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A Modest Proposal for Dying Religious Communities Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 28 August 2014

Over the last several years, I’ve come into contact with a number of dying religious orders: groups of men or women religious, dwindling in number, who haven’t had a new vocation in over thirty years. Some of these religious live in what is now the somewhat embarrassing palatial splendor of a convent or priory financed and built during headier days when vocations were many and the assumption was they would always remain that way.

Needless to say, they didn’t. Not only did the number of novices drop, in some cases, the better vocations these orders did get were often turned away, as being psychologically “unhealthy.” It reminds me of the old joke about the man who refused on principle to be part of a club that would take someone like himself as a member, only in this case the situation is reversed: the religious order won’t accept members foolish enough to want to belong to a club like theirs.

So now we have the rather awkward situation of a group of six or seven religious living in a building meant for sixty or seventy. If they wanted, they could live in a different room every day of the year. Usually they just close down whole sections of the building and leave them to the ghosts.

What many of these groups seek to do in order to rid themselves of these white elephants is sell them off in order to secure the comfortable retirement of the remaining members of the order. But there is often one group they refuse to sell to: namely other, more conservative religious orders or institutions.

They’re often desperate for buyers and want to get out from under the responsibilities of caring for a big building they no longer need. To developers who want to turn these houses of prayer and reflection into (A) condos, or (B) retirement villages for the elderly, the answer is always “yes” (if the price is right). But when a young vibrant conservative religious order or a start-up Catholic college comes their way looking to buy, then the answer is no, no, and by the way, did I mention, no!


These . . .

I even know of one case where the sisters inquired whether the members of the regional Indian tribe, who hadn’t actually lived in the local area for over 150 years, would take over the property. Not surprisingly, they weren’t interested.

But please understand, these people do have their scruples. They won’t sell to just anyone. They draw the line at selling to Catholics “of the wrong sort.” That would be Catholics who don’t share the same “spirit of Vatican II” that they do.

In Melville’s Moby Dick, Ahab, caught up in the ropes of the harpoon he himself has thrown, cries out as he is dying to the silent implacable foe he has spent his life obsessively trying to exterminate from the earth: “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” Dylan Thomas begged his dying father to “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” These orders are determined to rage, rage, against the coming of the light.

Here is my modest proposal. These religious orders raised money from generous Catholic laypeople who offered up their pennies and dimes and dollars because they believed that these orders were engaged in a mission for the Church. If the remaining members of the order don’t want to carry out that mission, fine. It’s a free country. No one is going to force you. But you did take some vows, and you did pledge yourself to something, so now we’re going to hold you to those vows to this degree:

You’ve got to hand the building over to a Catholic organization or institution, no matter how conservative. Many of those old buildings would be excellent places for one of the younger, more dynamic religious orders. Some of them would be perfect places for young start-up Catholic liberal arts colleges or prep schools.


. . . not these

I know of a dozen different start-up Catholic schools trying desperately to get the funds to build needed facilities. And yet, there are perfectly good Catholic buildings out there ready to go as soon as the freeloaders who are now residing in them get out. Those buildings are Catholic resources held in trust. If the current residents don’t want to use them to support the mission of the Church, then let someone else do so.

Ironic, isn’t it, that after all their support for socialism, these religious orders should be so supremely grateful for the guarantees of private property. If this were the sort of true socialist haven they fought for, the government would just repossess the buildings and give them to those who would make better use of them.

From Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum to John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, the Church has made clear that there are limits to private property rights. So to these dying religious orders, let us say: You don’t own those buildings; you merely hold them in trust for the next generation. They were built for the Church; so let the Church help you pass on what was entrusted to you. So if you can find one decent Catholic buyer, you’d better hand over the keys.

And given the fact that the money for building was donated in the first place, it might be best if you simply donated the building to a living religious community in need of larger facilities. Demanding they pay you millions is, shall we say, a bit unseemly.

There’s spirit in those stones. With a little life inside, that spirit would come alive again, and we’d see a flourishing of the sort the people who gave the money envisioned when they made the sacrifices necessary to build them in the first place.

