Pope Benedict XVI and the Essential Worldwide Mission | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 27, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.com
Pope Benedict XVI and the Essential Worldwide Mission | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 27, 2007
"The Catholic Church
which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure of
administration of the State; rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ to men
and women, as the Savior of the world, basing herself--in carrying out her
proper apostolate--on the power of God." -- Benedict XVI, Letter to the Catholic Church in the People's Republic
of China, #4. 
"We are given a
premonitory sign that allows us a fleeting glimpse of the Kingdom of the
Saints, where we too at the end of our earthly life will be able to share in
Christ's glory, which will be complete, total and definitive. The whole
universe will then be transfigured and the divine plan of salvation will be at
last fulfilled." -- Benedict XVI, Angelus, Castel Gandolfo, August 5, 2007. 
"The Church as such is
not involved in politics--we respect secularism--but offers the condition in
which a healthy political system can develop, together with the consequent
solution for social problems." -- Benedict XVI, On-Board Papal Interview Prior to Landing in Brazil, May 9, 2007.
In the Holy Father's recent
trip to Brazil, as well as in his Letter to the Chinese Catholic Church, he
again indicated, as he has done previously, his understanding of what the
Church is about in this world and its relation to the "Kingdom of God." In his
book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope
Benedict XVI made clear that this "kingdom" is Christ Himself, who did, as a fact,
dwell, incarnate, in this world, all the while remaining properly God, the
Word. The pope is a very careful and provocative thinker. But he is also a man
of action after the manner in which a pope is given to act—namely, by
fostering the mission of the Church in the world, usually called "evangelization."
If political or intellectual
problems with nations, religions, or scholars are encountered, Benedict XVI
seeks peacefully but directly to understand and state the issue. If possible,
he engages whoever is willing (and even those who are not) in an effort to
clarify and improve a situation. Often this endeavor is called "dialogue," but
that is not always the best word for what the pope has in mind. He looks for
more than talk or exchange, though that is a beginning. He realizes that not
every one with fundamental differences with Catholic teaching will enter such
an endeavor When this latter is the case, he seeks grounds and approaches that
will not let the necessity of resolving the issue pass without forceful public
attention. In the interview on the way to Brazil, the pope realistically
stated: "In every corner of the earth there are very many people who do not
want to listen to what the Church says. We hope that at least they hear her;
then they can also disagree, but it is important that at least they hear her in
order to respond.... Moreover, we cannot forget that Our Lord did not manage to
make everyone listen to him, either." These are wise, realistic words.
As I have written elsewhere,
it can be said that at least some Catholics are found all over the world, in
every organized nation. The fact is, however, that the Church is largely
confined geographically in modern times to the limits of the old Roman Empire,
after the conquests of Islam, with Europe's colonial extensions in the
Americas, Australia, and Africa. With the exception of the Philippines, Asia is
only minimally Catholic.
Islam covers the vast
stretch of North Africa, the Middle East, all the way to the borders of China
and the Hindu part of India. The Indonesian Islands are the world's most
populated Muslim areas. As it shows its own aggressive dynamism, this whole
Muslim world—to which the pope pays increasing attention—is pretty
much a mysteriously closed political/religious world island. Little real
encounter with it occurs. Yet, there can be no doubt that Benedict has thought
deeply on the steps to be taken to address each of these often closed and
different worlds of Islam, China, India, and the Buddhist nations. The Roman
Church is actively thinking about what its presence means on a world scale in
the light of its mandate to go forth to all nations.
While he was in Brazil, the
pope met with some 450 Brazilian bishops, plus the later meeting, also in
Brazil, of all the Latin American and Caribbean bishops' conferences. Clearly,
Latin America is the most "Catholic" of the continents. Benedict called it "the
Continent of Hope." He added, to the reporters, "I am not an expert, but I am
convinced that it is here (Latin America) at least in part--and a fundamental
part--that the future of the Catholic Church is being decided." Latin America
has a "culture" of Catholicism stretching back four hundred years. In some
sense, it is a model.
