Passion Narrative

The general liturgical rule is that lay readers are ministers to the readings, but if they are not present then a deacon would read these readings and then the priest, the deacon is the minister of the Gospel and if the deacon is not there then a priest would proclaim the gospel. To licitly proclaim the gospel you need only one ordained minister, first the deacon and then the priest. The liturgical documents make it quite clear that if there are not three deacons then lectors are to step up and help the deacon(note in liturgical texts the deacon is singular as having preference over the priest for the passion narrative in the sacramentary etc.)and if no deacon is at the mass they are to help the priest. Father McNamara, caused a letter to be published recently that says that after three deacons, three priests is the next desired configuration and then if there are not three priests then the priest would be assisted by deacons and then lectors. The error is obvious he seems to have turned the proclamation of the Gospel from a deacons role to that of the presider. He admits the conjecture and does not offer any citation because none exists to my limited knowledge. Clearly the all major documents and universal practice make it clear that a priest shall vest as a deacon if he is to assist the one or two deacon situation. It is in this way that the dignity of the Gospel is preserved as a diaconal ministry especially at this most holy of times of the year.

We know this to be true a priori by watching the televised mass from Rome and seeing the ministers vested as deacons proclaim the Gospel. (sometimes they may be priests but they must vest as deacons, never does a vested priest or celebrant proclaim the Gospel at a papal mass) The evidence is also well documented a posteri in all the liturgical texts. Some passages even state very clearly that a deacon is to read the part of Jesus and as such I have found no a posteri evidence to conclude anything different.In Canada the liturgical text says that “a priest is to read the role of Jesus only when a deacon is not present” I wonder then why would a liturgist conclude so broadly and universally that the church intends a priest to read the role of Jesus after he has delegated the gospel to a vested deacon? Is this a case of liturgical abuse? I intend to write Father McNamara about this and the timing of his letter and would appreciate all insights from as many posters as possible first.


Deacons and the Passion Narrative

And More on the Chrism Mass

ROME, APRIL 7, 2009 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: In the reading of the Passion with several readers – where there is a deacon, should he, as normal minister of the Gospel, take the part of Christ? If so, what part should the priest take? – C.M., Drogheda, Ireland

A: In 1988 the Holy See published a circular letter on the Easter celebrations. No. 33 deals with the readings of the Passion:

"The passion narrative occupies a special place. It should be sung or read in the traditional way, that is, by three persons who take the part of Christ, the narrator, and the people. The passion is proclaimed by deacons or priests, or by lay readers. In the latter case, the part of the Christ should be reserved to the priest.

“The proclamation of the passion should be without candles and incense; the greeting and the signs of the cross are omitted; and only a deacon asks for the blessing, as he does before the Gospel. For the spiritual good of the faithful, the passion should be proclaimed in its entirety and the readings that precede it should not be omitted.”

In fact, this document omits another possibility, that of a choir taking up the part of the multitude so that there would be four and not three agents for the reading. This is the procedure at the Vatican on both Palm Sunday (when the text is sung in Italian) and Good Friday (when it is sung in Latin). The parts of Christ, the narrator and individual speakers are chanted by deacons whereas the text of multiple speakers is usually sung in polyphony by the choir.

From this document it appears that the ideal situation is for the Passion narrative to be sung or read by three deacons while the priest remains at the chair, a situation that occurs mainly in cathedrals and seminaries. This is because reading the Gospel is not considered a presidential function in the Roman rite, and the deacon is the proper minister of this liturgical action. Indeed, in normal circumstances, a priest should not read the Gospel if a deacon is present.

If no deacons are present, then it would appear that the next preferred situation is that the Passion narrative be read by three priests. This situation is more likely to occur on Good Friday, when there is only one celebration, than on Palm Sunday when the priests are occupied with several Masses.

If there are no deacons and only one priest, then the priest takes the part of Christ while lay readers take the other parts.

If there are one or two deacons, the indication that the deacon asks for a blessing would suggest that the priest may remain at the chair while the deacon proclaims the Passion narrative along with one or two lay readers.

In this case it is not stated that the deacon take the part of Christ. It would appear that he may take any part. For example, as the most experienced reader, it might be better for the deacon to take the extensive part of narrator on Good Friday’s reading of the Passion according to St. John.