 
Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
 
 
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Comments (32)Add Comment
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written by Randall, August 28, 2014
Sometimes a sister in a dying order will renounce her vows and then lead an RCIA program in some parish. There she'll sneer at Pope John Paul II and other faithful Catholics but stand before the catechumens and eulogize the likes of Betty Friedan. I witnessed this as a catechumen in 2006. The ex-sister in question, at the end of her Friedan eulogy, spoke in reverent seriousness, "Ladies, thanks to Betty Friedan you can all wear pants now."
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written by Jon S., August 28, 2014
Do bishops have no authority in this issue? Can a bishop enforce Professor Smith's proposal?
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written by rtjl, August 28, 2014
What can you really say to this but "Amen".

This has been an ongoing problem in the past century. There was a time when the Catholic faithful could pretty much be assured that the the money they donated would be used for the purposes for which it was donated. Not so anymore. Beautiful churchs built with the donations of ordinary Catholics have been ransacked and stripped of their sacred art and the art tossed in the trash heap. I recently saw a photograph of my own parish church as it was before Vatican II. It was beautiful. But now all the tile mosaic and fine filligree wood work has been stripped away and replaced with plain drywall painted white. It would cost a fortune to restore it: a fortune our much diminished and beleaguered community could never afford. I saw that picture and asked myself "what on earth was that generation thinking?".

Perhaps donations should now be given to trust funds administered by boards of directors consisting of elected members of the lay people who have given the donations to ensure that the assets purchased by those donations are used for their intended purposes. They should not be given over to the orders to use solely at the orders' (or parish's) discretion.

As for the earlier point about rejected vocations, I have grown impatient with the wailing of administrators in my diocese about the vocations crisis. The vocations crisis in my diocese is largely self inflicted. I have seen numerous young men over the years interested in pursuing a vocation to the prietsthood rejected simply because they actually believe what the chruch teaches. In most cases these men have just given up. In other cases they have gone on to be ordained in other dioceses where they are currenlty exercising succesful ministries. Our diocese is in very dire straights. We have also routinely rejected the offers of religious orders who have offered to oversee parishes in our diocese. Their fault: they believe what the church teahes.
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written by Rich in MN, August 28, 2014
In all honesty, I feel a real sympathy for them. Just as we believe they plant tares in our shared field (the RCC), they believe we are planting tares in our shared field. When Cdl Burke was replaced by Cdl Wuerl on a key Vatican committee for bishop selection, how many of us reacted like Cdl Burke had just been replaced by Hans Kung or Richard Dawkins?
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written by Rouxfus, August 28, 2014
In the good old days when the Church was growing, all Church property in a diocese was owned outright, in his name, by the bishop. He was best positioned to steward the resources of his diocese, and exercise control over the Catholic institutions within it. This obviously created issues of its own if a bishop was not a holy man, but one can see that this approach would be helpful in preventing he situations we are seeing now where the resources built by the donations and sweat of faithful Catholics had been subverted for the personal and ideological gains of individual religious who have a pssumed a sort of squatters equity right over property which they did not build for themselves. Our seed corn is being eaten.
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written by Myshkin, August 28, 2014
If I remember correctly, according to Canon Law, religious orders must obtain the permission of the ordinary to sell property to non-Catholic Church organizations. It's been a while since I looked at those Canons, and I haven't consulted the Code on-line at the Vatican website, so I might be mis-remembering.

But if I'm remembering correctly, the ordinary might be able to help with Dr Smith's modest proposal ...
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written by Tony, August 28, 2014
Brilliant suggestion. The single thing that prevents new schools from rising up all over the place is the immediate cost of a building. I also believe that many of the nuns in question can still be embarrassed into doing the right thing.
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written by Myshkin, August 28, 2014
@Rich

Surely you must've read here at the TCT that Pope Francis is the perfect Pope, doing all the right things? This has been a constant refrain from most of the clerics who post here (McCloskey, Bramwell, longenecker), with the exception of Schall who has held his peace on the matter. So how can you say that replacing Burke with Wuerl is anything but "insanely great"? That's not the TCT line, you know!

Oops, I suppose "insanely great" can have more than one interpretation, huh?
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written by Howard Kainz, August 28, 2014
Several years ago, as a veteran lay missionary in Africa, I was invited for a retreat at a spirituality center in La Crosse, WI. At meal times we were at a table in a room with perhaps a hundred elderly retired nuns at the other tables wearing street garb. Searching through the well-stocked library for reading material, almost every book I found was oriented to feminist spirituality. It struck me that there might be a connection of this "new" spirituality with the status of many women's religious orders.
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written by Stan J, August 28, 2014
These old [nuns] are phonies, not legitimate, have no authority over the facilities, and should be tossed out on their collective, haughty, arrogant ears.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, August 28, 2014
In Europe, the mischief of the perpetual, inalienable ownership of property, and especially land, by corporations and institutions has been seen as mischievous and placed under tight legal control. In England, it is referred to as “mortmain,” or a dead hand. In modern French, it is called « mainmorte » and Scots law speaks of “mortifications.”