On the other hand, we wonder
constantly, concerning the Chinese bishops, about their freedom and
independence from state interference. Much is unknown about their real lives.
This issue of religious liberty and state power is a principal theme of the
Letter to the Chinese Catholics. In this letter, the pope seeks to do
everything that he reasonably and prudently can to stimulate at least some
minimal and meaningful exchange with official China. He is willing to make many
concessions provided they do not compromise the integrity of his own office and
In China, the hierarchy of
the Catholic Church, except for those who pre-date Marxist rule, is appointed
by the Ministry of Religion. Some of these state-appointed bishops have sought
and received subsequent Vatican authorization, but not all have. This system
reminds us of nothing so much as the famous Gallican controversies of the
French Church in early modern times over the appointment of bishops. One of the
major efforts of the Church since the time of Gregory VIII, as Harold Berman
has shown in his magisterial Law and Revolution, has been to obtain the freedom of the Church to
control and define its own affairs.
This freedom of religion,
which John Paul II called the most fundamental of human rights, necessarily
includes the appointment of its own bishops. Of course, many concordats with
the Holy See and modern states do provide for some form of state influence in
the appointment of bishops, itself a distant heritage of the medieval
investiture controversies. Often, the state recommends three candidates from
which the Church chooses one. The justification for tolerating this procedure
is usually the claim that a bishop also has influence on secular affairs, which
he does. This tradition gives the pope some leeway and precedent in dealing
with the current situation in China.
But in line with his
Regensburg Lecture, what I want to indicate here (using Benedict's Letter to
the Chinese Catholics and the addresses in Brazil) is to indicate both the
transcendent and trans-political aspects of the pope's continuing effort to
make Catholicism present and understood for what it is in parts of the world in
which it is hampered or excluded. This world includes more and more modern
political relativism and secularism. Taken together these groups constitute
about four-fifths of the world's population. The Holy Father recognizes quite
clearly that each religion's basic teaching needs to be understood, as well as,
in the case of China, each political ideology. Further, the natural limits of
political entities, as well as their purpose, need to be understood and stated.
Thus, as I cited above,
Benedict clearly repeats settled Christian teaching to the Chinese, namely,
that the Church's mission is not to change the "administration" of the State.
This statement probably surprises the Chinese who tend only to think in terms
of exclusive state hegemony over all affairs of human life, and who think
everyone else does the same. The Holy Father's approach recalls the argument of
Robert Kraynak in his book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy. There, he rightly pointed out that often, in both
the past and present, the Church has to deal with existing civil societies,
many of which have less than perfect forms, but which are nonetheless viable
and effective. This is little else than a careful application of Aristotle's
treatise on the differing regimes and how to handle them.
Just because a political
society or religion is absolutist, closed, or even totalitarian and
persecuting, this has never meant, in the eyes of the Church, that the people
of that society do not have a transcendent destiny. Nor does it mean that they
have no need to know the teachings and means of redemption, whatever else they
hold. The salvation of souls is in principle independent of political form.
People are saved in the worst regimes, and lost in the best. Politics, however
legitimate, is not the primary concern of the Church. When politics is the main
purpose of the Church (or appears to be in any given section of the Church), we
can be sure the real work of the Church is not being accomplished.
Yet, if we read many of the
modern social documents of the Church, they do display a distinct tendency to
affirm some form of "democracy" or "republic" as the best human political form.
The Church does not claim direct competence over political things, but its own
interest in reason can indicate, as Aristotle said, some forms are better than
others. In the case of China, this "democratic" preference presents a dilemma.
Either we have an equivocation that says that what they actually have in China
is "democratic," when it clearly isn't, or we affirm that China is already a
good form of rule, notwithstanding what we have heard. Whatever its theoretic
form, the Chinese state is apparently here to stay. It must be dealt with as it
is. Hopefully, on the basis of mutually agreed principles, it can, without
losing face, grant a more reasonable relation to the Church than it has
displayed in the past half century.
While he was on vacation in
the Italian Alps, at Auronzo di Cadore, Benedict spent an evening with the
local clergy. He invited questions, to which he gave his reflections. A priest,
by the name of Father Mauro, wanted to know how priests are to do their
essential tasks when they are burdened with so many diverse technical duties.
