Outsourcing religion, on a wing and a
prayer 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.
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.
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
"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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist
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