Theology of the Heart- Lives of the Saints- St. Francis de Sales

Bishop of Geneva, Doctor of the Church,
Cofounder of the Congregation of the Visitation


Feast Day:  Jan. 24

The Birth of the Saint

Saint Francis was born at Thorens, in the Duchy of Savoy, on August 21, 1567. He was baptized the following day in the Parish Church of Thorens, with the name of Francis Bonaventure. His father, François de Sales de Boisy, and his mother, Françoise de Sionnaz, belonged to old Savoyard aristocratic families. The future saint was the eldest of six brothers. During his life he chose St. Francis of Assisi to be his patron saint. The room where he was born was called “St. Francis’s Room,” because there was an image of the “Poverello” preaching to the birds and fishes.

Since childhood Francis was very delicate in health because he was born pre-mature; but thanks to the good care he received he was able to recuperate and be strengthened with the years. He was not robust, but his health permitted him to be very active and energetic during his life.

His father intended him for the magistery and sent him at an early age to the colleges of La Roche and Annecy. From 1583 till 1588 he studied rhetoric and humanities at the college of Clermont, Paris under the care of the Jesuits.

The Mother of Francis

Mrs. Francisca de Boisy was a very kind and hardworking woman, profoundly pious. St. Jane de Chantal said: “the people admired her as one of the most respected ladies of her time.”

She had to govern and direct everything in the large castle of 40 workers, servants and messengers, laborers, and those in charge of the flock.
It is important to recognize the qualities of Francis’s mother because living in the cold, darkened valley where his house was, he could have been withdrawn and shy, inclined to pessimism or depression.
But because of the marvelous formation of Mrs. Francisca de Boisy and his father’s education, he obtained the base to become, with God’s grace and his efforts, a marvelous channel of gentleness and the most exquisite social relations.

Mrs. Francisca lived a very busy life, but without toil or haste. Perhaps from her the child Francis learned the virtue he made his own all his life: work much, work always, but never losing calm, without anxiety, not leaving for tomorrow what can be done today.

Religion dominated the life of Mrs. Francisca and she shared it with every one. Here is where Francis learned to share and pass down his knowledge to others.


He was a beautiful child, blond and rosy, who liked to play in the castle. He liked to go to the Church and to pray looking at the altar. He was also very generous to the poor. Without a doubt he received from the Holy Spirit the gift of magnificence (splendor), which consists of the special desire to give and to give generously.

As a child he was lively and restless, wanting to be curious around the immense castle where he lived; his mother and nanny had to be constantly vigilant to see where he was and what he was doing. His mother taught him catechism, narrating beautiful religious examples. When Francis was playing in the field with his friends he repeated the teachings and stories heard from the lips of his mother. He was being trained for his precious future work; to teach catechism, but beautifully with examples. Also his infancy was known for his zeal for God, as well as his inclination to anger, which he battled with for 19 years of his life until dominating it.

It is known that one day a Calvinist visited the castle, Francis found out and not being able to be in the living room to protest, he took a stick in his hands, and full of indignation went to the farmyard of hens, attacking and screaming to them: “ Out of here, heretic: we don’t want heretics.” The poor hens left, running for their lives. The servants arrived in time to save them.

He who observed and attacked the hens would later obtain a gentle and kind temper, so benevolent and good that he did not show a trace of anger even in the most tremendous adversities. This goodness was not from birth, it was a conquest, step by step, with God’s help.

His father, Mr. Francisco, feared his son would grow weak in his will because his mother loved him so much and might be raising him somewhat pampered and spoiled. Therefore he hired as his professor a very rigid and demanding priest, Father Deage. He would be his precept during his student years. He was a man known to be exact in everything, demanding, and a perfectionist. He helped Francis much in his formation, but also made him go through difficult times because he was too demanding. Francis never complained, but always appreciated it. He made a resolution for his future; not to demand so much in inopportune details and to be gentler to those he will direct.

At 8 years old he entered the School of Annecy, and when he was 10 years old he received First Holy Communion and Confirmation. Ever since that day he resolved not to let a day pass without visiting the Blessed Sacrament in the Church or school chapel. He, who later became a great promoter of the Solemn devotion to the Eucharist, was prepared by his mother and the priest preceptor to receive Jesus in First Holy Communion.