French legislation solved the problem in 1871 in a single sentence: « Les biens dits de mainmorte, appartenant aux congrégations religieuses, meubles et immeubles, sont déclarés propriétés nationales » [The property called mortifications, belonging to religious congregations, moveable and immoveable are declared national property] The orders have mere occupancy rights.
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written by Sue, August 28, 2014
To clinch this property transfer, the holy, young orders could offer to board and care for the elderly "nuns on the bus" while they live out their lives. Beats Obamacare and the ministrations of the faithful young nuns might wind up saving a couple of feminazi souls in their dying days. Furthermore, their caring for elderly nuns NOW would demonstrate that these fledgling orders are capable of going it for the long haul in taking care of their own.
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written by Adam, August 28, 2014
When using the term "A modest proposal" you're suggesting that the solution to the religious community crisis is to eat the Children. Please actually read "A modest proposal" by Jonathan Swift.
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written by Nick Palmer, August 28, 2014
No, Adam, he's not. I am almost certain that Professor Smith has read Swift's essay, probably more times than you or I. I see at least two possible motivations for the article's title (other, that is, than his proposing physical consumption of young).

First, while I haven't checked with the Trademark Office, the words "modest" and "proposal," while linked by Swift in the 1700s, may still be combined in other situations. While "Final Solution" is likely "fuer immer verboten," I'm less sure about "modest proposal."

Second, the cagey Professor Smith may be treading the paths of allegory or allusion. The nuns in question certainly took vows committing to serve Christ's Church on earth (for the importance of vows, see Aquinas or Dante -- Paradiso Cantos 3, 4. and 5). As nuns generally do not give birth to children, their "progeny" or "legacy" might be construed as being found in the growth and fruitfulness of the Catholic Church. Hence, by converting these facilities into cash, which is what they are really doing, they are "eating" those "young."
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written by Sallie Barreca, August 28, 2014
I saw the attitude of these "spirit of Vatican 11" nuns begin to grow when some orders began to shed their habits and veils for street clothes.
Today, the orders growing are those embracing their habits and veils, who see themselves as brides of Christ. They are back teaching and helping renew our Church.
Shame on the old orders who do not support them!
We are to be ONE, HOLY, CATHOLIC and APOSTOLIC.
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written by Sandra, August 28, 2014
I do know of a more "traditional" order that wear habits, that is nearly bursting at the seams and are looking for a facility, they would prefer one shared with another religious order that is declining. The new sisters will go through their discernment and novitiate, as well as care for the retired sisters and the facilities. One order in Pennsylvania, "oh heck no!"

This situation is very common at this time.
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written by pgepps, August 28, 2014
Applause, Dr. Smith. Just APPLAUSE!
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written by Ken Tremendous, August 28, 2014
I realize the author is not an investigative journalist but some actual facts and figures about aging religious communities would have been nice along with some evidence as to how real this phenomenon of being willing to sell to any but "conservative" orders would be good.

Roughly how many such properties are there and to what extent are they really located in valuable markets?

To the extent that this phenomenon is real, I suspect there is a simpler explanation here. Does a declining religious order want to sell a property for a song to new Catholic startup (many of which are ill-conceived and are also going to fail!) or do they want to hold out for the best price since the land might be the main valuable asset left. The author blames by implication leftist ideology...but maybe the root of the problem is really economic self-interest, with a strong coating of greed.

In some ways it is the middle ages all over again, with supposedly mendicant orders living in relative opulence.
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, August 28, 2014
And yet the USCCB takes up the usual collection for those "retired religious." Not from me they don't.
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written by Thomas Sullivan, August 28, 2014
An excellent piece, however, I would prefer to describe the vibrant orders as traditional instead of conservative, which I think is more of a political term.
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written by Rosemary, August 28, 2014
While I appreciate Prof. Smith's complaint, the old orders are doing the young ones a favor by not selling to them. Those old palatial edifices are creaky and the winter heating bill is $8,000/month or more. Yes, I am familiar with this situation. Who needs that?

