In this answer, it is mentioned that the times listed for various indulgences

corresponds not to that amount of time off Purgatory, but to a remission equivalent to what one would get from performing "old-school" penance for that duration.

The poster quoted a specific example of such an indulgence:

An indulgence of three hundred days is granted to all the Faithful who read the Holy Gospels at least a quarter of an hour.... 13 December, 1898. LEO XIII.

Doing the math, this results in the ratio of the effectiveness of this Bible reading indulgence over "old-school" penance being 28,800:1, a truly staggering gain. This makes me wonder what was really involved in old-style penance, which apparently was cosmically super-ineffective compared to 19th century indulgences.

What was actually involved in this "old-school" or old-style penance?


2 Answers 2


I don't know why Ken Graham's response was 'downvoted.' For he begins to establish the "question before the question." I.e, before we ask "what was the old style of penance" we need to ask, "what is penance?" This first/foundational question is a vital place to start. As a primer, consider Schaff's synopsis of the problem of what penance is:

Two perversions of Scripture were the largest factors in developing the theory of meritorious penance. The first was the false interpretation of John 20:23, “Whosoever sins ye forgive they are forgiven, and whosoever sins ye retain they are retained.” The passage was interpreted to mean that Christ conferred upon the Apostles and the Church judicial authority to forgive sins. The Protestant theory is that this authority is declarative. The second factor was the Vulgate’s translation of the New Testament for the word “repent,” poenitentiam agite, “do penance,” as if repentance were a meritorious external exercise, and not a change of disposition, which is the plain meaning of the Greek word μετανοέω, “to change your mind.”The confusion of the New Testament idea and the Church’s doctrine is evident enough from the twofold meaning Peter the Lombard and Thomas Aquinas give to the thing called penance. Baptism, they said, is a sacrament, but penance is both a sacrament and a virtuous state of the mind. In the New Testament the latter is intended. The theologians added all the mechanism of penance.At the close of the twelfth century a complete change was made in the doctrine of penance. The theory of the early Church, elaborated by Tertullian and other Church fathers, was that penance is efficient to remove sins committed after baptism, and that it consisted in certain penitential exercises such as prayer and alms. The first elements added by the mediaeval system were that confession to the priest and absolution by the priest are necessary conditions of pardon. Peter the Lombard did not make the mediation of the priest a requirement, but declared that confession to God was sufficient. In his time, he says, there was no agreement on three aspects of penance: first, whether contrition for sin was not all that was necessary for its remission; second, whether confession to the priest was essential; and third, whether confession to a layman was insufficient. The opinions handed down from the Fathers, he asserts, were diverse, if not antagonistic.

David S. Schaff, The Middle Ages From Gregory VII., 1049, to Boniface VIII., 1294, vol. 5 of History Of The Christian Church. Accordance electronic ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910), paragraph 23448.

Schaff exposes the first problem: In translating ⲙⲉⲧⲁⲛⲟⲉⲱ as "do penance" as opposed a change of attitude of heart/attidude, already the primary definition has shifted. As a sampling of how the word is used in the Greek NT, cf.μετανοέω BDAG, s.v. “μετανοέω,” 640.

After the first shift, championed very early on by church fathers like Tertullian (Tertullian, de Poen, XII.) and Jerome (cf. Vulgate Matt. 3, etc) away from an internal attitude to an external action, for a long time the emphasis was on actions. But these actions in the early centuries were not seen as a tool to pay for sin. They were seen as a way to pay back the temporal effects/consequences. As an example of this, cf. the ACCS:

THE MINGLING OF JOY AND SORROW. JEROME: The sweetness of the apple makes up for the bitterness of the root. The hope of gain makes pleasant the perils of the sea. The expectation of health mitigates the nauseousness of medicine. One who desires the kernel breaks the nut. So one who desires the joy of a holy conscience swallows down the bitterness of penance. COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPELS.

Christopher A. Hall and Thomas C. Oden, eds. Mark. vol. 2 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. ICCS/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 17.

