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Where does the Francis pontificate go from here?

Partisans on every side of Pope Francis have their predictions and prognostications, roughly falling into two broad categories.

Pope Francis presided over the Final Commendation and Farewell at the end of Cardinal George Pell’s funeral on Jan. 14, 2023. Alan Koppschall/CNA

Morto ’n papa se ne fa n’artro, say the Romans – “When one pope dies, another is made” – and like all maxims and proverbs and other dicta of social wisdom, this one is true all the time. Only, how is it true this time?

Pope Francis is the first man to succeed a living former pope in more than six centuries. So, the question is really about how Francis’s pontificate will change, now that his predecessor in office has gone the way of all flesh.

Partisans on every side of Pope Francis have their predictions and prognostications, roughly falling into two broad categories: Those who expect Francis to pull out all the stops, and those who expect him to shift into endgame / succession consolidation mode. There’s a lot of wishful thinking in there, and a good deal of fearmongering. Everybody’s wrong, but – with apologies to The Buffalo Springfield – that don’t mean ain’t nobody right.

Meet the new pope … same as the old pope?

Some corroboration of the balls-out thesis may be found in Pope Francis’s recent reorganization of the Rome Vicariate, by which he has in essence reduced the government of his home territory to personal rule. Like the rift it signaled with his Cardinal Vicar for the city, that reform measure was both a long time coming, and in keeping with Pope Francis’s other reform efforts. Francis has spent nearly a decade governing the Church, and so mostly without the curia.

Pope Francis has always preferred a “hands on” approach to the government of the Church, but it has not always served him well. In the case of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile and that of Gustavo Zanchetta in Argentina, Pope Francis’s personal management did not exactly lead to the appearance of justice being done. In cases like those of Guam’s Anthony Apuron or – rather more recently – Marko I. Rupnik SJ, it is tough to say whether the individuals and organs ultimately tasked with investigating the business and judging the men involved were administering justice at all, or whether they were doing the will of their principal.

Sure, he has bent this or that curial department to his purpose now and again – his creation of a superdicastery for “integral human development” and decision to put the outfit in the hands of a trusted confrere come to mind, as does his use of Divine Worship for some near-the-knuckle work implementing his legislative massacre of Benedict’s liturgical legacy.

Successful rulers tend to delegate more and more, especially as they begin to perceive that they are approaching the end. Pope Francis is doing the opposite. That may be because he does not have the end of his reign in sight. It may indicate his own measure of his success in reform.

A ruler who perceives himself failing will tend rather toward micromanagement than to delegation, but this tendency toward personal rule is nothing new for Pope Francis, so it cannot serve as an index of his own feelings about the way things are going. Given the burden of papal office, however, it is hard to see how more active and direct involvement in more daily work of government could possibly be healthy even for a man ten years Francis’s junior. It certainly isn’t practical, whatever you think of the man.

What gives?

There has also been a lot of talk about Pope Francis moving to ensure something like continuity of vision in the papal succession.

The fact is that Pope Francis is increasingly isolated in the Vatican, while the College of Cardinals spread throughout the world has little in the way of working familiarity with itself. Said simply and shortly: Francis has no allies at home, while the men who will choose his successor hardly know him or each other. The unflappable, scrupulously level-headed and consummately fair-minded John L. Allen Jr. of Crux recently compared Pope Francis to the unfortunate Dickie Greenleaf. The late and long-suffering Cardinal George Pell – not without reason considered a hero of the Faith – is reported to have taken the extraordinary step of writing pseudonymously to the College about Pope Francis’s governance, and wrote a scathing critique of Francis’s leadership for The Spectator shortly before he died.

Even the cardinals broadly sympathetic to Francis’s vision of mold-smashing evangelical élan for the Church are flummoxed by the ersatz and ad personam modes and orders he has established. This Vatican-watcher first posed a question about this five years ago: Will the Pope’s project result in real reform—or turn Rome into a Buenos Aires-on-Tiber?

Welp, Buenos Aires-on-Tiber it is.