Guided by his mother he outlined good and important intentions such as this remembrance of his First Communion:

1) Each morning and night I will pray some prayers.
2) When I pass by a Church, I will enter to visit the Eucharistic Jesus, if there is no grave reason not to.
3) Always and in all occasions possible I will help the people most poor and in need.
4) I will read good books, especially the lives of the saints.
During all his life he tried to be faithful to these intentions.
One year later in the same Church of St. Dominic (actually St. Maurice), he received the tonsure.

Francis the Student

The desire to consecrate himself to God consumed him, it was his ideal, his goal; but his father (who took the name Boisy upon marriage) had in mind for his firstborn a secular career, without taking into account his inclinations. At the age of 14, Francis went to study at the University of Paris, which, with 54 schools, was one of the largest educational centers of the time.

His father had sent him to the School of Navarra, where the children of the Saboya family studied; but Francis, safeguarding his vocation, obtained from his father permission to go to the School of Clermont, directed by the Jesuits and known for piety and love of conscience. Accompanied by Father Deage, Francis settled in the White Rose Hotel at St. Jacques Street, a few steps from the School of Clermont.

Francis proposed a plan of life during his stay in the school so as to dedicate himself to what he had to do and prepare well for the future. Since the beginning, guided by his director Father Deage, he outlined a program of action: each week to confess and receive Holy Communion. Attend daily class well and prepare homework and lectures for the following day. In addition to two hours daily of horseback riding, fencing, and dancing. This combination of pious exercises and gymnastic arts obtained for him an elegant and respectable appearance. He was tall, elegant, graceful, and well presented. An enemy of his luxuries, but always well presented. In gathering with the affluent, elegant people, he was the favored guest because just as he was simple and well presentable, he was the “ culture personified.”

As Bishop, the people exclaimed: “ In the social reunions he conducts himself with holiness, worthy of a minister of God, and in the religious ceremonies he conducts himself with the most exquisite elegance of a gentlemen.”

Someone asked why, and he responded: “ When I’m in the joy of a social party I imagine myself to be dressed with the Bishop’s ornaments, and I conduct myself with the dignity it requires. When I’m celebrating a religious ceremony I imagine myself to be in the most exquisite and refined reunion, and I try to behave with education and politeness required in these cases.”

Soon after, he distinguished himself in philosophy and rhetoric (use of language). Later he gave himself passionately to study theology. Each day he was more decided to consecrate himself to God, and decided to do a perpetual vow of chastity, placing himself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His trials, however, were not absent.

The Most Terrible Temptation of His Youth

To live in the grace of God in those days was not easy. But, Francis knew how to avoid all occasions of danger and friendship that would lead him to offend God. He was able to conserve his soul uncontaminated and admirably pure. Francis was 18 years old.

His character was inclined to anger, many times the blood would rise up to his face before certain jokes and humiliations, but he was able to contain himself, many thought that Francis never had a bad temper.

But the enemy of our souls, not able to attack him in the common passions, decided to attack him again through a more dangerous and unknown means.
He started to feel in his brain the constant thought and annoyance that he was going to be condemned and go to hell for ever. The heresy of Predestination, by Calvin, which he read, was constantly on his mind and he was not able to make it leave his thought. He had no appetite and was unable to sleep. He was very thin and thought he was going mad. What tormented him the most was not the sufferings of hell, but to not be able to love God there.

The Lord who allowed the temptation gave him a way out. The first remedy found was to tell the Lord:
“O, My God, if by your infinite Justice, I have to go to hell for ever, grant me the grace to love you there. I don’t care if you send me all the tortures possible, but only if it is for me to love you always.” This prayer brought back some peace to his soul.

But the definite remedy against this temptation, to never bother him again, was to enter the Church of St. Stephen in Paris and kneeling before the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary pray the famous St. Bernard prayer, the Memorare:
“Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly unto you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To you I come, before you I stand, sinful, and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy hear and answer me. Amen.”

After he finished praying this prayer, like a miracle, all the thoughts, sadness and desperation ceased, instead of bitter sentiments of condemnation, he received the assurance: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17)

This trial helped him very much to heal his pride and also to know how to better comprehend people and treat them with gentleness.