It may be better to find a good Catholic realtor who will do the research in order to find the new orders a place that can be easily maintained at low cost. You'd be amazed at how the local social groups pitch in, too, so that they can have a good neighbor. Beware, however, of properties that the town depends on for taxes. Better to choose one that is a bit out of the way, since the town will be losing the benefit of property taxes.

I would advise the old orders to sell their properties and give the money to the new orders who are looking for a home. Fat chance?
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written by Seanachie, August 28, 2014
"And yet, there are perfectly good Catholic buildings out there ready to go as soon as the freeloaders who are now residing in them get out." Wow..."freeloaders"? Seems to me that the people occupying these buildings have a legal and moral right to reside in them. They are hardly "freeloaders"...many of them likely taught or nursed my parents, me, my children, perhaps even my grandchildren over the years. Your arrogance is offensive and counter-productive.
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written by Tom Brennan, August 28, 2014
The convent recently closed in my wife's hometown in NW PA; the few remaining sisters (about 10, I think) dispersed to other convents. But these good women mostly did still wear their habits, AFAIK. The large buildings were hard/expensive to keep up in a small town in a very cold region. I don't believe there is anyone locally who wants to take on the property for religious purposes, nor any religious group who wants to relocate to a very pleasant but nowhere location AND take on the major expense of repair and renovation.
It's very sad, and quite a cultural loss to the community.

That said, there had been at most only a few new postulates from the community that is loosing the sisters. But then again, as the pictures above show, there's a significant age gap between the growing and dying orders of sisters, and it's my generation (Boomers) that are MIA from that span between the two groups. We were a rotten lot, growing up (sort of) in awful times, and the lack of vocations is just one of the many casualties strewn about the landscape until JP II seized the helm.
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written by Paul V, August 29, 2014
Some thing seems fishy here. Are you saying these dying religious orders won't sell to a traditional order even if they make them the largest offer out of spite? That doesn't seem to make sense.
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written by Tony, August 29, 2014
Oh it is absolutely true that many groups of nuns in this position will not lift one little finger to assist Catholics whom they consider to be "reactionaries." Max Scheler calls this "ressentiment." It's the moral inversion you suffer when you hate the faith you have betrayed or rejected more than you love the "faith" you have embraced. For these women, to see a young nun alive with the faith is like having to lie on a bed of stinging nettles. I have witnessed the phenomenon in action.
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written by Shum Preston, August 29, 2014
The tone of this article was very hostile to these nuns over some perceived slight. If this is the kind of greeting they get from the conservative organizations mentioned here, I can understand why they wouldn't want to sell.
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written by VivaLaVirgen, August 29, 2014
I was a nun in one of the younger, conservative orders for a wonderful year and a half, before discerning that I didn't have a call to religious life. I can tell you several things about the subject addressed here: 1) several of our convents around the world, esp in the U.S./Europe were in fact moved to bigger, older convents that were no longer being used in full by the type of congregations described here. Some of these arrangements involve sharing the building with the aging sisters, or dividing it into their part and our part, and sharing a chapel, and that sort of thing. Some were outright given or sold to us by the congregations without any ill will. So this sort of thing is happening. 2) most important, these arrangements led to many conversations with these sisters about their lives, their congregations, their vocations, their hopes and dreams and memories. The sisters who were still in those congregations had almost all joined up before Vatican II, when their order was wearing full habits and living the vows more traditionally. Many of them were very young then and were not decision-makers when it came to shedding habits and the rituals of their founding charisms. Many of them were and still are sad about the loss of these things but felt that they were under a vow of obedience in the congregation to which God had called them. You'll recall many saints of old writing about staying obedient to corrupt, immature or even wicked superior. Those of us who take our vows seriously - when these sisters were going through this, as well as now - read those saints' writings and do not consider disobedience to superiors a holy option. Some of these older sisters have gone back to wearing a habit of some sort, now that they have been given the option to do so. They usually loved sharing their convent with us, even though the state of their own congregations made them sad, because they loved religious life, and they love Jesus, and they love the liturgy and they are lovely and kind and good. They enjoyed having us around, and sharing our more traditional life. Also, they were appreciative for what our younger, stronger bodies could do around the convent that theirs could not. What their leaders or association representatives do does not necessarily reflect the attitudes of women who have given their entire lives to Jesus and we should not speak of them as if it does. 3) Nuns of all stripes all over the world tend to feel a great solidarity with other nuns - they rejoice when they bump into each other wherever that happens. So these older sisters loved us because they love nuns and we felt the same about them. There is nothing more beautiful than a bride of Christ, and the vast majority of these women rejoice that newer, younger, more traditional congregations are springing up and thriving. They are sad about their own congregations, but they view us all as one family more than I think the author of this article realizes. The hostility is really only held by a minority. Let us pray for Christian unity and for more and more vocations and more and more beautiful brides of Christ to respond to His call!
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written by Matt, August 29, 2014
To Ken,
I know of a Vincentian seminary that experienced the bleeding of vocations soon after Vatican II. By 1969 they were forced to open their order's seminary doors to diocesan and other religious orders to stay afloat. By 1990, the seminary's last two Vincentians seminarians were ordained and the doors were closed.