One would be hard pressed to find a prince of the Church who isn’t at very least uneasy with the answer we now have to the question. Francis has resisted predictability. He encourages puzzlement and thrives on perplexity. There’s no saying what he may do next. Whatever happens during the balance of Francis’s pontificate – or doesn’t – one thing is certain: There will be an end to his reign.

Who’s next?

I’d wager one could build an exact replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in record time with the man-hours Vatican beat journalists while away in handicapping the next papal conclave, but that is because Vatican beat journalists spend a lot of time waiting for something to happen and need to talk about something else while they wait. The plain fact is nobody knows who the next guy will be. Handicapping the Big Race is a pastime.

That said, here are some things to consider.

Pope Francis cannot reign forever. He has not created a functioning bureaucracy – certainly not one that can hope to survive him – and he has done much to create conditions in which the men charged with choosing his successor may have a harder time of it than should have been necessary.

There are not only competing visions for the Church and incompatible views of how to achieve incommensurable goals. The unknowns of personality, record, talent, taste, style, and a host of other qualities all bearing on fitness for office abound. The one thing on which everyone agrees is that the current situation is untenable.

The College of Cardinals will have to choose between someone who promises to be what they thought Francis was, and someone who is the polar opposite of what he has been. That sort of choice is not impossible, nor too difficult, per se.

Complicating the choice, however, is that some of the cardinals thought Francis was going to be an easily manipulated outsider willing to let others do things, while others thought he was just the right kind of energetic visionary cheerleader the Church needed to get her groove back. Those two estimations were not irreconcilable, but they were both exactly wrong and precisely backward.

Pope Francis has governed by the twin swords of fear and uncertainty.

[A] prince,” wrote Niccolò Machiavelli, “ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred.”

A prince needs a certain kind of fear among his subjects in order to be an effective ruler. Just exactly what kind of fear is best remains a matter of debate among political philosophers. Nevertheless, “[A prince] can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.”

[W]hen it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone,” the Florentine diplomat and man of letters continues in Chapter XVII of his Prince, “he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must abstain himself from others’ property.” Whether one considers the various money grabs in the curia, or his penchant for putting religious congregations in receivership, or combining bishoprics, Pope Francis hasn’t had the easiest time with that.

The reason: “Men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.”

There is a good deal of talk about the “resistance” to Pope Francis and his agenda, such as it is, though one wonders as much what Francis should have to fear in it as whence it comes. There has also been a good deal of talk about Francis’s almost uncanny ability to shake off scandal. His successor will not be able to count on such Teflon coating, which in any case wears off eventually.

[A] prince ought to reckon conspiracies of little account when his people are benevolent toward him,” Machiavelli advises in Chapter XIX, “but when the people are his enemy, and hold him in hatred, he must be fearful of everything and everyone.” Niccolò goes on to note: “Well-ordered states and wise princes have with every diligence thought to let the nobles fall not into desperation, and to keep the people satisfied and contented, for this is one of the most important objects a prince can have.”

Given the general tenor of things under Francis, however, it is possible that Machiavelli is too much. Perhaps a better literary measure of the reign may be found in Terry Pratchett’s fantastic Machiavel, Lord Havelock Vetinari. “[W]henever some well-meaning soul begins a novel enterprise they always, with some kind of uncanny foresight, site it at the point where it will do maximum harm to the fabric of reality.”

Do not expect the next conclave, whenever it comes, to be short or pretty.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 237 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


    • Pope Francis, with all due respect, has not an uncanny ability to shake off scandal. You omit to mention that the governing impression is induced by a complicit media. All of us Catholic individuals are fully aware of his failure to prosecute sexual abusers, his reinstatement of Cardinal McCarrick after Pope Benedict’s actions, the agreement brokered by McCarrick with the CCP, criticised by Cardinal Zen which has resulted in overt persecution of Chinese Catholics, his open persecution of traditional Catholics while ignoring the outright heresies promoted by the German bishops, his personal letters signalling support for the James Martin view of the Faith, … etc etc. it is simply that the main stream media wanted the Church to be rid of Pope Benedict (way too Catholic) and so accused him of manifest failings regarding sexual abuse – yes, the Pope who actively laicised hundreds of priests, known to be sexual abusers, was loudly threatened prosecution in the International courts. And when Francis affirms the agenda of the Germans and James Martin by his nod and wink and elevates known abusers to the Synod of the Family – not a word.

