of an old bloke up the front saying a bunch of prayers and responding the same each week. Now don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful priests out there, who are amazing and holy men. We have one in our parish and he has a wonderful spirituality and way of expressing it and he is tireless. However, I feel the mass loses the people because there is no story, no evidence of a living God working in the lives of the faithful. Yes we know and see it more ‘obviously’ that Jesus is there n the word, the eucharist, and the priest, but he’s there in the people – yet how do we see Him? To me, it’s the biggest missing element of mass that the Church has overlooked over many years and if the mass is a celebration of the community coming together to share their story and break the bread… let me hear some!!!

    I still remember the first time I actually heard a young person give a personal testimony of how they felt Jesus was acting in their life and of a personal relationship with Jesus and it blew my mind. I knew that’s what I wanted/needed and I had to do what it took to get that (hence the aforementioned trees and river – I go to meet Jesus and my Father every day and as such I can ‘see him’ at Mass on the weekend no matter the liturgy, but that’s because I know the shepherd). Mass should then be a celebration of that. Yes there is solemnity, but that doesn’t mean a lack of celebration or even drama, dancing or any other such expression of faith. I believe to connect with young people, mass needs a big shake up and we get back to what built the church in the beginning… story telling and all of joyous, solemn, and rich music. In fact don’t get me started on music.

    This whole thing is tough in (often remote) parishes with an amazing priest (like ours) but liturgy struggling. It would be struggling a lot more if not for our priest. I am on the Parish Council and the other day at our monthly meeting we had a sheet given to us to consider due to the Bishop visiting with all these topics to think about/comment on. It was two pages with so many different issues, some were really good. But do you think I could find ‘ministering to high school aged youth’ anywhere? Do you think that when I raised it and a very simple idea of considering combining the strength of the diocese to do a youth mass at the cathedral that everyone cheered and said, hey that’s a great idea, I wonder how we can make that work…

    “You’re not going to get the kids, because the parents don’t come…” Seriously??! Stuff the parents, the church missed so many of them, but they’ll come if the kids are going to come along or even if they don’t, who cares, the kids are most likely to come along to a ‘Pizza and Peter’ night, or some such theme about a ‘kick ***e’ apostle with some killer testimonies, drama, yada yada. As Jonathon has said… the marketing department is not good. Oh, this is as opposed to ‘Come along to a youth night’… blah blah – been there done that. Promotion is a massive part of relevance.

    We need to bring Jesus to the young people in a way they can easily see him at Mass. The most powerful way? Witness and testimony.

    The upshot for me is that for too long the Catholic Church leadership have neglected to focus on the one thing that at the very least is a key ‘marketing arm’ to God being the Mass. As such, over time, the liturgy and ritual have replaced the idea and reason they were created – not deliberately but just over time through repetition and lack of strategy to deal with it. Or maybe I’m just talking from the perspective of someone who now isn’t living in an area with a powerful liturgy (like I had the luxury of when I was in Brisbane in my NET days).

    I’m pleased I didn’t take ‘too long’ here and kept it simple!!!… and I hope you understand my passionate language in parts 🙂

    Thanks so much for this site and the work you are doing.


  • Mishel

    Dear Daniel,
    Thank you for your comments and thoughts on my article.
    You are quite right in suggesting that the liturgy needs to be relevant. I couldn’t agree more. However, for children, this is a difficult concept. This is why my article dealt with the first step, namely the explanation of why we go. Then, of course the next step would be teaching relevance, and helping them understand how it is relevant for them to attend. There were, however, some points you mentioned that I think require further discussion.

    One suggestion was “sharing stories.” You recalled the importance of recognizing the Church as built on ‘story sharing.’ I assume you’re suggesting it should then have a part in the liturgy? Yes, Christ’s apostles gave their testimony, and yes Saint Paul did give ‘fearless speeches’ and ‘told his story’ as you rightly stated. They told stories because the scriptures of the New Testament had not yet been written. They were also preaching to those who had not yet been converted.

    However, my article was not a discussion on the acts of the Early Church, it was on the liturgy. “Sharing stories” has not been part of the liturgy. Reading from Sacred Scripture, however, has been since the initial gatherings of the Early Church. In fact the earliest accounts of the Mass, according to St Justin Martyr, illustrate this:
    “memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”
    As far as I can see, there is nothing mentioned here about people sitting and ‘sharing stories.’ Yes, the apostles, as mentioned in the Book of Acts, did share stories of Christ. However, these were not done in the context of a Mass.