Jerome, like most early Christian writers, viewed penance—concrete acts demonstrating repentance and sorrow over postbaptismal sin—as an integral aspect of genuine conversion. Later Protestant critics such as Luther would critique late medieval distortions of earlier medieval penitential doctrine. Cf. EEC 667–669; MLSW, 249–53.

Christopher A. Hall and Thomas C. Oden, eds. Mark. vol. 2 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. ICCS/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 19.

Finally then, as Ken notes, with the crusades there was a bridge from earthly consequences for sins to the sins themselves. By the time Luther was on the scene, "poenitentia agere" could, in practice, mean, "pay your way into heaven."

So how do you answer the initial question about penance? In a certain sense, there is no answer. The reason for this is that expressions of contrition flowed naturally from a person's heart and were not imposed. Others were not as much imposed as they were obvious (e.g. if one steals, he pays it back, cf. Ephesians. 4:28). As expressions of this and evidence of this pattern, consider these quotes:

12:13–14 Nathan Responds to David’s Admission of Guilt

AN EXAMPLE OF REPENTANCE. CYRIL OF JERUSALEM: If you like, however, I will give you further examples relating to our condition. Come then to the blessed David, and take him for your example of repentance. Great as he was, he suffered a fall. It was in the afternoon, after his siesta, that he took a turn on the housetop and saw by chance what stirred his human passion. He fulfilled the sinful deed, but his nobility, when it came to confessing the lapse, had not perished with the doing of the deed. Nathan the prophet came, swift to convict, but now as a healer for his wound, saying, “The Lord was angry, and you have sinned.” So spoke a simple subject to his reigning sovereign. But David, [OT Vol. IV, p. 363] though king and robed in purple, did not take it amiss, for he had regard not to the rank of the speaker but to the majesty of him who sent him. He was not puffed up by the fact that guardsmen were drawn up all around him, for the angelic host of the Lord came to his mind and he was in terror “as seeing him who is invisible.”1 So he answered and said to the man that came to him, or rather, in his person, to the God whose messenger he was, “I have sinned against the Lord.” You see this royal humility and the making of confession. Surely no one had been convicting him, nor were there many who knew what he had done. Swiftly the deed was done and immediately the prophet appeared as accuser. Lo! The sinner confesses his wicked deed, and as it was full and frank confession, he had the swiftest healing. For the prophet Nathan first threatened him, but then said immediately, “And the Lord has put away your sin.” And see how quickly lovingkindness changes the face of God! Except that he first declares, “you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” as though he said “you have many that are your foes because of your righteousness, from whom nevertheless, you were kept safe by your upright living. But as you have thrown away this best of armors, you have now, standing ready to strike, these foes that are risen up against you.” So then the prophet comforted David as we have seen, but that blessed man, though he received most gladly the assurance, “The Lord has put away your sin,” did not, king as he was, draw back from penitence. Indeed he put on sackcloth in place of his purple robe, and the king sat in ashes on the bare earth instead of on his gilded throne. And in ashes he did not merely sit, but took them for eating, as he himself says, “I have eaten ashes as it were bread, and mingled my drink with weeping.”2 His lustful eye he wasted away with tears; as he says, “every night I wash my bed and water my couch with my tears.”3 And when his courtiers exhorted him to eat food, he would not, but prolonged his fast for seven whole days. CATECHETICAL LECTURES 2.11–12.4

THE ANNULMENT OF HIS SIN. AUGUSTINE: But just as Matthew, presenting Christ the king as if descending for the assumption of our sins, thus descends from David through Solomon, because Solomon was born of her with whom David had sinned, so Luke, presenting Christ the priest as if ascending after the destroying of sins, ascends through Nathan to David, because Nathan the prophet had been sent, and by his reproof the penitent David obtained the annulling of his sin. ON EIGHTY-THREE VARIED QUESTIONS 61.5

ON ADMITTING ONE’S GUILT. AMBROSE: Are you ashamed, sir,6 to do as David did—David, the king and the prophet, the ancestor of Christ according to the flesh? He was told of the rich man who had a great number of flocks and yet, when a guest arrived, took the poor man’s one ewe lamb and killed it; and when he recognized that he was himself condemned by the story, he said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Therefore do not take it ill, sir, if what was said to King David is said to you, “You are the man.” For if you listen with attention and say, “I have sinned against the Lord,” if you say, in the words of the royal prophet, “O come, let us worship and fall down, and weep before the Lord our Maker,”7 then it will be said to you also, “Because you repented, the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” LETTER 51.7.8