  1. Regarding Francis and US Bishops, he has appointed 132 US Bishops younger than age 75, which is the age when they no longer can vote in the UCCB. There currently are 140 US Bishops younger than age 75, who were appointed before Francis. 12 of them are age 74, including Burke, and from large Diocese like Brooklyn, Newark and Philadelphia. 18 of them are age 73, including Neumann, DiNardo and Salazar, and from large dioceses like Los Angeles, Galveston-Houston and New Orleans. Of the 272 US Bishops younger than age 75, Francis’ current 132 Bishops shall become the majority 137 UCCB voting Bishops when Bishop Fitzgerald turns 75 on May 23. Francis has appointed 7 US Bishops ages 46 – 50; and 23 US Bishops ages 51-55. Expect future appointments of similar young Bishops, who shall vote for 20-25 years in the UCCB. Therefore, the days of the control of the USCCB by conservative Bishops are numbered. That shall become most evident in the 2024 UCCB elections when all of the now 30 age 73 and 74 Bishops appointed before Francis shall have turned age 75 and no longer shall be able to vote. These US “Francis Bishops” shall appoint “Francis Heads” of Seminaries, who shall appoint “Francis faculty,” who shall teach seminarians to become “Francis priests.”
    To those utterly ineffective people who resent Francis, their impotent resentment of Francis is interesting because these powerless people “don’t have the numbers, and the House always wins.” And that is because, even for these amebic Authoritarians, the Pope “has full, SUPREME, and universal power over the WHOLE Church, a power which he can always exercise UNHINDERED.” Cathechism # 882. They are Sysephean Authoritarians who are “trumped” by Cathechismal Authority. How sweet that Papal irony is because these futile fellows, always male, are utterly unable to do anything about their Catholic future except to leave the Church by joining SSPX, which even Benedict stated “has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers. . . do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.” (March 10, 2009 Letter of Pope Benedict XVI.)

    • “Brian McDonough”, we’ve read your pitiful comments time and again, just under different names. They lack reality and charity. In your vision of the Church as a numbers game, you have the figures down-pat, but like the cynic, you know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

    • “To those utterly ineffective people who resent Francis, their impotent resentment of Francis is interesting because these powerless people “don’t have the numbers, and the House always wins.””

      Well, Catholics – lay and lower clergy – have certainly had to impotently resent bad popes before. Sometimes, even multiple ones in a row.

      We should still pray for such popes, of course.

    • You have posted this exact same response on multiple occasions on this site, usually as a reaction to valid and legitimate concerns regarding Francis’s papacy. Why are you repeatedly posting these talking points word for word? Who is paying you to troll this site?

    • Thank you for your powerless resentment which shall have no effect on the future of Francis. Your impotent resentment ironically is exhibited by your adjective “tiny.” May your sterile resentment enjoy many more years of Francis, who now shall avoid retiring at all costs, since he now knows the full effect of having a retired Pope.

      • Brian, Mc., I have doubts as to whether you are even Catholic, or even if so, whether you actively practice your faith. My guess is you’re simply a troll out for a bit of amusement. Nevertheless I prayed for an increase of faith, hope, and charity. Just for you.

  2. We read: “Said simply and shortly: Francis has no allies at home, while the men who will choose his successor hardly know him or each other.”

    Well, if the conclave cardinals do want to know each other, and especially the most likely candidates to succeed Pope Francis, then purposely available and very highly recommended is the thorough, balanced, readable, and incisive collection of bios for the likely papabili: Edward Pentin (editor), “The Next Pope: The Leading Cardinal Candidates” (Sophia Institute Press, 2020).

    The two leading synodality operatives are not listed, and some would say that this is as it should be.

    • “The two leading synodality operatives are not listed, and some would say that this is as it should be.”

      Good news, and yes. But that may be only because their candidacy would cause an immediate backlash due to the radical agendas they have been trying to implement. What is your sense of the possibility of a proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing being elected, meaning someone whose thinking is radical but who will fly under the radar so to speak? The possibility of another Francis basically?

