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Can you outsource God?

In India, of course you can. But the weak economy is making it harder.

A Christian priest holds a chalice at a prayer session in a Catholic church during Christmas celebrations in Srinagar, Dec. 25, 2008. (Danish Ismail/Reuters)

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.