ETERNAL PUNISHMENT AVERTED. SALVIAN THE PRESBYTER: You see what instant judgment so great a man suffered for one sin. Immediate condemnation followed the fault, a condemnation immediately punishing and without reservation, stopping the guilty one then and there and not deferring the case to a later date. Thus he did not say, “because you have done this, know that the [OT Vol. IV, p. 364] judgment of God will come and you will be tormented in the fire of hell.” Rather, he said, “You shall suffer immediate punishment and shall have the sword of divine severity at your throat.” And what followed? The guilty man acknowledged his sin, was humbled, filled with remorse, confessed and wept. He repented and asked for pardon, gave up his royal jewels, laid aside his robes of gold cloth, put aside the purple, resigned his crown. He was changed in body and appearance. He cast aside all his kingship with its ornaments. He put on the externals of a fugitive penitent, so that his squalor was his defense. He was wasted by fasting, dried up by thirst, worn from weeping and imprisoned in his own loneliness. Yet this king, bearing such a great name, greater in his holiness than in temporal power, surpassing all by the prerogative of his antecedent merits, did not escape punishment though he sought pardon so earnestly. The reward of this great penitence was such that he was not condemned to eternal punishment. Yet, he did not merit full pardon in this world. What did the prophet say to the penitent? “Because you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the son that is born to you shall die.” Besides the pain of the bitter loss of his son, God wished that there be added to the very loving father an understanding of this greatest punishment, namely, that the father who mourned should himself bring death to his beloved son, when the son, born of his father’s crime, was killed for the very crime that had begotten him. THE GOVERNANCE OF GOD 2.4.9

GOD INSPECTS HEARTS. AUGUSTINE: Similarity of words, dissimilarity of hearts. We may hear the similarity of the words with our ears, but we can only know the dissimilarity of hearts by the angel’s declaration. David sinned, and when he was rebuked by the prophet, he said, “I have sinned,” and was immediately told, “Your sin has been forgiven you.” Saul sinned, and when he was rebuked by the prophet, he said, “I have sinned,” and his sin was not forgiven, but the wrath of God remained upon him. What can this mean but similarity of words, dissimilarity of hearts? Human beings can hear words, God inspects hearts. SERMON 291.5.10

THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THREE SYLLABLES. AUGUSTINE: Baptized people, though, who are deserters and violators of such a great sacrament, if they repent from the bottom of their hearts, if they repent where God can see, as he saw David’s heart, when on being rebuked by the prophet, and very sternly rebuked, he cried out after hearing God’s fearsome threats and said, “I have sinned,” and shortly afterward heard, “God has taken away your sin.” Such is the effectiveness of three syllables. “I have sinned” is just three syllables; and yet in these three syllables the flames of the heart’s sacrifice rose up to heaven. So those who have done genuine penance, and have been absolved from the constraints by which they were bound and cut off from the body of Christ, and have lived good lives after their penance, such as they ought to have lived before penance, and in due course have passed away after being reconciled, why, they too go to God, go to their rest, will not be deprived of the kingdom, will be set apart from the people of the devil. SERMON 393.1.11

NO SHAME IN REPENTANCE. PACIAN OF BARCELONA: May we by all means be filled with revulsion for sin but not for repentance. May we be ashamed to put ourselves at risk but not to be delivered. Who will snatch away the wooden plank from the shipwrecked so that he may not escape? Who will begrudge the curing of wounds? Does David not say, “Every single night I will bathe my bed, I will drench my couch in my tears.”12 And again, “I acknowledge my sin, and my iniquity I have not concealed”13 And further, “I said, ‘I will reveal against myself my sin to my God,’ and you forgave the wickedness of my [OT Vol. IV, p. 365] heart”14 Did not the prophet answer [David] as follows when, after the guilt of murder and adultery for the sake of Bathsheba, he was penitent? “The Lord has taken away from you your sin.” LETTER

CONFESSION AND CORRECTION. PAULINUS OF MILAN: Indeed, to the penitent himself confession alone does not suffice, unless correction of the deed follows, with the result that the penitent does not continue to do deeds which demand repentance. He should even humble his soul just as holy David, who, when he heard from the prophet: “Your sin is pardoned,” became more humble in the correction of his sin, so that “he did eat ashes like bread and mingled his drink with weeping.”16 THE LIFE OF ST. AMBROSE 9.39.17

John R. Franke, eds. Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1–2 Samuel. vol. 4 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. ICCS/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 362.