  3. As counterpoint Altieri makes readable the unlikely compatibility between Machiavelli’s Prince and Francis. Francis not the ideal. Far from it. Although he baffles the pundit, he manages to survive the expected backlash. And backlash in mountainous waves.
    His Holiness has power, aggrandized power, at times monarchic power. “I do not need to answer. I’m the Pope!”, Francis to prefect Card Müller when asked why his best were summarily fired.
    What Altieri perhaps misses is a different kind of Machiavellian prince, one who breaks all the rules of the game [and most importantly those of the Church] and still manages not only to survive, but reduce his traditional would be adversaries, men of rank to hat in hand obeisance.
    “Pope Francis cannot reign forever”. That depends. There’s a strange spirit in the air. Makes one wonder.

    • This comment OMHO defines the reign of Pope Francis “Pope Francis has governed by the twin swords of fear and uncertainty.” neither of which is a virtue in any sense of the Word.

      • Fear and uncertainty in context of Altieri’s reference to Francis implies fear of being demoted and humiliated [Card DiNardo], or sent off to Siberia [Card Burke’s assignment to Malta], beleaguered, as with prefect CDF Card Müller mentioned above, although these men appear to be above hatred, but having righteous anger. Another meaning is doctrinal ambiguity by which bishops remain uncertain yet fear disobeying a Roman Pontiff if they don’t fall in line. Hatred, unfortunately is a self defeating response of some traditionalists.
        Altieri gives a reasonable description of the Pontiff’s use of authority more monarchic than vicarious. And as you say not virtuous, rather exploitive. It’s not feasible to accrue and act with absolute authority, that which is reserved to the divinity and expect approval.

    • Your thoughts on the following comment would be appreciated:

      “Pope Francis has governed by the twin swords of fear and uncertainty.”

      • My sense is that this is a fair and accurate assessment, even though it is not flattering. Francis’s fear of traditional liturgy and more traditional believers is inordinate and unjustified. At the same time, he seems to fear speaking in a direct way that challenges and potentially alienates his progressive base.

        People who honor truth communicate with precision and clarity that leads to deep spiritual understanding and moral conviction. Francis’s pattern is calculated ambiguity, making vague statements that can be interpreted in different ways depending on his audience. This communication style raises legitimate questions about Francis’s motives and intentions. Why be intentionally vague if your intent is to speak truth and guide the flock?

        Fear and uncertainty. A sad state of affairs indeed.

  4. It seems that Pope Francis, from the moment of his “election”, chose the simplest of managerial strategies, and that is the one of dictatorship. The vow of obedience is something altogether missing from modern bodies politic. So, as a consequence, he threw any potential opposition off-balance from the get-go. This leaves two simple choices for the Catholic hierarchy, willful or painful and frustrating obedience, or assassination.
    From the human experience of the past 20th century, with few exceptions, only the good are targets for the latter.

  5. Interesting analysis. Am still wondering about the next conclave. Will there still be enough holy Cardinals to save holy mother church?

  6. Place no faith in mortal man. Have faith alone in God.

    Francis will one day be but a footnote in history. But he will bring that footnote with him into eternity. There, God will judge his stewardship of the Church because, after all, the Church is Christ’s Body.

  7. To those utterly ineffective people who resent Francis, their impotent resentment of Francis is interesting …

    Which tune do you whistle when you walk past the graveyard?

    • Might it be that the discontent is less about Pope Francis than it is his actions and an institutional one?

      In a recent interview Archbishop Chaput suggests that the pope, as a Jesuit, is governing the Church more as a Jesuit General within the top-down Jesuit Order, than as a pope in collegial responsibility with his curia and bishops–the “hierarchical communion” articulated by the real and jettisoned Second Vatican Council.

      While the synodal block party is seemingly well-intended to foster a more harmonious fabric between clergy and laity, hasn’t it devolved into plebiscite replacing of the former by the latter? Again, the governance thing rather than a personal resentment?

      As for the synodal maestros selected by the pope, you just can’t get good help these days!
      And as for the tune “whistle[d]” past the graveyard, how about “When the saints go marching in”? But, “saints,” what’s that?