The pope amusingly replied, "I am somewhat familiar with this problem." In his
response, the pope spoke of establishing priorities, of the importance of
preaching. "What do we preach? We proclaim the Kingdom of God," Benedict
affirmed. "But the Kingdom of God is not a distant utopia in a better world
which may be achieved in 50 years time, or who knows when. The Kingdom of God
is God himself.... Proclaiming the Kingdom of God means speaking of God today,
making present God's words, the Gospel which is God's presence and, of course,
making present the God who made himself present in the Holy Eucharist." 
I cite this remarkable
passage in the context of what I want to say about the pope's overall thinking
about making the essence of Christianity present in the whole world. The issue
is not some distant this-worldly political utopia that may or may not come
about in fifty years. The issue is making God present in any society, however
it is configured. How to accomplish this presence is what stands behind all of
the Holy Father's thinking about the nations and the religions of this world.
John Paul II's Memory & Identity was concerned with much the same issue.
Benedict said to the
Chinese, in effect, that we are not
here to change your administration, even though we would like you to lighten up
on us. Let us be what we are. Implicit in that approach, of course, is
something the Chinese administration could not fail to notice, namely that its
jurisdiction, like that of any other political organization, is intrinsically
limited to its own competence. It does not extend to absolutely everything.
This is but another instance of "render to Caesar what are Caesar's but to God
the things that are God's," a theme the pope specifically takes up in this
The history of politics
since that New Testament affirmation has been a working out in practice of what
these limits might entail. Any authority that would claim a power to impose its
own limits on what the Church should and could do in its own right is, of
course, making a claim to be itself an all-powerful "deity." What the Holy
Father affirms by contrast is that the "power of God," not humanly organized
power, is the basis of his addressing himself to all the nations. And as the
pope mentioned in the second introductory passage cited above, there is "a
divine plan" and it is being fulfilled among existing nations and peoples.
"We Bishops have come
together," Benedict told the Brazilian hierarchy, "to manifest this general truth,
since we are directly bound to Christ, the Good Shepherd. The mission entrusted
to us as teachers of the faith consists in recalling, in the words of the
Apostle of the Gentiles, that our Saviour 'desires all men to be saved and
to come to the knowledge of the truth'
(1 Tim 2:4). This, and nothing else, is the purpose of the Church: the
salvation of individual souls" (#2)  This purpose needs to be made manifest
no matter what the temporal form of political power. It is directly concerned
with a transcendent purpose, because each person has such a destiny beyond
politics. No political institution can change this ultimate purpose--though it
can, to some degree, hinder its effective implementation. The Church never
forgets that being persecuted is also a way that God accomplishes his ultimate
purpose. In this sense, leaders of the world do not stand outside of divine
Because of the positive
relation between faith and reason, Benedict sees a harmony between his own
primary mission and the condition of the nations. "Wherever God and his will
are unknown, wherever faith in Jesus Christ and in his sacramental presence is
lacking, the essential element for the solution of pressing social and
political problems is also missing." As he often does, he recalls in the same
remarks to the Brazilian bishops his own remark in Deus Caritas Est (#1): "Being Christian is not the result of an
ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person,
which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." We do not concoct
Christianity by ourselves, nor does our opting for it make it so. It is an
encounter with an actually existing Person whose very presence in the world,
not of our own bidding, indicates how we should live.
We can obtain some idea of
that working relation of revelation and culture--that is, of a way of life that
includes revelation--from what Benedict says about the history of Latin
America. He notes that all peoples seek God in their own way. Often they take
deviant paths as in the case of the Aztec's human sacrifice religion. The
encounter of natural law and other religions is often met at such a point: the
need to correct something for everyone's benefit. "Yet what did the acceptance
of the Christian faith mean for the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean?"
the pope asks. "For them, it meant knowing and welcoming Christ, the unknown
God whom their ancestors were seeking, without realizing it, in their rich
religious traditions. Christ is the Saviour for whom they were silently
longing."  This understanding is behind Benedict's thinking on the religious
and ideological situation of modern nations, which themselves have often kept
some sense of the transcendent. Indeed, in the Regensburg Lecture, the pope
specifically noted that this search for God assumed by the religions made
Western forms of secularism seem cut off from the highest human things.
