A few months ago, when British soccer player David Beckham (of "Bend It Like Beckham" fame) was involved in a tabloid scandal that threatened to disrupt his marriage, a concerned London-based fan decided to pay for a Catholic Mass that would help Mr. Beckham ease his way out of the troubled period. Unusual? Maybe. But what was really surprising about the Mass was the fact that it was not performed in a local Catholic church or by a local priest. In fact, it was not even said in English. The Mass was said miles and time zones away, in a small Catholic church in the Thrissur district of Kerala, a lush, green state in southwestern India.
And it was conducted in Malayalam, the local language of the state. In March this year, when German racing car driver Michael Schumacher won the Australian Grand Prix, a jubilant German fan wanted a thanksgiving Mass said to celebrate the victory. It was a ceremony he never attended because it was held, again, thousands of miles away, in a country parish in Kerala. Welcome to the world of outsourced prayers. From Orthodox Christians eager to have faraway Russian monks pray for their souls, to U.S. Hindus arranging for Indian temple rituals without leaving home, believers are finding long-distance ways to fulfill their worship needs. One example of this is the outsourcing of Catholic Masses to India. Historically, devout Catholics have made donations, usually of a specified sum, for an entire Mass to be said for a particular intention. A parishioner might request the worship service in memory of a departed one, to pray for a sick friend, or in thanksgiving for a favorable outcome. Currently, requests for such Masses are being collected by priests in European, Canadian and American churches and then communicated through mail, traveling clergy or, increasingly, by e-mail to the numerous churches in the crowded urban streets and emerald paddy fields of Kerala.
Why Kerala? Nearly 23 percent of the state's 30 million total residents are Christians, most of them Catholics, making it one of the densest concentrations of Catholics in India. And one of the largest church organizations in Kerala, the Syro-Malabar church, is rich in priests. It's contributed over 60 percent of India's missionary priests, in spite of forming only 20 percent of the country's total Catholic population. This concentration of priests is what drives the requests for Masses from overseas, where the shortage of European and American priests has become acute. In the U.S., the lack of priests means there's often a long wait for a special Mass dedicated to a single intention.Another aspect, which large international corporations will identify with, is the substantial financial savings when the intentions are sent to India. The normal donation requested for a Mass in, say, a parish in Germany can be 50 euro or $60. But to have the Mass said in a small church in Kerala costs only the equivalent of one dollar. In Indian money, this converts to RS. 50. While the cost of saying the Mass can vary from country to country, there's no doubt that requests for Mass coming from Europe or North America can become a source of valuable income for an impoverished, small-town church in Kerala.
In a recent New York Times news story on the outsourcing of prayers to India, Bishop Sebastian Adayanthrath, the auxiliary bishop of the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese in Cochin, a bustling coastal city of Kerala, stated that his diocese received an average of 350 Mass intentions a month from overseas. The majority of these requests were passed on to needy parishes, he said, adding that since the priests earn $45 a month, the money is a welcome supplement to their income. Kerala has become such a popular destination for outsourced prayers that local bishops have had to resort to allotting one Mass a day per priest, in order to make sure that no church missed an opportunity to add much-needed income to their coffers. With all the recent brouhaha in the media about the export of high-tech jobs and service-oriented work from the West to India and other developing South Asian countries, is sending prayer requests overseas yet another protest point for anti-outsourcing activists? Amicus, the United Kingdom's largest manufacturing, technical, and skilled person's union with a following of 1.2 million British workers, certainly thinks that this is yet another instance of sending jobs out of the country.
The union has been vigorous in its opposition to the export of jobs to India and their position on religious services being shipped out to Kerala is no less antagonistic. The union publicly claimed that it was shocked about the practice. "This shows that no aspect of life in the West is sacred," stated David Fleming, Amicus National Secretary, in a news release issued this April. "We have identified 25 different skilled jobs that have been offshored, but saying Mass and delivering religious services is a real shock," he said. Not everyone agrees with that sentiment, however. "The term 'outsourcing' is just the new buzzword," says Father Sam Sirianni of a parish in Trenton, New Jersey. "And the way the word is being presented reduces the whole act to a business term. In fact, the tradition of sending Mass intentions [to] clergy overseas is not new and is not a phenomenon. It is an old practice and goes back all the way to the Middle Ages, if not further," he says.