The document speaks of deacons or priests and makes no mention of a priest reading with one or two deacons. I believe, however, that because these two days are somewhat out of the ordinary, this situation cannot be excluded a priori and is not prohibited by the norms. In some cases it might even be necessary. If this situation were to arise, it would be congruous to reserve the part of Christ to the priest.

I think this is far from clear. Can you cite “all major documents” to support this? Some documents that make the contrary case:
“As the sacred ministers are obliged to wear all of the prescribed liturgical vestments so too the non-ordained faithful may not assume that which is not proper to them.” (1997 Instruction, On Certain Questions …, Article 6, §2.)

From the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) approved for the USA, which can be accessed from :
“337. The vestment proper to the priest celebrant at Mass and other sacred actions directly
connected with Mass is, unless otherwise indicated, the chasuble, worn over the alb and stole.
338. The vestment proper to the deacon is the dalmatic, worn over the alb and stole. The
dalmatic may, however, be omitted out of necessity or on account of a lesser degree of solemnity.”

John has some very valid points. Now, the only exception to the dalmatic is when the Holy Father wears it to wash the feet of the 12 priests, as he did for the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

I believe that the OP might be a little confused regarding who can proclaim what. If the Passion is going to be divided amongst readers, the part of Christ would have to be read by a member of the clergy. Obviously, the telecast from St. Peter’s presents an extraordinary case since the Passion was chanted in its entirety. The three deacons had different roles, with one of them chanting the part of Christ. The choir took up the role of the crowd.

Now, in the average parish, if there are three members of the clergy, the priest should take the part of Christ while the deacon and the other priest should either be the narrator or read the individual speaking parts other than that of Christ.

Unfortunately, my parish did not do such a good job handling this situation. We had three clergy, our pastor, our parochial vicar and our deacon. What our pastor did was have two lay people read the passion, with him being the third. The parts were not divided; rather the passion was read as a narrative with each person reading the part of Christ. This was clearly wrong, since we had enough clergy to do this.

The manner in which a solemn high mass was proclaimed was usually done with three priests, one the celebrant, two the deacon in Dalmatic and three the sub deacon in Tunical. This is not mere role playing but a profound recognition of the dignity of the mass as proscribed and a reaffirmation of the permanent nature of Holy Orders. Once ordained to a rank of the clergy( major or minor) this rank is not forfeited by elevation to a new rank. This is the ancient manner of our church that a solemn high mass must have vested deacons and subdeacons(lectors).

The points in which you mention relates to wearing the appropriate vestments to the role of being fulfilled, and, if these ministers have the right wear these vestments by virtue of their ordination. They do not speak to whether a priest who acts as the deacon of the word must vest as the celebrant or not. There is no conflict with what you quote and what the church has done for centuries.

For a priest to assist the deacons in proclaiming the Gospel dressed as the celebrant especially given the requirements of a solemn service on Passion Sunday and Good Friday contradicts the liturgical history of our church. A mass is a solemn high mass not because there is a priest or bishop but because there is a deacon and a sub deacon present. So where Father McNamara identifies the solemnity of the service he then suggests the second best way to preserve that solemnity is to not have deacons at all! This position is simply not supported anywhere in tradition or document that I am aware of. This disposition is the root the logical errors that I see in his article which he use as the foundation to put forward what appears to be the larger error that the celebrant would push the deacon out of the prime place in the liturgy ostensible because that somehow makes the event more solemn. The rubrics expect and anticipate the most solemn service possible the first choice is clearly in the passion narrative when there is only one deacon (note the singularity of the form) that the deacon is proclaim the Passion narrative instead of the priest. In Canada the wording is even more specific in that the role of Jesus is to be read by a priest only when a deacon is not present.


Howvever, I believe that you are not taking Paschale Solemnitatis into account when making your observations:

  1. The passion narrative occupies a special place. It should be sung or read in the traditional way, that is, by three persons who take the part of Christ, the narrator, and the people. The passion is proclaimed by deacons or priests, or by lay readers. In the latter case, the part of the Christ should be reserved to the priest.

Promulgated by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 1988, Paschale Solemnitatis is an authoritative document of the Holy See which has not been abrogated and remains in force.