University Student

In 1588, he went to the Italian city of Padua since his father ordered him to study law and to receive a doctorate. Francis obeyed his father. He studied law four hours a day to become a lawyer. Four other hours he studied theology, the science of God, since he had a great desire to become a priest.

During his stay in Padua, Francis said: “what helped him the most was the friendship and spiritual direction of wise and holy Jesuit priests. What helped him very much was reading the book he carried for 17 years during his life, written by Father Scupoli titled Spiritual Combat. He read this book daily.

Saint Francis made out a detailed plan of life during his stay in Padua:
1) Every morning he would do a forecast examination which consisted in seeing the work, persons and activities scheduled for the day, he would plan how to conduct himself with them.

2) A midday he would visit the Blessed Sacrament and do a Particular Examination of conscience: to examine his dominate defect or imperfection and see if he had responded with the opposite virtue (during 19 years this particular examination was about his bad temper, that imperfection or defect he had been inclined to)

3) No day passed without meditation: at least for half an hour he would dedicate to meditate on the favors received from the Lord, the greatness of God, the truths of the Bible and the examples of the saints.

4) Pray the Holy Rosary daily: not to allow a day to pass in his life without praying the rosary, a promise he always fulfilled.

5) Treat others in a gentle but moderate way.

6) During the day think about the presence of God.

7) Every evening before retiring to do an Examination of the day he said: “I will remember if I started my journey entrusting it to God. If during my occupations I remembered God frequently to offer him my actions, thoughts, words and sufferings. If I did every thing today for love of God. If I treated people well. If in my labors and words today I sought to give pleasure in my self love and pride instead of pleasing God and doing something good for my neighbor. If I was able to do a small sacrifice. If I forced myself to be more fervent in prayer. I will ask forgiveness to the Lord for the offenses of this day, with the purpose to be better tomorrow, and I will ask God to grant me the fortitude to always be faithful to God; and after praying three Hail Marys I will offer myself peacefully to sleep. Signed: Francis de Sales, Padua 1589.

This way Francis maintained his heart protected during his studies in Padua. At age 24 he received his doctorate in law and went to reunite with his family in the Castle of Thuille, near the Annecy Lake. Here during 18 months, he lived at least in appearance an ordinary life of a young man of the nobility.

Francis’s father had great desire that his son marry as soon as possible and had chosen a young lady, a heiress of one of the families of the region. But because of Francis’ courteous but distant relationship, it was soon understood by the young lady that he had no interest.

The saint also rejected the offering of the dignity of being a member of the Senate in his young age.

Until this point Francis had only confided in his mother and cousin Louis de Sales and some intimate friends his desire to consecrate his life to the service of God. But the time had come to talk about it with his father. Mr. Boisy lamented that his son did not accept the position in the Senate and his not wanting to marry, but this did not give him any suspicion that Francis wanted to become a priest.

The death of the Dean of the Chapter of Geneva made the canonical lawyer Louis de Sales think of the possibility of naming Francis in his place, easing the unhappiness of the saint’s father. With the help of Claudio de Granier, Bishop of Geneva, and without consulting any family member, the canonical explained the situation to the Pope, recommending Francis. Upon his return Bishop Granier received the Pope’s response appointing Francis for this position. Francis, surprised at the Pope’s recommendation, accepted this honor which he had not sought out, hoping his father would better accept his decision to enter the priesthood.

Mr. Boisy was a decided man and thought his children owed him absolute obedience. Frances had to recourse to his respectful patience to persuade and convince his father that he should yield.

Finally Francis was dressed with his cassock the same day his father consented and was ordained priest six months later on December 18th, 1593. From this moment he gave himself completely to his new priestly duties with a zeal that never diminished. He exercised his priestly ministry among the poor with special love; his favorite penitents were from humble families.

His preaching was not limited only to Annecy, but he went to many other cities. Even though he was a doctor he spoke with simple words, people liked him because his sermons were not adorned with Greek and Latin citations so common in those times. God had for the saint a very difficult future task.