A culture is a way of life
based on a certain understanding of God, man, and the cosmos. Historically,
many cultures are possible. Their variety, as such, is an indication of human
freedom in selecting the variety of good ways in which it can respond to human
circumstances in time and place. Cultures should not so closed that they are
unable to complete what they lack or to correct what is objectively wrong about
them. This is how Benedict put the issue to the Brazilian bishops: "Authentic
cultures are not closed in upon themselves, nor are they set in stone at a
particular point in history, but they are open, or better still, they are
seeking an encounter with other cultures, hoping to reach universality through
encounter and dialogue with other ways of life" (#1). It is this view that
enables Christian missionary efforts to respect differing ways, yet see in them
ways that are not complete. Revelation in this sense is designed as a healing
or a completion of efforts to find God that have everywhere already begun in
the nations. Revelation occurs with this background of searching.
"Ultimately, it is only the
truth that can bring unity, and the proof of that is love. That is why Christ,
being in truth the incarnate Logos,
'love to the end,' is not alien to any culture, nor to any person," the pope
continued his reflection. "On the contrary, the response that he seeks in the
heart of cultures is what gives them their ultimate identity, uniting humanity
and at the same time respecting the wealth of diversity, opening people
everywhere to growth in genuine humanity....The Word of God, in becoming flesh
in Jesus Christ, also became history and culture" (#1). Again the central
questions are who and what is Christ. Once understood as the Son of God, his
presence in one existing culture can be directed to all the others.
The pope has provided here
an avenue to the heart of every culture in its own authentic and honest search
for the truth—an avenue that it must be open enough to recognize a
culture's own incompleteness. The Word also becoming "history and culture"
literally means that no existing society is complete without incorporating into
itself the central truth that God has become man. "Only God can know God, only
his Son who is God from God, true God, knows him....God is the foundational
reality, not a God who is merely imagined or hypothetical, but God with a human
face he is God-with-us, the God who loves even to the Cross" (#3). The God who
is in the world, the Incarnate Word, the Son, is here on God's terms, but for
us. This is why the Cross is always mentioned. God's ways are not our ways, the
ways we would save the world if we could, which we cannot.
The pope is aware of the
increasing influence of various sects in Latin America as well as the presence
of ideologies circled around liberation theology, issues he has dealt with in
earlier discussions (#3). There are some who think that the solution to all
modern problems in Latin America is to return to the primitive, pre-Christian
situation. Of this latter view, the pope remarks: "The Utopia of going back to
breathe life into the pre-Columbian religions, separating them from Christ and
from the universal Church, would not be a step forward: indeed, it would be a
retreat towards a state in history anchored in the past" (#1). As the pope
shows in dealing with contemporary Europe, it is possible for a people or
continent to reject the already historical incorporation of Christianity within
its culture and ways of life. This rejection is usually pictured as a "counter-utopia,"
but as Chesterton said, forgetting that Christianity exists in a civilization
usually means bringing back the old heresies and ways of pagan life that had
Turning from Brazil to
China, the pope's concern there is not the reinvigoration of a culture that
already contains a widely practiced Christian presence. In China, he needs
rather to find an opening in a culture that conceives itself closed and already
complete in its own order. Nothing superior, it is said, can be conceived or
arrive from the outside,. This view must be modified, no doubt, by the strange
relation of ancient Chinese culture to Marxism, an essentially Western
ideology. As in the case of Islam, so in the case of China, the pope seeks a
way to engage each through natural reasoning about what is good and appropriate
for man. Until this approach is established (something earlier missionaries to
China also tried to do), it will be difficult to indicate to China that it
"The Church has very much at
heart the values and objectives which are of primary importance also to modern
China: solidarity, peace, social justice, the wise management of the phenomenon
of globalization," the pope wrote (#3).  He thus recognizes the good that is
found in this ancient culture. In his vast historical learning, the pope
estimates that the first millennium of the Christian era was largely dedicated
to Europe, the second to the America, Africa, and Australia, while the third,
he suspects, will be largely directed to Asia, with a role for Latin American
yet to be seen. What the pope seeks to accomplish is a mode of confrontation
that does not include war or military expansion as a basis of cultural change.