You might be confusing what is done in the Extraordinary Form with what is done in the Ordinary Form.

None of this is found anywhere in church tradition or rubric.

What you will find is that three deacons are to proclaim the Passion and only in the absence all three deacons would the the priest be called upon in the first case and when the priest is called upon then of course he would read Jesus ahead of the lectors just as the deacon would read Jesus ahead of the lectors. This is the ordinary way in which it is to be done and what we see in Rome is simply what the rubrics call for. Clearly the part of Jesus should have been reserved for the deacon in your church and two lay lectors should have played the other parts. The celebrant and concelebrant should have stood at their chairs and listened to the passion narrative with the people. However if one of the priests were vested as a deacon they would replace the lower rank lector and then who would care if that priest read the role of Jesus when vested as a deacon because that is how the church used to celebrate solemnities for centuries.


The dalmatic is a bishops vestment and that is why it is so important that deacons wear this vestment since it highlights the ministry of deacons and their relationship to their bishop.

Yes I admit to draw some of my post from the ancient history (now new again) of church to illustrate we are not in vacuum. However even though Paschale Solemnitatis is still in force it is not the definitive document in these matters. Paschale Solemnitatis clearly states in its introduction “With these points in mind, the Congregation for Divine Worship, after due consideration, thinks that it is a fitting moment to recall certain elements, doctrinal and pastoral, and various norms which have already been published concerning Holy Week. All those details which are given in the liturgical books concerning Lent, Holy Week, the Easter Triduum and paschal time retain their full force, unless otherwise stated in this document.”

Approved Conference documents, The GRIM The CB etc etc appear to all take precedence over this doctrinal note.


I do not think that you are taking Paschale Solemnitatis into account. It says that the deacon or the priest can do this. It is not restricting the Passion narrative to the deacon.

I am not disputing what Rome did. Given the fact that the Passion was chanted, it would have been too much for the Holy Father to have chanted what needed to be chanted. Furthermore, what you might not have taken into account is that the Vatican has a plethora of deacons available for these particular liturgies. The average parish, let alone, the average Cathedral, does not. Our Cathedral only has one deacon and a priest who serves as the administrator, as well as the bishop.

In my parish’s case, there were three clergy and these should have been the ones proclaiming the passion. The deacon should have served as the narrator, the presiding priest as Christ and the homilist taking the role of the speakers other than Christ.

The most clear interpretation I have found for the Passion Narrative was published by then MSGR. ( now Bishop) Peter Elliott. His book is only six years old and should be presumably up to date on all the rubrics of the universal Church.

It is titled Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year; According to the Modern Roman Rite: Ignatius Press.238pages. Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat January 21 2002.

The most appropriate paragraph states

The Reading of the Passion
143. The Passion takes the place of the Gospel, but it is pro¬claimed without candles or incense. If they are not already in place, three bare lecterns are set up (with microphones, if necessary) at the center of the sanctuary or some other suitable place. All stand for the acclamation before the Gospel. The vested deacons or lectors come from their places in the sanctuary, each carrying a book of the Passion. Only the deacons go to the celebrant at the chair and seek his blessing. They bow for his blessing as usual and then go directly to the lecterns or to the ambo. The narrator stands at the central lectern (or ambo), Christus on his right, the crowd on his left. “The Lord be with you” and the signing of the book is omitted. When possible, the Passion should be sung, with the narrator and Christus and with the choir taking the part of the crowd. If there is no deacon and the celebrant reads the Passion, he should take the part of Christ.

What would be helpful is to find out just which documents he draws these details from. I suspect it is the general Passion Narrative instruction however several times in the paragraph he quotes the Ceremonial of Bishops no 273. I do not have that document to source check but it would be interesting if someone has a link to one online or a hard copy they could check.

Finally this paragraph comes from a well researched book, it is written by a now Bishop, a liturgist studied in Rome, and his publication carries the Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat. Another scholar at Notre Dame who edits a liturgical journal strongly recommended his books to me last year for their accuracy. I am sorry but when comparing this against Father McNamara’s mass media article that is offered as opinion I must say this is far more definitive assessment of what the rubrics actually say and expect.


