Outsourcing religion, on a wing and a prayer

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By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - One area of outsourcing is not taking away jobs in the West, but it is certainly making quite a few Christians say "Oh Jesus". A mix of economics and a shortage of priests in Western Europe and the United States have fueled the outsourcing of the "holy mass" to parishes in the south Indian state of Kerala.

This is how it works: mass intentions - requests for services, such as thanksgiving and memorial masses for the dead - are made at the foreign dioceses and then passed to churches in Kerala, to priests and congregations with time on their hands. The communication is usually via email. As there is no official channel, many intentions are through personal relations of the priests, who may have friends abroad.

If a devotee offers a mass in, say, New York, it may be performed in Thrissur. Each mass is said in front of a public congregation in Malayalam, the local language. Reports from Kerala say bishops have had to limit priests to just one outsourced mass a day to prevent them from denying others the opportunity to earn a higher income. There is a dominant Christian population in Kerala, with churches dotting the urban and rural landscape.

Referred to as "dollar masses", several reports on prayer outsourcing have been appearing in the local press in Kerala due to the incomes generated among local churches. "Most of these requests are made from the US and European countries. These mass intentions are usually routed through dioceses and handed over to relatively less busy parishes," Jose Porunnedam, chancellor of Syro-Malabar Church, told a local daily newspaper.

"Pilgrim centers also direct mass intentions to the diocese. We also get mass intentions made at Lourdes in France and Santiago De Compestele in Spain," says Father Dr Philip Nelpuraparambil, director of ecumenism and dialogue at the Archdiocese of Changanassery.

The main reason for the outsourcing of prayers is the lack of manpower and hectic schedules in churches in the West. Add the financial benefits. As in the case of corporate outsourcing, the money saved can be substantial. While fees for a holy mass intention made in Germany can be 50 euro (US$60), it is just Rs 50 ($1) at a Thrissur diocese. Rates vary from country to country: a request from North America or Europe can net an Indian priest three pounds or four pounds($5-7), which is good money here.

"Mostly these intentions are given out for meeting expenses of parishes with membership of fewer than 250 families and less sources of income. The money is also used for paying remuneration for the priests," says Father Paul Alappat, chancellor of the Thrissur Archdiocese, which gets an average of 50 mass intentions from abroad every month.

One Indian news agency has quoted the case of Father Benson Kundulam, who lived in Paris for several years, and recently held a requiem mass in Cochin, India for a man in France mourning the death of his father. "It doesn't matter where the person is from, we treat the request the same," he says. The money, he says, is the last thing on the priest's mind. "It is a religious duty to say the mass. We do it the same, whether it is an Indian paying a few rupees or an American paying dollars."

His colleague, Father Tony Paul, who has not traveled abroad, gets far fewer foreign requests and more Indian ones, which earn only a fraction of the money. "If you don't get personal requests, it is up to the bishops to hand them out," he said.

Virtual worship is not unusual in India as several prominent temples, such as Tirupati and Vaishnodevi, have set up websites that allow online darshan (prayers) as well as the offering of prasad (sweets, incense etc) by paying via credit card.

However, as in the case of corporate outsourcing, there have been voices of protest from the West. Britain's biggest industrial union, Amicus, expressed alarm earlier this week at the latest trend in outsourcing to South Asia: religion.

"Religious services and prayers for the dead are being offshored from the United Kingdom to India because of a lack of priests," Amicus, whose one-million-plus membership includes several thousand clergymen, said in a statement. Amicus cited press reports that revealed how more and more prayers were being said in Kerala because they had become too expensive in the West. "This shows that no aspect of life in the West is sacred," said Amicus' national secretary, David Fleming.

Church representatives, however, aver that outsourcing religious services has been going on for many years, which has nothing to do with the current fad over business process outsourcing or services sector jobs.

Paul Thelakat, spokesman for the Cochin archdiocese and editor of the largest-selling Catholic weekly in Malayalam, has been quoted as saying that prayers for the dead have been outsourced for decades and that the tradition has been thrust into the spotlight only because of the controversy over corporate outsourcing in the West.

"Priests and bishops abroad have no choice but to send them here or else the mass intentions would never be said," Thelakat said.

Other critics say that though religious outsourcing does not take jobs away from other parts of the world, unlike its corporate equivalent, there may be a tendency by unscrupulous priests scrambling to make a profit, with no way to verify whether the clerics perform the ceremonies they are assigned.

It could indeed be morally right to outsource God as it results in money being re- distributed to the poor and needy. On the other hand, should matters concerning the human spirit be shopped around to the lowest material bidder? One would think that, like one's faith, the choice should be individual.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.
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Article taken (with Thanks) from Atimes.com


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