BANGALORE — It is dawn in Kerala, a palm frond of a state in India’s South West. As the sun’s first rays hit the church steeple, a Holy Mass is being conducted in the local Malayalam language.
Only, the prayer is dedicated to a newborn by his Catholic family half a world away in the United States.
Requests for these so-called Mass Intentions, or prayers offered for a specific reason, pour into India from the United States, Canada and Europe, where there is a huge shortage of priests.
This outsourcing to faraway India is a quaint practice that has been called “religious outsourcing."
But now, the severe global economic crisis and bankruptcies in Western churches are hitting even this unusual practice. In Kerala and other parts of India, where the Roman Catholic Church still thrives, outsourced mass intentions are dwindling and striking the income of poorer priests and impoverished churches.
Sebastian Adayanthrath, bishop of Kerala’s Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, one of the oldest in the country, said he is observing a big slowdown in incoming requests for mass intentions from the West.
"There is a 50 percent fall recently in outsourced mass intentions,” Adayanthrath told GlobalPost in a telephone interview.
Church bankruptcies, diminishing Sunday collections and falling donations from the faithful in Western parishes are all reasons, Adayanthrath said.
Outsourcing, a practice where tasks are sent to cheaper, more efficient locations, has been a sore point for Westerners especially in these economically depressed times.
For the last decade, India has particularly benefitted from the outsourcing of a multitude of tasks such as writing software code, providing customer service, reading x-rays and filing tax returns.
With religious outsourcing, Westerners request Indian churches to hold Holy Mass in memory of a dead family member, or thanksgiving for a child’s college admission, to celebrate a wedding anniversary or even for unusual causes such as the well-being of their favorite sports stars.
“Each mass is paid a stipend of $5 (250 rupees) upwards, supplementing the income of priests who are otherwise paid 50 rupees for the same service by locals,” said Rector Father Augustine Thottakara of Bangalore-based seminary Dharmaram College.
About two percent of India’s 1.2 billion population is Christian, mostly of the Roman Catholic faith. Kerala in Southern India has a big concentration of churches and the faithful.
The requests come to the churches and the local clergy through the Vatican, through clergymen in overseas churches and even through religious bodies. In these days of digital communication, requests have speeded up through email.
Western labor unions have criticized such outsourcing as commoditizing spirituality.
The Indian church stoutly defends the practice. “Offering mass intentions on behalf of Westerners are not a business, it is a custom that benefits both sides,” said Father Paul Thelakkat, spokesman for the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala’s Cochin town.
But the eastward flow of prayers has ebbed somewhat recently, following the graph of the worldwide economic state.
Where thousands of prayers were flooding parishes in Kerala, church leaders say that they are unable to get or route Western prayers and stipend to cash-strapped parishes and needy priests.
The trends in Kerala mirror what is happening in churches elsewhere in India.
The drop in religious outsourcing is hurting those like Father Bosco Puthoor, rector at the St. Joseph’s Pontifical Seminary in Aluva near Cochin.
Father Puthoor earns 2,500 rupees ($50) as a monthly salary and supplements his own income, as well as that of 22 other teaching priests in his seminary, through religious outsourcing.
“It is a pity that this practice of mutual support between the East and the West is declining,” Father Bosco said.
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