      • I view the various attempts at creating a Vox pop religion as a means to circumvent the Magesterium of the Church. While this is disconcerting, it in many ways reaffirms the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church and her infallibility. That is, the Pope, by his infallibility, is subject to the Truth. He cannot openly flaunt the 2,000 year Truths of the Faith as handed to us by Christ. He risks, if making a positive declaration that cuts across the Truth of Christ, deposition as a heretic. All he can do is feign an inquisition of the people to justify his actions which go against tradition- the ‘survey of the bishops’ and its use to base the single-handed attempt to abolish the Latin Mass is an example. The Synod on Synodality is another transparent attempt to harness the tame voices to implement the changes desired in order to appease his masters. It reveals that the secular supporters of Francis understand how to politically manipulate, but are uncomprehending the divine nature of Holy Mother Church.

  8. “Pope Francis cannot reign forever”. That depends. There’s a strange spirit in the air. Makes one wonder. Translation, Whether what afflicts the Church today will transcend this pontificate into the future.

    • I hate to seem pessimistic, but I have a difficult time thinking of how the ship will right itself. The spirit of the age is powerful, and the corruption runs deep.

      • Perhaps realistic best describes our response, so as to act with right purpose and support for others. But yes, it doesn’t appear hopeful for the future. Faith and confidence will carry us through whatever transpires. Hope, in the ordinary sense, is surpassed by its theological meaning, trust in Christ’s promises. Benedict spoke in that respect recently, his concern for the Church, his reliance on Our Lord’s command.

  9. Given that the pope has full authority over the church, what’s to stop him from simply naming his own successor, thus forestalling the need for a conclave?

  10. The anti Francis sentiment often expressed by many posting comments in many aspects reflects an American centric miopic perspective influenced by American exceptionalism and attitudes that seem to flow from an imperialist mindset.

    imperialism, state policy, practice, or advocacy of extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other areas

    • It revealing that the most sophistic and shallow criticisms of “anti-Francis sentiment” point to politics while being emphatically political in their analysis (such as it is). And, of course, they are crudely anti-American, to a degree that is simply laughable.

      There is a spectrum of criticisms of Pope Francis, and many criticisms are simplistic and rather ridiculous, such as those that simply label him a “Marxist” or “Free Mason”.

      The criticisms and concerns expressed here at CWR over the years have been primarily theological in nature, with an eye toward the pontiff’s fairly obvious reliance on force of personality and authoritarian tactics/rhetoric. I think the two are essentially related in various ways, although that relationship is certainly complex. Pope Francis has made it clear that he has little interest in theology or the finer points of doctrine; he emphasizes the pastoral. But, of course, all pastoral work is rooted in dogma and doctrine, and is essentially theological, even if many Catholics refuse to see the relationship. I also think (and plenty of examples could be given as evidence) that Francis is a very sentimental man; his emotions often drive the doctrinal/praxis bus(es). There is a certain chaotic nature to how he addresses challenges and issues, sometimes to the point of incoherence.

      My own theological heroes (as can be seen from my 25 years of writing) are Polish (JPII), German (Ratzinger), Italian (Aquinas, Guardini), French (de Lubac, Danielou, Bouyer), English (Chesterton, Newman, Sheed), and so forth. My American theological heroes (Sheen, Schindler, Merton) are all very critical of the U.S. in various ways, and certainly aren’t “American centric” or “imperialist” in the least.

      But, that said, I get that it’s easier just to use a blunt tool or a shotgun blast than to engage with reasonable criticisms and serious concerns.