Force is seen only as a necessary means of defense of freedom and justice..
What he seeks in every instance is a forum or arena in which, in the
contemplative and political orders, fundamental issues can be treated.
The essential issue the
Church is concerned with is the knowledge that the Son of God has in fact been
in this world. "In China too the Church is called to be a witness of Christ, to
look forward with hope, and—proclaiming the Gospel—to measure up to
the new challenges that the Chinese People must face" (#3). Benedict's cultural
thesis is that no culture can be complete without allowing this incarnational
presence peacefully to confront its own understanding of itself. Every culture,
to the extent that its understanding of God is incomplete, will have an
incomplete understanding of man and cosmos.
indecipherable, incomprehensible," Benedict writes. "No one can read it.
Perhaps (the Apostle) John's weeping before the mystery of the history so
obscure expresses the Asian Church's dismay at God's silence in the face of the
persecution to which they were exposed at the time" (#3). Christians have long
been puzzled by the apparent imperviousness of Islam, China, India, and the
Buddhist traditions to its presence. As the pope said in his Brazilian remarks,
however, culture as such is open; it is or ought to be aware of its own
incompletion in both the human and transcendent orders.
The pope states to the
Chinese what are the basic positions of the Christian faith, what is not known
except through it. These truths are not in essential conflict with any natural
society which, for its part, is not complete without them. In a passage that
well summarizes the two claims and their proper interrelationship, the pope
In the light of these unrenounceable (Christian) principles the solution to
existing problems (in China) cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the
legitimate civil Authorities; at the same time, though, compliance with those
Authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters regarding
the faith and discipline of the Church. The civil Authorities are well aware
that the Church in her teaching invites he faithful to be good citizens,
respectful and active contributors to the common good in their country, but it
is likewise clear that she asks the State to guarantee to those same Catholic
citizens the full exercise of their faith, with respect for authentic religious
Clearly the pope seeks a
reasonable way to deal with legitimate authority and to teach it, if possible,
its own limits of competence. At the same time, he affirms that in principle the
good of each is compatible. But when the revelational element is denied
entrance to the culture, it is the culture that is incomplete. And revelation
is not reaching its intended relation to the existing culture.
Though the body of Catholics
the Chinese authorities "govern" is in China, it is not only there. Better stated,
the local church is itself the locus of the universal Church. "In the Catholic
Church which is in China, the universal Church is present, the Church of
Christ, which in the Creed we acknowledge to be one, holy catholic, and apostolic,
that is to say, the universal community of the Lord's disciples" (#5).
The Christian revelation happened in a given time and place, within the Hebrew,
Greek, and Roman worlds. But it was not solely intended for them. This was the
whole point of a mission to the nations. The effort to make this understanding
of God intelligible to the nations has not been easy:
history of the Church teaches us, then, that authentic communion is not
expressed without arduous efforts at reconciliation. Indeed, the purification
of memory, the pardoning of wrong-doers, the forgetting of injustices suffered
and the loving restoration of serenity of troubled hearts, all to be
accomplished in the Name of Jesus crucified and risen , can require moving
beyond personal positions or viewpoints, born of painful or difficult
Jesus did not seek to be a "political
messiah," someone who would dominate by "force." Rather he came to serve and
give his life for the many (#7). This constant theme of a level of reality that
is not political, but also not anti-political in the best sense, is the
approach Benedict takes to the Chinese.