The Conquest of the Calvinists: the Misson of de Chablais

The religious conditions of the habitants of Chablais, near the south coast of Geneva Lake were deplorable due to the constant attacks by the Protestants. The Duke of Saboy begged Bishop Claudio de Granier to sent missionaries to evangelize the region. The Bishop sent a priest from Thonon, capital of Chablais, but his efforts failed. The priest soon had to leave. The Bishop presented the situation with its difficulties and dangers to be considered by the chapter. Of all those present Francis was the one who comprehended best the seriousness of the problem and offered himself for this mission, saying simply to the Lord : “Lord, if you think I can be useful in this mission give me the order to go, I’m prompt to obey and will consider myself fortunate to be chosen for it.” The Bishop accepted, giving Francis a great joy.

Mr. Boisy saw things differently and went to Annecy to impede this mission he called “a madness.” According to him, the mission was equivalent to sending his son to death. Kneeling at the Bishop’s feet he said: “Lord, I permitted my firstborn, the hope of my house, of my advanced age and of my life to consecrate himself to the service of the Church; but I want him to be a confessor not a martyr.” The Bishop, impressed and moved by the pleading of his friend, was willing to yield, but Francis himself pleaded for him to be firm with the decision: “ Are you going to make me unfit for the Kingdom of God ?” Francis asked. “I have put my hand to the plow, and don’t make me go back.”

The Bishop applied all the arguments possible to discourage Mr. Boisy, but he left with the following words:
“I don’t want to get in the way of God’s will, but I don’t want to be the assassin of my son allowing him to participate in this ridiculous mission . . . I will never authorize this mission.”

Francis started to travel without his father’s blessing, and on September 14th, the Feast of the Holy Cross he left with only his cousin, the lawyer Louis de Sales, to recapture Chablais. The governor of the province had become strong with a line of soldiers in Allinges Castle, where the two missionaries stayed at night time to avoid being surprised.

There were only 20 Catholics left in Thonon, and they were afraid to profess their faith openly. Francis made contact with them and exhorted them to persevere with courage. The missionaries preached daily in Thonon and shortly extended to other regions.

The journey to the Castle of Allinges through which they had to travel posed many difficulties; it was very dangerous particularly in the winter. One night Francis was attacked by wolves and had to climb a tree and stay there overnight to save his life. The following morning the farmers found him in such a deplorable state that, had they not transported him to their house for food and warmth, the saint would have died.

The good farmers were Calvinists. Francis thanked them, full of charity, and became their friend. Shortly afterwards, they converted to Catholicism.
San Francisco de Sales
In the year 1595, a group of assassins tried to capture Francis on two occasions, but by a miracle the saint’s life was preserved.

Time passed and the fruits of the missionary work were scarce. On the other hand, Mr. Boisy constantly sent letters to his son, pleading and ordering him to abandon the mission. Francis responded always that his Bishop has not given him an official order to return and abandon the mission.

The saint wrote to a friend in these terms: “We are only in the beginnings. I’m decided to continue forward with courage, and my hope against all hope is in the Lord.”
St. Francis, by every means, tried to touch the hearts and minds of the people. He started to write a series of pamphlets using Church doctrine to refute the Calvinists. Those writings, composed in full battle, written and copied by the saint’s own hand, were distributed and would later form the book Controversies. The originals are conserved in the Visitation Convent in Annecy. Here is where the writing career of St. Francis de Sales started. He also added to this work the spiritual care for soldiers in charge of securing the Castle of Allinges, Catholics by name, but ignorant and with vice.

In the summer of 1595, when St. Francis was going to Mt. Voiron to restore the oratory of Our Lady destroyed by the habitants of Berna, a multitude attacked, insulted, and offended him.

Little by little more people came to hear his sermons in Thonon, during this time pamphlets proved to be successful. The simple people of the town admired the patience of the saint in difficulties and persecutions and showed him their admiration. The amount of conversions increased and a current of renegades came to be reconciled with the Church.

When Bishop Granier went to visit the mission about 3-4 years later, the fruits of abnegation and zeal of St. Francis de Sales were visible. Many Catholics came out to receive the Bishop who admired and rejoiced at the amount of confirmations, and also the 40 hour Eucharistic devotion, an unprecedented devotion in Thonon.
Saint Francis had restored the Catholic faith in the province and deserved in justice the title: “Apostle of Chablais.”