Observations on these quotations

  1. Notice the primary, initial understanding is emphasized: Penance is an internal change in attitude/heart. From that inner change there flows an outward expression
  2. When outward expressions of this inner change are exhibited, they are typically custom-fit to the initial sin committed.
  3. One might conclude that fasting here is a salient feature of repentance. One has to understand, though, that fasting was seen as an aid to inner grieving and remorse, rather than a 'pay-back' notion as understood in the Medieval sense (cf. Olyan, Saul M. Biblical Mourning: Ritual and Social Dimensions. Oxford University Press, 2006. pp. 49-50)

Reflections on the initial post/question

I am frustrated and saddened by the response to Ken's post. If one is looking for a place to read short postings based more on inflamed emotions than cogent conclusions, then I suggest Twitter. Here, however, at least in my small experience, I have found a place where people are willing to be patient with each other and learn from each other. If I were to put a an onus of blame on someone in this thread, it would be the author of the original question. It is (to say the least) inconsistent to ask for earlier examples of penance when the very definition of what penance was had changed over a 1000 years. It's understandable to not understand this shift in the definition of penance. It shows ones determination to be ignorant, though, when one unduly criticizes the person who is striving to give a history and context so that a proper understanding and conversation can happen.

  • 3
    No downvotes from me but king David did not repent of his sin till about a year later, for by then a child had been born to Bathsheba. Thus the whole Court likely knew way back about David's sin then, plus the fate of Bathsheba's husband. Only when the child was around did Nathan expose David's sin openly. Because the child would die, David fasted etc in the hope that God would allow it to live. When it died, he acted as normal. Later, he further reaped what he had sown with his son Absalom's treachery etc. Surely this cannot be used as an OT basis for RC penance thousands of years later?
    – Anne
    Dec 29, 2022 at 13:00
  • 1
    I don't see that this answers the OP's question. The OP did not ask a 'question before the question'. The OP asked a question.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 29, 2022 at 13:14
  • But, Nigel, that's precisely my point: the OP is lacking 1) a definition of penance, 2) a definition of what old-school/old style is. Without a question to define the context, the OP is unanswerable.
    – Epimanes
    Dec 29, 2022 at 14:47
  • @Epimanes The OP is simply asking what the old-style was. It would be helpful if a Catholic could give examples of this. Catholics know what modern views of penance are but the need is to explain what old-school RC penance was like.
    – Anne
    Dec 29, 2022 at 19:05

What was the old style of penance, before modern indulgences?

What was actually involved in this "old-school" or old-style penance?

In the early days of the Church, before it was officially adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire, Christians, as members of a small, obscure, and persecuted sect held themselves to extremely high moral standards. Quite nasty rumours about what Christians did in their "secret rituals" were in circulation; Church leaders responded by trying to ensure that Christians were beyond moral reproach as much as possible. Public confession of sins was part of this (although private confession followed by public penance gained acceptance after the official conversion of Rome). The penalties for even minor sins at this point were fairly significant: Penitents were required to kneel outside the church, wearing sackcloth and ashes, during Mass and were not allowed to participate in the Eucharist. Gradually, they would be allowed to return inside, first into the back of the church, then to their usual places but abstaining from the Eucharist, then finally, to full privileges . For major, or "deadly" sins, the length of this penance could number in years, and one could only be absolved once of such a sin before one was excommunicated.