    There is nothing at all wrong about ‘sharing stories’ but there is a time and place for this. Mass is a time of reading from Sacred Scripture and having a priest interpret it for us and challenge us. The Acts of the Apostles are a great read, but if you would like to know more about the earliest Liturgies, I recommend reading St Justin Martyr.

    It’s a little unfortunate that you feel as though Mass is equivalent to “sitting and watching a movie of an old bloke up the front saying a bunch of prayers and responding the same each week.” I don’t know where you go to Mass, but each time I attend I hear a different reading, a different psalm, a different Gospel, a different homily and even different prayers. Can I suggest purchasing a Missal? They’re usually really helpful.

    Another concern you raised was “no evidence of a living God working in the lives of the faithful.” I think that seeing people in a Church, gathered for Mass is nothing other than evidence of God’s grace. It is only through the grace of God, and the working of the Holy Spirit, that one can wake up and faithfully walk into church to partake in the Holy Mass. Yes, we do it because of our own free will, but the grace of God is what enables us to have faith. When I see people gathered together in a Church to offer thanksgiving to Our Lord, this confirms what Christ said ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ Without people having to say anything, their presence is implicit of Christ’s presence.

    Christ is present among the faithful, but most importantly he is present on the altar at every Mass, and this is what we need remind ourselves about. However, if the focus becomes solely on the people gathered, it is easy to lose sight of the True Presence of Christ on the altar. Mass is a little greater (actually a lot greater) than gathering together to break bread.

    At the very first Mass ever celebrated, Our Lord said ‘this is my body.’ When the priest utters those same words, he is no longer holding bread; he is holding the Body of Christ. That same night Our Lord uttered the words ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ Each Mass from then on would repeat the same words, actions and miracle. This was Christ’s demand at his Last Supper. At each Mass Christ gives us more than just broken bread. He gives us the gift of himself. After all, he said ‘this is my body.’

    Sharing stories and hearing testimonies are great if they contribute to one’s faith life. However, this is not the purpose of Mass. The source and summit of our Christian life is Eucharist, giving thanks to God. In this, we unite ourselves to Christ.

    Another suggestion was, “we need to bring Jesus to the young people in a way they can easily see him at Mass. The most powerful way? Witness and testimony.” However, this omits a major aspect: Christ himself, who is present at every Mass! Are you suggesting that we cannot see Christ? The elevation of the Sacred Body is the most obvious time that one encounters Christ. What about the other sacraments, such as Penance? Doesn’t one encounter Christ in the Sacrament of Confession?

    Witness and testimony are not the only ways that one encounters Christ. Christ can be encountered through the Sacraments, teachers have the job of explaining how and why. This is primarily what my article was suggesting. My article was about engaging children in Mass. I teach primary aged children, and as much as they love story-telling, this is not the essential focus in Mass.

    Drama and dancing? This is an area I could write so much about, but I would end up with a thesis here. Holy Mass isn’t given to us for entertainment. We have school concerts and plays. In fact, every year we have Holy Week plays, and the children sing and dramatise stories of Holy Week. This is not done in the context of a Mass. Holy Mass is a time of thanksgiving, adoration and offering prayers and sacrifice to God. Nevertheless there is a huge drama that unfolds, and that is transubstantiation; Bread becoming the Body of Christ. This is ultimately what we need to remind our children.

    In connecting with young people why do we need to reduce the mystery? Can’t we elevate ourselves instead? In fact, when the priest/deacon prepares his offering of wine he utters the words “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” In Mass, we are sharing in the divinity of Christ. So instead of reducing Mass, it’s important that we share with the transcendent. As you said, you encounter God everyday in nature. If we can get that daily, shouldn’t Mass then give us something else, something greater?

    Listening to witness and testimonies, and sharing stories are great if that is what you need to help you in your faith life. However, there is a time and place for that, and Mass is not it. I think the Church is quite right in suggesting the ‘Eucharist is our source and summit.’ This is precisely why my article, ‘The Mystery of the Mass,’ dealt with having children recognize the Mystery and the True Presence of Christ.

    • Peter

      i recall that Pope Benedict, good Bavarian (though a relatively abstemious one) that he is, had a nice line on the relationship between story telling and socialising on the one hand, and the liturgy on the other: do them in the pub after Mass!

  • Paul

    A very insightful article Mishel! I agree on the improtance of educating children on the significance and relevance of the Mass in order for them to come to a deeper understanding of the sacred liturgy. It stands to reason that whenever we give a purpose to something in life it immediately becomes more meaningful. The example of fractions and ratios in which you found “boring” and therfore disenaged would have been probably not the case if it was applied to cooking. A connection of the usefullness of the concept would have been made. Therefore the same would apply for the Mass. A connection and relevance of the different parts of the Mass, the symbols in the Mass and the words of the Mass must be made in order to see its relevance and importance.