Mario Besson, a posterior Bishop of Geneva, summarized the apostolic work of his predecessor in a phrase from St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal: “I have frequently repeated that the best way to preach against heretics is love, even without saying a word of refute their doctrines.”

The same Bishop Mons. Besson quoted Cardinal Du Perron: “I’m convinced that with divine help, the science God has given me is sufficient to demonstrate that heretics are mistaken; but if you want to convert them, take the Bishop of Geneva because God has given him the grace to convert those that come to him.”

Saint Francis, Bishop

Monsignor Granier, who always saw in Francis a possible, coadjutor and successor, thought the time arrived to put to action his thoughts and projects. The saint refused and did not accept at first, but finally he rendered to the supplications of his Bishop, submitting to what he considered a manifestation of God’s will.

A short time after this he was attacked by a grave illness that put him between life and death. After he recuperated he went to Rome. Pope Clement VIII had heard many pleasant comments concerning the qualities of this young priest, especially about his virtues. The Pope requested an examination in his presence. On that day many theologians and scholars were present. The Holy Father himself, as well as Baronio, Bernard, the Cardinal Federick Borromeo (cousin of the saint) and others interrogated him on 35 difficult points in theology. St. Francis responded with simplicity and modesty, but without hiding his knowledge. The Pope confirmed his assignment as coadjutor of Geneva. Francis returned to his dioceses to work with more energy and eagerness than before.

San Francisco de Sales
In 1602 he was invited to preach in Paris; he went and preached in the Royal Chapel. Soon afterwards a great multitude went to hear the words of the saint which were very simple, moving and courageous. Henry IV acquired great esteem for the coadjutor of Geneva and tried in vain to keep him in France.

Years later, when St. Francis returned to Paris, the King insisted on him staying, but the young Bishop refused to leave his dioceses in the mountains, his “poor spouse” as he called it, for an important dioceses, “ the rich spouse” that the King of France offered him. Henry IV exclaimed: “The Bishop of Geneva has all the virtues, without one defect.”

The death of Claudio de Granier occurred in the fall of 1602, and Francis succeeded in the government of the dioceses. He established his residence in Annecy and organized his house using a strict economy and consecrating all his pastoral duties with enormous generosity and devotion. In addition to his administrative duties which he embraced fully with all the possible details, the saint found time for preaching and confessing with tireless zeal. He organized the teachings for catechism; he himself took charge of the instruction in Annecy using an interesting form and fervor which the people of the area still remembered many years after his death as “the catechism of the Bishop.”

The generosity and charity, humility and clemency of the saint were inexhaustible. In his relationship with souls he was always kind and benevolent, without falling into weakness; he also knew to be firm when needed.

In his marvelous Treatise on the Love of God he wrote: “The measurement of love is to love without measurement.” He knew how to live what he preached.
Through his letters he guided and encouraged innumerable people needing his help. Among the souls he guided spiritually was St. Jane de Chantal who occupied a special place. St. Francis met her in 1604 while preaching a Lenten sermon in Dijon. In 1610 the foundation of the Visitation Order was a fruit of this encounter between the two saints.

The book Introduction to the Devout Life was written from notes the saint kept on instructions and councils given to his cousin, Mrs. de Chamoisy who confided in the saint for spiritual direction. In 1608 St. Francis decided to publish these notes with some additions. The book was received as the work of an ascetic and was soon translated into other languages.

In 1610, Francis de Sales lost his mother (his father had died two years before). Later on the saint wrote to St. Jane de Chantal: “My heart was broken and I cried for my good mother like I had never done since becoming a priest.” St. Francis was to outlive his mother by nine years, nine years of inexhaustible work.

The Last Months and Death of the Saint

In 1622, the Duke of Saboya, on his way to meet Louis XIII in Avignon, invited the saint to meet him in that city. Moved by the desire to plead for the French of his dioceses, the Bishop accepted the invitation, risking his poor health on the long journey in mid winter.

It seemed the saint sensed his life was ending. Before departing from Annecy he put in order all his affairs and started the trip as if he were not to return to his flock. In Avignon he did all possible to continue his accustomed life of austerity, but the multitudes crowded to see him and all the religious communities wanted the holy Bishop to preach to them.