Around 1995/96 the growing conservative order, the FSSP, was in need of a seminary and expressed interest in the seminary with an offer that was substantial. (A rumor also circulated that the SPPX was also interested) The local diocese bishop did not want the FSSP within his diocese, let alone the SSPX, so the Vincentians negotiated to arrange the sale of the seminary to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for pennies on the dollar.

Please note that the Archdiocese's own seminary was not overflowing in 1995! The "fire" sale to the Archdiocese was solely to keep the "conservative" orders out. The FSSP was forced to build new in the Mid-West.

Let me copy from the website what the Archdiocese of Philadelphia did with the seminary after its “fire” purchase.

"1996 - The seminary is subsequently opened as a spiritual retreat center. The center welcomes all faiths and religions for both individual retreats and group retreats."

In summary, a fair price from a growing conservative Catholic Fraternity was turned down to facilitate the creation of a multi-faith retreat center thus passing the upkeep costs of the seminary to a cash strapped laity of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia – all this for the real objective of keeping a “conservative” order out of the area.

In short order, the seminary on almost 500 acres with an awe-inspiring chapel http://www.maryimmaculatecente...hapel.html was closed by the archdiocese of Philadelphia due to maintenance costs and remains unused to this day.

The Archdiocese was reportedly in negotiations with a developer earlier this year with a sticking point of who was responsible for the costs of tearing down the seminary and chapel.
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written by Keith, August 30, 2014
Amen to that.
The revolution in the Church in the Sixties started the emptying of the convents; there's no need for a strict religious life, if everyone's going to heaven anyway. Pride, materialism and a vague love for God replaced prayer, sacrifice and proper liturgy, in most cases.
People should find it interesting that many bishops have such a hate for Traditionalists or even "conservatives", who would make good use of disused buildings within their dioceses, that they would rather sell churches to infidels, than give or sell them to Catholics. As shepherds of the flock, they have turned out to be wolves, who have little or no care for the souls in their care, not attempting to ensure that their sheep fulfill their reason for existence: to know, love and serve God in this world, that they may be happy with Him forever in the next. They prefer to be politically-correct or worse--and see what is the state of things, now.
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written by Sue, August 30, 2014
Matt,

The VERY SAME thing happened to St Joseph's Seminary in Princeton - right down to the selling off to Diocese of Metuchen who subsequently hosted "retreats" of all spiritual flavors. The gorgeous architecture, including a chapel by the same name, Mary Immaculate Chapel, was at least prized enough by the American Boychoir School, who is now sharing it with a French International school to find some use - I'm sure the acoustics are great, but hey where's the Eucharist which inspired the building?

When the Vincentians closed down their library before they sold the property, the books were firesaled - fantastic collection of which I have a few volumes, but how many of them are now at the bottom of a trashheap?
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written by dre, September 02, 2014
Agreed, Seanachie. While all the points Dr. Smith makes are good ones, we need not descend to ad hominem attacks. Please, TCT Editors-you represent all of us by virtue of your name. Edit for charity.
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written by Robert James Girard, September 16, 2014
I live in Windsor Ontario, and we had four orders of Sisters serving this community for many years, St. Joseph Sisters, the Holy Name Sisters, the House of Good Shepherd Sisters and The Ursilines. All four orders have long gone as vocations dropped off after Vatican II. The convents were either sold off or razed. All four orders quit wearing traditional habits and began wearing civilian clothes instead. Now they are a part of the past. The Orders that are thriving today are those that retained the religious habits. I think today young women want to be recognized as being a Nun and not just a civilian.

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