Gradually, however, this system of harsh penance declined, partially because of the widespread acceptance of Christianity, and partially because many of the newly-converted Germanic peoples preferred a much less ascetic version of the faith. The act of confession ceased to be done publicly, and unlimited confession of "deadly" sins (by now solidifying as pride, wrath, envy, lust, sloth, avarice, and gluttony, though sometimes an eighth sin, dejection, was added) was now permitted, provided that the confessor did the appropriate penance. Around the sixth century the first penitentials appeared. These were guides written for clergy involved in hearing confessions, and consisted at this point in lists of various sins and the appropriate penance for each. - Going to Confession in the Middle Ages

The penance would not be the same as now-a-days penances as given out in confession. They would definitely be stiffer. Strictly speaking, an indulgence is a remission of some portion of a penance. In the Middle Ages penances became protracted to the point they could not done in a lifetime. In the seminary, I learned that for murder one might be asked to do a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands or fast for “x” number of years.

As for the act of penance itself, what it all entailed is a bit obscured. No doubt because it was another one of those items too common to set down. Outside of the canonical public penance of the ancient church, it appears to be at its heart a set of vigils to be performed for a given length of time. Added to this were fasts, or restrictions to bread and water, restrictions of conjugal relations with one’s spouse, prayers, pilgrimages, genuflexions, almsgiving, and “discipline” or scourging. The length of time could stretch from a day to a lifetime. Periods of forty days or seven years were quite common. - Penance in the Middle Ages

Please check out the following article for more examples: The Very Basics About Medieval Penitentials

Depending on the manual, the penitent’s social status, age, gender, job, health, etc. a penance could be harsher or more lenient. For example, if a member of the clergy murdered a person, how long they had to fast for depended on their position in the church hierarchy. A bishop had to fast for twelve years, a priest or monk had to fast for ten years, and a deacon had to fast for seven years. And no matter the clergyman’s status, they were defrocked. Another example is sodomy. (Sodomy here meaning any kind of sex act that cannot possibly result in the creation of a child.) If you were younger and confessed to committing to it your punishment would be significantly less long compared to an adult’s penance. The reasoning behind this was that if you were an adult you were supposed to know better. And if you were an adult over forty (and married!) you were really supposed to know better! That being said, it’s interesting to look at penances for sodomy and how much they varied. Different acts were given different penances in different penitentials.

Susan Carroll-Clark explains these penance as follows:

Penance by this time was much more widely varied and depended not only on the priest assigning it, but also on who the person confessing was. Many may remember that Henry II was forced to do public penance on his knees for his part in the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Taking a crusaders' vow became a popular form of penance for the knightly class in the twelfth century and for all classes in the thirteenth century; pilgrimages to holy shrines were also popular. Less drastic forms of penance included fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Making sure that the penance matched the means of the confessor and was not impossible to complete was part of the priest's job.

The thirteenth century also saw the rise of indulgences. In order to raise money for the work of the Church (including building projects), the Pope authorized certain agents to sell indulgences for sin. Though the practice soon got out of hand, there was nothing uncanonical about the idea - in exchange for almsgiving (long a form of penance), the Pope summarily reduced one's allotted penance for a certain period of time (often forty days). By the sixteenth century, however, the practice of indulgence selling had become corrupt, and for Martin Luther, was a symptom of the disease he believed infected the whole Church. The Reformation would produce a new view of confession for Protestants. No longer was it necessary, in their view, to go through the intermediary of a priest; one could confess silently directly to God, and perform whatever penance he or she felt was appropriate. - Going to Confession in the Middle Ages

There are several things we have to take into consideration to somehow answer this question, and even then I am hoping that this is actually what you are asking about.

Having been around before the changes involving indulgences, I can say this much off the cuff. Prior to 1967, priests generally gave out stiffer penance than they do today. But I rather doubt that is what you are asking about.

In the ecclesiastical history of indulgences, the "Crusade Indulgence" is known as the first official plenary indulgence.

In order to gain an indulgence, whether partial or plenary, one has to be in the state of grace. Serious sins must be confessed to a priest in order that one may be able to be restored to a state of grace and be able to receive a plenary indulgence or partial indulgence.

The earliest record of a plenary indulgence was Pope Urban II's declaration at the Council of Clermont (1095) that he remitted all penance incurred by crusaders who had confessed their sins in the Sacrament of Penance, considering participation in the crusade equivalent to a complete penance.