I admire Bishop Elliot. However, he is not the rule-making authority in this case. It falls to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to make that determination. They have made it through Paschale Solemnitatis. Furthermore, PS notes that when the Passion is divided into parts, the part of Christ falls to the priest.

Why are you so reticent about having the priest read the part of Christ? At the Cathedral, the bishop read the part of Christ while the deacon served as the narrator.

Thank you for the question. I am not really all that concerned if a priest reads the part of Jesus or not. With so few deacons, relatively, the priest will be reading the part of Jesus the majority of times in the majority of parishes.

My concern is when the deacon is present at the minority of services. What do the rubrics say specifically about the role of proclaiming the Gospel and deacons?

The deacon who advises the priest, to let the deacon fulfil their ordained ministry, assisted by other deacons or lectors, preserves not only the ministry of the diaconate and cohesion of the liturgy but he also defends the integrity of the priest. More than once have I seen and heard of my Cardinal Archbishop verbally restrain priests from egomania in their attempt to push aside the deacon and his ministry at high profile parish and cathedral celebrations.

The temptation to play Jesus on Good Friday is just to great for many priests and they find themselves regretting on that night that they have a deacon in their parish as the look for ways around the rubrics. Sometimes with honey they relying on the docility of their deacon and sometimes with vinegar and simply pushing themselves into the role. Thankfully many priests simply bless the deacon and stand at their chair as the deacon takes their spot along with lectors as they read the PN with the role of Jesus being read by the deacon.

The article written by Father McNamara offers for our consideration some liturgical novelties required to generate his conclusion that a priest, vested as a priest, should have a superior role alongside the deacon in the PN. Never have I found any rubric instruction the agrees with this statement, even if implied it would render much of the rubrics regulating the interaction of deacons and lectors during the PN as nonsensical and as such can not been seen as truly meaningful.

Every liturgical text on point stresses the importance of preserving the ministries of lectors and deacons. They have a priority place in reading the good news and proclaiming the Gospel ahead of the priest. The rubrics for the PN reinforce this priority by saying only the deacon goes to receive his blessing from the priest and not the lectors, and finally the priest remains at his chair. Father McNamara mentions this but then he introduces a liturgical novelty of three priests, ostensibly vested as priests, as more desirable than
*]two deacons and one lector
*]one deacon and two lectors
With that bit of creative thinking he has granted the celebrant status as the normal minister of the PN ahead of deacons which is simply not stated in any liturgical text and routinely rejected in the GIRM which takes precedence over the Paschale Solemnitatis. The reading of the PN is not a presidential function and as such falls in first priority to those ministers ordained to carry out that duty and not to the celebrant.

A priest is quite simply never on equal footing with the deacon when it comes to the PN because the deacon is the minister ordained to proclaim the PN, and the priest vested as a priest, is always just the substitute.This principle also applies to the other readings and lectors where both the deacon and priest are both just substitute ministers. In the case of the PN the priest substitutes in not when there is only one or two deacons he subs in only when there are no deacons.

The plain text of the rubrics expect lectors to sub in when there is one deacon but less than three deacons. The priest subs in when there is less than one deacon. Further the rubrics make it quite clear they don’t expect any more than one priest to sub in. Once again presumably to avoid creating the impression that the PN is a priestly/presidential function.

The problem is potentially reticent priests who simply will not accept the nature of the diaconate and the plain text readings of the rubrics. This behaviour, so rejected by the bishops, has been given a new life through the article penned by Father McNamara and it stands in sharp relief to the well respected commentaries by Bishop Elliot and the rubrics approved by The Holy See and our local conferences.


Again, you have only taken into consideration the personal opinoins of both Fr. McNamara and Bishop Elliot (both of whom I respect) and have not addressed Paschale Solemnitatis, which clearly indicates that the part of Christ should be read by the priest when there is a division.

In my case, we had three members of the clergy, all of whom should have been involved in the reading of the Passion on Good Friday.

I am not downplaying the ministry of the diaconate; however, I also do not believe that the role of the priest should be usurped when PS clearly indicates what he should be able to do.

What happened in Rome both on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday was just as licit and proper as what would have happened had the Holy Father chanted the part of Christ. But, in an average parish where you only have one deacon, and, if you are lucky, a parochial vicar, then, these two should be the ones participating with the pastor in the proclamation of the Passion, with the celebrant (priest) taking the role of Christ.