    • Jonathan Doyle

      Thanks Paul. Good insights. I am really looking forward to more of Mishel’s input.

  • Mishel

    Thanks for the message of support Paul. You summed up the article in a very succinct statement, “whenever we give a purpose to something in life it immediately becomes more meaningful.” A statement we can apply to the many things we teach in Catholic schools. Well said Paul!

  • Daniel

    Hi Mishel. Sorry for my delay in replying to your detailed reply. I love what you wrote. It’s all bang on in terms of what mass means, what it has been built to be and how what it is should be communicated in an attempt to make it meaningful. Completely concur with the age old adage that the more we learn about something, the more it means… and the more interested we become – as Paul covered. I should probably apologise not so much for the content of what I wrote but more that I did write it that way. You don’t know me from a bar of soap and some of what I presented was somewhat tongue in cheek. I tried to show that a little when I contradicted myself with the comment about turning up to a movie with an old bloke, in comparison with the amazing man the priest in our Parish is. However, I would say that I probably seemed a bit crass in parts and of course I didn’t mean to be.

    Let me save both of us some time and allow me to first make a blanket “I agree” with your points on what mass has been constructed to be. I have always believed that and understood it. The essence of your article and the ways you use to connect young children to the mass is lovely and your students are better off because of you and your approach.

    Of course my feelings and views on the mass and my reply went much further than this and to the heart of a matter I believe is very real and something the Church needs to think about and pray about and act on. As such this is possibly not the forum to continue discussing essentially the point I was alluding to really. I’m happy to continue discussing it though. That point being is that mass that we have as our ‘tool’ if you like, or sacred prayer, is there any chance at any point that we may have journeyed away from, and lost sight of the true journey that some of the most wonderful places the sacraments are ‘meant’ to take us and where the ritual itself seems to have become the ‘meaning’.

    I know many and have read a great deal from people far more learned than myself that feel the same. Richard Rohr touches on this in some of his amazing books. In fact on the topic of our Parish priest, I remember when we had him for dinner here one night and I simply asked the question ‘what do you think when we run out of priests’ (to summarise the actual question). His response was profound and I feel actually espouses what I’ve shared here. He said “I believe the people will claim their faith back again”. He used the example of parishes he new in more rural areas that are already operating without a priest and the amazing sharing and community feeling that is there. Hopefully you can grasp what he was saying there without me going on a lot more.

    This is part of the essence of what I was saying about people’s stories and the early Church. It’s true as you pointed out that ‘sacred scripture’ hadn’t been written yet though you could say that the stories I was mentioning in fact were sacred scripture in the making so is there something to think about there?

    I feel like the essence of my feeling is that at the moment I feel like someone who is strong in faith and had that personal encounter with God and has a relationship with him through daily prayer (not necessarily mass), even a baptism of the spirit, can connect with the mysteries of the Mass. But I wonder, and don’t feel like it reaches others. I look around in our parish and feel like my view has some weight as I see that my wife and I and our four boys are maybe one of four of five families of that age in the whole community, the largest in this area to my knowledge.

    Then as I’m reading Romans and how Paul is breaking apart the different between the law and faith and the fact that law has it’s place but needs faith (simply put) and I look at the Mass and sit back and ponder, do we have too much focus on ‘law’ now as Catholics. Bear in mind I speak from the view of someone in a regional centre as opposed to large city so things are getting more sparse by the week. You mentioned about a hope for the Mass being something ‘greater’. I guess that depends on what the definition of ‘greater’ is. I appreciate what you are saying but I would love to see a Church full of people alive in their faith and openly sharing about it, whether before, during (in some way) or after, in brotherhood and sisterhood as we journey together. That would be greater for me and at the moment, again despite the truly inspirational and holy man we have for our priest, we aren’t anywhere close to that.

    I want to finish by being completely clear that I’m not having a go at you here. I love what this site is and what you have contributed and as a teacher, you have my unending respect. It is a wonderful calling, yet possibly one of the most challenging.


  • Mishel

    Very well said Daniel.
    Thank you for your comments, please excuse the brevity of mine.
    I appreciate your insights and thoughts about the importance of Mass, as well as your interest in my article. I completely understand you are not having a go at me, and are instead engaging in a great discussion on a very important topic. It’s good, it keeps me thinking. I appreciate it.


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