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.
According to him, such Mass intentions, usually in memory of a deceased loved one, are sent to support the work of native clergy and their missionary activities such as helping to build a school, providing clean, drinking water to the community, or distributing medical supplies.
"Our priests and sisters working in the parishes of the Third World are laboring with very little resources. They live very much like the people they are serving " points out Father Sirianni. "Helping them do their work is the work of the church."
The fact that Kerala's "dollar Masses" are not recent developments is also echoed by Father Paul Thelakkat, a spokesman for the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church. In a statement given to a national Indian newspaper, Father Thelakkat asserted that Kerala has received Mass requests from the West for decades. He stressed that the issue of sending prayer requests abroad had become a controversy only because of the furor over computer jobs being sent to India.
"Priests and bishops have no choice but to send them here, or else the Mass intentions would never be said," stated Father Thelakkat.
Audra Miller, Public Relations Director for the Diocese of Trenton in New Jersey, admits that the shortage of priests in the West has certainly made it hard for local parishioners to turn to their own parish churches and ask for a Mass to be said for them. "In some cases, local churches may not be able to do Mass intentions for their parishioners for two years," Ms. Miller says, "so sending it to churches overseas helps the churches here meet the needs of their faithful. But many parishioners in the West," she adds, "also knowingly send Mass intentions overseas because they want to support our native clergy."
While some diehard believers may find the idea of outsourcing prayers distasteful, many others are rapidly adapting to the practice. Many Indians, for instance, have incorporated long-distance prayer into their religious practice. Aided by the web, Hindus are finding that going to bow before their favorite deity at an Indian temple need not always involve getting on a plane and enduring an exhausting transatlantic light. They can sit in front of their computers at home to do it virtually.
A website called Blessings on the Net offers opportunities for virtual worship at almost twenty famous Hindu pilgrimage centers, including the remote Himalayan temples of Badrinath and Kedarnath, the steep hill temple dedicated to Goddess Vaishnodevi, and the southern temple of Tirupati. Devotees living anywhere in the world can log on and offer a puja (a special prayer) to be said in their names and also submit prasad (sweets, fruits, or flowers presented to be blessed in front of the idol) just by punching in their credit card numbers.
Another website, puja.by-choice.com, offers to conduct yagnas (ceremonies) and pujas in India for non-resident Indians. Packages for these prayers start at $45 and can go all the way up to $350.
And Sikhs from the U.S., UK, Australia, and South Africa are asking for special scripture readings to be conducted in India's gurudwaras (Sikh temples). The worship rite, known as Akhand Path, is a special 48-hour reading of a Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, followed by the distribution of a full meal known as langar. Apart from the emotional satisfaction of having a prayer said in one's hometown gurudwara, the price of having it recited in India also plays a big role: the cost of having an Akhand Path done in the U.S., for example, costs $1,000, while the same rite can be performed in India for Rs. 5,000 (approximately $105).
Other religious institutions seem to be following suit. The financially struggling Russian monks of the famous Holy Lake Monastery of Our Lady of Iberia, near Moscow, hit upon a novel way to earn money for daily expenses and to renovate the monastery. They are offering single-mention prayer, (where the name of the person is said during the prayer) for sale online. Devotees can log on to their website, www.iveron.ru, and fill out a prayer form. The monks promise to say the prayer before a miracle-working icon of the Holy Virgin.
The monastery charges less than a dollar for single-mention prayers and accepts payments via credit card or other internet payment options. Although the prayers are only offered in Russian, the response has been encouraging, with people from all over the world logging on to buy prayers for themselves, family members, or recently departed souls.
As Ms. Miller of the Trenton diocese emphasizes, the language in which the prayer is spoken obviously does not affect its power. "God speaks in all languages," she points out. "Even if the Mass is not said in English, it does not matter because a prayer is a prayer." Adds Father Sirianna, "We don't see other churches as being different from us. Whether your Mass intention is being prayed by people sitting across the row from you or across the world, we are all brothers and sisters praying for your intention. We are one church, one priesthood, one God."