I have incorrectly presented Father McNamara’s position about the priority of ministers. He does not say three priests are better than 1 deacon and lectors etc etc. He does say

If no deacons are present, then it would appear that the next preferred situation is that the Passion narrative be read by three priests. This situation is more likely to occur on Good Friday, when there is only one celebration, than on Palm Sunday when the priests are occupied with several Masses.

The problem is whether the intermediary combinations of a deacon(s) with one or two lectors take precedence over having a priest present at all when a deacon is present. Father obviously concludes that priest, deacon and lector is permissible but he does so only based on opinion and not based on the RM or PS. In fact his argument all hinges on if it this combination is specifically forbidden or not.

In other words instead of following the stated principles at holy week which anticipates the close following of the actual rubrics and tradition of the church he instead changes that around to allow priests to have a preferential role over deacons as minister of the Gospel because it is not forbidden in Paschale Solemnitatis.

These are his exact words
I believe, however, that because these two days are somewhat out of the ordinary, this situation cannot be excluded a priori and is not prohibited by the norms.

The principle he is using to change the ancient tradition deacons, or when not available priests vested as deacons to create the high solemnities, and not to mention the authoritative directives of the RM and approved conference documents, is that at special times of year the priest can do what is not forbidden.

The problem is even SP denies that point when it concludes that the PN should be done in the traditional way and as such the tradition of the church is the guide when the RM and SP etc are silent and not the principle of do what is not forbidden.

It is simply sad to me to see that old justification of liturgical abuse still being used. First you dissect the analysis from its meaningful whole, ignore authoritative source documents such as the RM and then you state it is not forbidden while ignoring the integrity contained in the tradition of the church.


That is incorrect. The dalmatic is also the proper vesture of a bishop. There is a special dalmatic–the pontifical dalmatic–that bishops wear under their chasubles.

The dalmatic is also the proper liturgical vesture of a Cardinal Deacon. We have all seen at the papal masses where a Cardinal Deacon or three or four are dressed in dalmatic and mitre. (Side note: there are pictures of Vatican II where the Cardinal Bishops are dressed in cope and mitre, Cardinal Priests dressed in chasuble and mitre, and the Cardinal Deacons dressed in dalmatic and mitre. I presume that the cope is the vestment proper to a Cardinal Bishop at formal occasions.)

In both the EF and OF, priests may vest up and serve as deacons at Mass. In that case, they wear the dalmatic and wear the stole across the breast like deacons do. Furthermore, priests in both forms of the Mass, priests may vest as chaplain deacons in dalmatic over the cassock.

I think this will be my last post on this issue.

Everyone is in agreement that the deacon is the priority ordained minister of the PN and every Gospel for that matter. Everyone agrees that the celebrant is the last minister to read the PN. The general rubric that the celebrant defers to the deacon then to another priest in that order applies here as well and is further illuminated by the instructions that a celebrant would bless the deacon only and not the assistant lectors at the start of the PN. This act of blessing as Father McNamara and Bishop Elliott agree, leaves the celebrant to stay at his chair. Finally we also all agree that the deacon in the ideal situation would read the the part of Jesus since the ideal situation is for three deacons to read the PN. Nothing should prevent the deacon from reading that part of Jesus because that is the ideal situation of the PN ***Clearly the ideal situation specifically called for in the Rubrics is that priority minister of the Gospel reads the priority passage of the PN or Gospel and that minister is the deacon and not a priest or even a bishop. ***

The question is why and under what circumstance would cause a deacon to no longer read the part of Jesus and as such no longer be the priority minister of the PN? Father McNamara seems to say that happens simply when a lector is called on to assist the deacon.

Bishop Elliott seems to argue years earlier that the position taken by Father McNamara makes no sense and nothing about the role of the deacon is elevated or diminished by the presence of lector. His commentary on the rubrics is clearly identified in earlier posts.

The issue of whether a deacon is assisted by lectors or not strikes me as a self-serving non-issue to rationalize the celebrant from a no readership role in the PN when a deacon is present, to the highest priority reader. Moving from the lowest to highest in opposition of all the stated rubrics seems like it would require more clarification and explanation then it is not forbidden .