On his return trip, St. Francis stopped in Lyon, staying in the small house of the gardener of the Convent of the Visitation. Even though he was very tired, he stayed the entire month attending the religious. One of them asked him what virtue in particular she was to practice; the saint wrote on a piece of paper with large letters: “Humility.”
During the Advent season and Christmas, under the rigorous winter, he continued his journey, preaching and administering the sacraments to all who requested them. On the feast day of St. John the Apostle he was surprised by a paralysis, but he recuperated his speech and full consciousness. With admirable patience he underwent the painful remedies administered with the intention of prolonging his life, but in reality they shortened his life.

On his death bed he repeated: “I put all my hope in the Lord, and he heard my plea by bringing me out of the ditch of misery and of the swamp of iniquity.”
In the last moment of his life, while tightly holding the hand of one of his assistants he murmured: “It is nighttime and the day is moving away.”

His last word was the name of “Jesus.” While the people around him kneeled to pray the Litanies for the agonizing, St. Francis de Sales expired sweetly on December 28th, 1622 on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. He was 56 years old and had been bishop for 21 years.

After His Death

At the same hour St. Francis de Sales died, St. Jane de Chantal was praying for him in the city of Grenoble and she heard a voice tell her: “He no longer lives on earth.” However, she was not too inclined to believe extraordinary favors, and she did not believe the voice to be an announcement of St. Francis’ death. When the news reached her, she understood the voice to be true and cried all day and night over the death of the saint.

On December 29th, the entire city of Lyon marched through the humble house where the dear saint died. It was so much the desire of the people to kiss and touch his hands and feet that the doctors had a hard time taking the body for an autopsy.

- The bile: Mons. Camus said that upon removing his bile, 33 stones were found, symbol of his heroic efforts in conquering his inclination to anger and bad temper, and becoming the Saint of kindness and gentleness.

- Relics: All the people in Lyon wanted to keep something in remembrance of the saint; his clothes were cut into small pieces and given to the people as a relic.
- The Heart: in a silver case the heart of this great bishop was taken to the Convent of the Sisters of the Visitation in Lyon and kept there as a great treasure.
- Exposed to the public: after embalming the body of Bishop Francis de Sales he was dressed with his Episcopal vestments and taken in the casket for his funeral mass in the Church of the Visitation. He was exposed for veneration of the faithful for two days.

When the news reached Annecy, all were surprised by the death of the bishop, and after a general silence all cried for their dear bishop.

Immediately after the arrival of the body in Annecy and his burial, miracles started to happen through the intercession of the Saint, giving cause for the Holy See to open the Beatification process in 1626.

What Happened the Day His Tomb was Opened?

In 1632 the exhumation of St. Francis de Sales’ body was conducted to examine its condition. The tomb was opened by the commissioners of the Holy See who accompanied the nuns of the Visitation Convent. When the tombstone was lifted the saint appeared the same as when he lived. His lovely face conserved the gentle and mild expression as in his sleep. His hand was taken and the arm was elastic (he had been buried 10 years). From the coffin emerged a pleasant fragrance.

The city went in procession before the body of their holy bishop who seemed to be asleep. In the evening when all the people left, Mother de Chantal returned with her sisters to contemplate more closely and with tranquility the body of their venerated founder; but because of the prohibition from authority she did not dare to touch or kiss his beautiful pale hands.

The following day the commissioners from the Holy See said the prohibition to touch the saint was not implied for St. Jane de Chantal. She kneeled next to the coffin, took the hand of St. Francis de Sales and put it over her head as if to ask his blessing. All the sisters witnessed how the hand seemed to recover life and moved its fingers and softly caressed and touched the humble head of his beloved disciple and saint.

Still to this day in Annecy the sisters of the Visitation Order conserve the veil that Mother Jane Francisca wore on that day.
Saint Francis de Sales was beatified by Pope Alexander VII in 1661 and the same Pope canonized him in 1665, 43 years after his death.

In 1878, Pope Pius IX considered the three famous books written by the saint: The Controversies (against the Protestants); Introduction to the Devout Life (or Philothea) and Treatise on the Love of God. He also considered his sermons as real treasures of wisdom. He declared St. Francis de Sales “Doctor of the Church,” naming him “The Doctor of Kindness.”

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