      • I think that critics such as this chap have very little defence and so resort to the time-honoured weapon of personal attack. It seems to have pervaded the whole of society to the extent that reasoned discussion is totally exceptional. That being said, can you imagine any reasoned defence of Pope Francis’ time-line of actions?
        • Elevation of Cardinal Daneels – on the balcony at his election and as head of the Synod of the Family after taped evidence of his suppression of evidence of sexual abuse;
        •Reinstatement of Cardinal McCarrick after Pope Benedict’s actions to marginalise him;
        • Cardinal MacCarrick’s negotiations for the agreement with the CCP, by which, according to people who seem to know, including Cardinal Zen, the persecution of Chinese Catholics has been effected, without comment or criticism from the Vatican and its renewal;
        • persecution of traditional Catholics and the attempted suppression of the traditional liturgy (a major impediment to modernist fuzziness);
        • a nod and wink to all Catholics to persecute and marginalise traditional Catholics as ‘divisive’ when, by that very act, he has created division;
        • failure to prosecute a large number of sexual abusers – this failure alleviated only under the glare of the media;
        • stories of Vatican orgies and use of rent boys during his watch;
        • the endless financial corruption;
        • the nod to the James Martin view of Catholicism, with personal letters thanking for ‘gifts of socks’ designed to send messages to those who promote a new Church moving with the times;
        • no action done regarding the German bishops – in the face of persecution of the traditional Catholics.
        That’s all I can think of off the top of my head – I would be interested in any reasoned defence of any of these points by those who have resorted to personal attack.

      • An eloquent dismissal Carl.
        Church politics based on positioning related to differing theological emphasis can indeed be imperialistic in nature. Furthermore many express their faith in terms of ‘God is who we say he is’ and others are erroneous and should be pushed aside’ In many ways taken far enough and to the extreme this can and does evolve into an expression of a mindset that is proclaiming ‘hey everyone this is our God not yours! We own God and you lot can go to hell! A nuanced take on God made in the image of man.
        It goes without saying there are quite a few of such examples scattered throughout history. However this mindset has more subtle forms of expression and this is what I’m referring to.
        Add to this the reality of the utter disaster that are the natural and logical consequences of the erudite theologian or leader of the church enunciating and enforcing correct dogma who when asked for a loaf of bread hands over a stone! With respect to the the mission of the church and the message or whiteness sent to the world, of who the God is that we worship I have seen this far too often in my journey. It is perceived by me as a form of character assassination directed at the person of Jesus.

        • Your post is a fitting example of the pot calling the kettle black. You were quite heavy handed and imperialistic in making false accusations against George Pell in spite of evidence supporting his innocence. Bearing false witness was a fairly serious sin, last time I checked. It might be wise for you to let us worry about the States while you attend to getting your own moral and spiritual house in order. There’s enough there to keep you occupied for quite some time.

          • Athanasius,
            Your consistent unsubstantiated misrepresentations of my stated convictions have lead me to mistrust of your motivations and to doubt your desire for genuine honest discourse. I have tried reasonable reply and rebuttal along with links to trusted and verifiable outside sources of information where I see the need. Recently you didn’t have the decency to respond to my post in this discussion:

            One of many examples of carefully choosing your battle along with the many times you openly accuse me of lying and sinfulness with no attempt to verify the legitimacy of your comment in the context of the discussion. I now see it counterproductive to engage any further in reply to your disingenuous provocation.

      • Dear Carl:

        In respect to Papa, should there be such a steady stream of admonishment on diverse matters? Pastoral ministry should be according to the teachings of Christ, not to mention the gift of preaching or church administration.

        Is Papa in line with church doctrine many will ask? This is not an isolated question.

        A cultural Marxist, aka, the politically correct, proposes their view of critical theory which is in stark opposition to the views of the church. The church proclaims freedom in Christ (freedom to worship in spirit and truth). We might review the proclamations of Papa and see how he is upholding church tradition!

        CWR aims for a faithfully Catholic perspective which is important. Those responding to articles want to strengthen the Church and proclaim godliness. When there is such an outcry against this popes focus, CWR is a vital link in proclaiming the eternal truth of Jesus Christ.


        Brian Y

    • CWR has an international reach. Almost 95% of the comments surrounding Papa, rebuke his lack of leadership, autocratic approach and disregard for church tradition and God’s word.

      CWR attracts people of faith and Papa is chided because people find shortcomings that bring little favour to most of his day to day pronouncements. It is not conforming to Papa, rather it is “According to Christ”.

  11. Do not despair. The young families with many children who reverently attend the Traditional Latin Mass, with missals. rosaries, and served by young priests, will insure the maintenance of the Catholic Faith

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