When this happens the very nature of the diakonia of the word and his minster’s place in this most solemn service of the roman rite is now minimized with out due cause. The rubrics become just another document to be twisted for privilege and is no longer attached to the tradition of the church and the symbols of the liturgy. If it was important that the deacon read the Gospel at solemn masses and assisting priests performing these roles would vest as deacons. Surely it must be hard for Father McNamara to be arguing for privileges of priests during the PN that they didn’t even enjoy prior to Vatican II.

In a closing note when I read the part of the narrator on PS and GF. I did so from an approved liturgical text that includes in their instruction that the priest is to read the part of Jesus unless a deacon is present. My priest didn’t care, and now he has this article from Father McNamara to justify his ill tempered comments and disdain for the instructions approved by our conference. Too bad he seemed to have forgotten the lesson of feet washing so quickly. Clearly the act of feet washing was just another chance to get up in centre stage and he missed the point of humility before those of lower rank in the church.

Once again I ask for any insights that I can receive from others before I write Father McNamara to rescind his speculative commentary.


Can you produce the text that verifies what you are saying. Name of text, page or paragraph #.

I am not sure what you are asking for and quite frankly don’t have the time to cite every single document that has been mentioned here but if you mean the book that contains the ““The part of Jesus is to be played by the priest unless a deacon is present”” is not at my fingers tips but part of the parish collection. My last pastor bought three books for the Holy Week readings authorized by the CCCB, hardbound, within the last 15 years because he was only at the Parish for that long A.P. & P. The specific place in the book was at the front when it describes who could and should read the different parts of the Passion Narrative.This phraseology corresponds to the one in the commentary by Bishop Elliot and he lives in Australia which leads me to believe that a more substantial source document might exist that was used for both liturgists.

If you are referring to my analysis of the priority of the deacon in proclaiming the Gospel above the celebrant, these passages are commonly found in any sacramentary or lectionary. The proclamation of the gospel is a diaconal ministry and not a presidential one, the priest should never proclaim the gospel when a deacon is present this is the ancient norm of the church going back perhaps even as far as to apostolic times. However a priest vested as deacon would seem to pose no problem this practice is still routine in the EF of the mass.

I hope this helps


However, we are not to mix and match between the EF and the OF. Each form of the Roman Rite carries with it its own peculiarities. Furthermore, you cite what both Bishop Elliot and Fr. McNamara (both men whom I greatly admire) as sources; however, inasmuch as these men are learned, they are not the Holy See.

You have yet to cite authoritative documentation from the Holy See such as Paschale Solemnitatis. PS clearly indicates that the priest should read the part of Christ. I have already quoted this section, but, you have yet to address it.


I have enjoyed your posts and they have helped my clarify my thoughts. Thank you.

I have question for you, does the EC have mention anything about the Passion narrative that would clarify SP, GIRM etc. Since this is a definitive book and contains practises that are to be emulated in all churches for all services when feasible.


In the OF, there is little reason, however, to do so, except for a desire to participate in the proclamation of the the PN. The OF allows for priestly concelebration as normative where sufficient priests are present; the GIRM for the US seems to imply strongly that a priest is to vest as a priest-concelebrant, not as a deacon, even when he fills the deaconal role in the absence of a deacon. (USCCB, **GIRM for the US II Concelebrated Mass, ** ¶208)

  1. If a deacon is not present, his proper duties are to be carried out by some of the concelebrants.

In the absence also of other ministers, their proper parts may be entrusted to other suitable members of the faithful; otherwise, they are carried out by some of the concelebrants.

Further, the dalmatic is forbidden by the GIRM to be worn at mass over the cassock, or even the cassock and surplice; it is to be worn over alb, amice, cincture and stole. Likewise, the chasuble must be worn over the alb. (GIRM, 336) It is permitted to wear the cassock under the alb, but I’ve known few priests who do so, as it tends towards uncomfortable warmth.

The EF, except for when the celebrant is a bishop, forbids concelebration; the only form of concelebration permitted outside the “pontifical mass” was for the second priest to vest as and serve as a deacon, and the third as subdeacon. This, more than anything else, seems to be behind the loss of the diaconate and subdiaconate as anything other than transitional roles.

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