Benedict is quite firm,
however, when it comes to essentials. The faith and its content are
intelligible and not to be passed off as myth or another form of everyday
politics. "The requisite and courageous safeguarding of the deposit of faith
and of sacraments and hierarchical communion is not of itself opposed to
dialogue with the Authorities concerning those aspects of the life of the
Ecclesial community that fall within the civil sphere." Benedict knows a
reasonable solution exists to presumed fears, if only there is willingness to
work it out. He acknowledges the state has some interest in its affairs, but
not at the cost of denying what Catholicism stands for:
would not be any particular difficulties with acceptance of the recognition
granted by civil authorities on condition that this does not entail the denial
of unrenounceable principles of faith and of ecclesiastical communion. In not a
few particular instances, however, indeed almost always, in the process of
recognition the intervention of certain bodies obliges the people involved to
adopt attitudes, make gestures and undertake commitments that are contrary to
the dictates of their conscience as Catholics. (#7).
The pope frankly recognizes
that excessive demands have been made on the Chinese faithful by their
government. He knows that neither side can be at peace unless each knows what
the other is. But it is his duty as pope to state frankly when Catholics are
forced to make commitments that are "contrary to the dictates of their
conscience." He does this within the context of indicating his willingness to
come to agreements wherever possible.
Bishops have been persecuted
(#8) and structures imposed on Catholics that violate the integrity of their
faith. The pope sets down his primary ecclesial concern: "The present College
of Catholic Bishops in China cannot be recognized as an Episcopal Conference by
the Apostolic See: the clandestine Bishops, those not recognized by the
Government but in communion with the Pope, are not part of it; it includes
Bishops who are still illegitimate, and it is governed by statues that contain
elements incompatible with Catholic doctrine" (#8). The pope would be remiss if
he did not let the Chinese Catholics know his view on this organization.
But this document is
generally optimistic. It is a genuine initiative, the results of which remain
to be seen. The pope then revokes the earlier restrictions thought necessary in
the case of the Chinese Church. He revokes the faculties "previously granted in
order to address particular pastoral necessities that emerged in truly
difficult times" (#8).
Following the long-standing
aspirations of generations of missionaries to China, the pope wants to see this
great people and Church in the mainstream of a new culture. "The Church, always
and everywhere missionary, is called to proclaim and to bear witness to the
Gospel. The Church in China must also sense in her heart the missionary ardour
of her Founder and Teacher" (#17). Clearly, the pope has a view of the openness
of culture that includes a longing for what is yet not known and an acceptance
of those human perfections that are found in one culture in a way that is
different from another. His thinking of Asia in the third millennium includes a
We might, in conclusion,
briefly restate the principles that Benedict XVI formulated to deal with
cultures as diverse as Brazil and China. We recall the three basic premises
cited in the beginning: 1) The Catholic Church does not have a mission to
change the structure of the state.
2) The whole universe will be transfigured and the divine plan of salvation
will at last be fulfilled. 3) The
Church as such is not involved in politics. It respects the secular order. It
does offer reasonable conditions in which a healthy political system can
The Church is
trans-political while it is in this world. It is intended to be present in all
nations and cultures. Each individual as a person, however, has a transcendent
destiny beyond this world. No political system can fulfill or replace this end.
We are saved or lost eternally through the works and choices we make in this
world in the actual historical society in which we find ourselves. The divine
plan of salvation is being fulfilled here and now, as it has been since the
creation and the subsequent coming of Christ. The papacy exists to keep this
essential truth before the nations.
 Benedict XVI, "Letter of the Holy Father
Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful
of the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China," May 27, 2007, L'Osservatore
Romano, English, July 18, 2007.
 Benedict XVI, "Heavenly
Gaze, Earthly Life," L'Osservatore Romano, English, August 8, 2007.
 Benedict XVI, L'Osservatore
Romano, English, May 23, 2007.
 Benedict XVI, Meeting
with Italian Clergy," July 24, 2007, L'Osservatore Romano, English, August 13, 2007.
 Benedict XVI, Meeting
with Brazilian Bishops, May 11, 2007, L'Osservatore Romano, May 16, 2007.
 Benedict XVI, To the
Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops'
Conferences, May 13, 2007, L'Osservatore Romano, May 16, 2007, #1.
 Benedict XVI, "Letter of
the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons
and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China," May
22, 2007, L'Osservatore Romano,
July 18, 2007.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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