More can be gleaned here.

Indulgences are not feats of magic and in order to gain any indulgence certain rules must be met. It has been the constant teaching of the Church that mortal sins must be confessed in the Sacrament of Penance. Indulgences have never nor could not ever substitute this fact.

A plenary indulgence means that by the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the full remission of the temporal punishment due to sacramentally forgiven sins is obtained. The person becomes as if just baptized and would fly immediately to heaven if he died in that instant. A partial indulgence means that a portion of the temporal punishment due to forgiven sin is remitted. Partial indulgences are received either by doing some act to which a partial indulgence is attached (e.g. praying a partially indulgenced prayer), or by the incomplete fulfillment of the conditions attached to a plenary indulgence.

The word indulgence originally meant kindness or favor; in post-classic Latin it came to mean the remission of a tax or debt. In Roman law and in the Vulgate of the Old Testament (Is., lxi, 1) it was used to express release from captivity or punishment. In theological language also the word is sometimes employed in its primary sense to signify the kindness and mercy of God. But in the special sense in which it is here considered, an indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven. Among the equivalent terms used in antiquity were pax, remissio, donatio, condonatio. - Indulgences

Thus indulgences are a remission of temporal punishments due to sin which have been sacramentally confessed and then absolved, thus making our purification in purgatory shorter. Indulgences do not affect consequences of sin, like gaining HIV from fornication!

How do indulgences remit temporal punishment?

More in relationship to your question is the penance attached to indulgences prayers or act of piety.

The “old school” way of expressing the merit of a certain prayer or act of piety was to say one had 100 days (or 50 days or 30 days, etc.) off their time in purgatory. The modern way of phrasing indulgences makes much more sense: they are simply either partial or plenary. No math involved!!!

Some indulgences in the ”old days” carried the phrase as being equivalent of doing a 40 day fast of quarantine. The is the phraseology that I believe you this in part is what you are looking for also.

"Quarantines" is an expression frequently used in the grants of indulgences, and signifies a strict ecclesiastical penance of forty days, performed according to the practice of the early Church. Hence an indulgence of seven quarantines, for instance, implies the remission of as much temporal punishment as would be blotted out by the corresponding amount of ecclesiastical penance. - Quarantines

The following articles may be of interest to some.

  • 2
    You mention the "40 day fast of quarantine". What my question was really more about was what that involved. Like, did you have to go live in a tent in the woods and eat nothing but leaves and mushrooms for 40 days, or was it more like no drinking or partying after 9 PM for 40 days? Were there specific prayers you had to say? Did you have to wear a special sackcloth robe? Did you have to separate from your spouse? The New Advent article you referenced doesn't give any information except that it was done "according to the practice of the early Church". My question is, what was that practice? Dec 29, 2022 at 3:08
  • "remitted all penance incurred by crusaders who had confessed their sins in the Sacrament of Penance, considering participation in the crusade equivalent to a complete penance." Out of curiosity, what of sins committed during the crusade? If participation by an individual in the crusade is equivalent to complete penance for sins committed by that individual during that crusade then the person is essentially atoning for themselves, right? Dec 29, 2022 at 13:53
  • @MikeBorden Obviously a crusader that commits new serious sin nulls his acts of penance since his heart has not truly turned to God. Some crusaders did commit outrageous acts. One of my links deals with this. If one is not in the state of grace prances and forgiveness mean nothing unless mitigated by genuine perfect contrition. If one is truly sorry for one sins, efforts to atone for them are necessary.
    – Ken Graham
    Dec 29, 2022 at 13:58
  • I'm not asking about new sins. I'm asking about sins committed during a crusade, participation in which was equivalent to full penance for those sins. It sounds kind of like a retroactive carte blanche. A violent man joins a crusade, commits violent sins, confesses those sins, and his participation in the crusade equals penance for those sins. He actually does the penance while committing the sin! Dec 29, 2022 at 14:11
  • @MikeBorden Please pose a question or go to chat. This is not in the scope of this question. Does my last link not help you.
    – Ken Graham
    Dec 29, 2022 at 14:15

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