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George Iype | April 30, 2004

It is 6.30 a.m. in Kerala, God's Own Country.

A Holy Mass at the St Joseph Catholic church in Kochi is being conducted. The language is Malayalam, but the intentions are dedicated to a departed soul in Germany.

At the end of the mass, the Catholic parish that conducted it will be richer by 50 euros because it was a memorial service that a German couple had 'outsourced' for their son who died of cancer two years ago.

Welcome to religious outsourcing!

The protests over the emotional, controversial and now political issue of outsourcing of American and European jobs to low-wage countries like India is assuming epic proportions. But the lure of saving mega-bucks to remain competitive in a cutthroat global business arena has proved too strong for Western companies to resist. Outsourcing goes on despite the protests, the propaganda and the pain.

From manufacturing to information technology services, a lot of work is being outsourced, but the trend has now spilled over on to religion.

India is now home to spiritual outsourcing too. The Roman Catholic church in Kerala has been outsourcing various religious services to various parishes and churches in the state for years now. Churches and pilgrim centres in the United States and European countries are outsourcing hundreds of thousands of masses to parishes in Kerala, which has the largest number of churches in India.

Last week, a Catholic parish in Kerala's Thrissur diocese conducted the morning mass for an unusual cause: to end the marriage woes of soccer star David Beckham.

A Beckham fan from London paid for the mass so that the football star gets manages to come out of the media storm that has whipped up due to his 'affairs.'

The Holy Mass, however, was not held in a London parish, but was 'outsourced' to a remote church at Anthikad in Thrissur diocese.

Church leaders, however, maintain that this is not a new phenomenon. "We have been doing mass services for foreigners for many years now. Now it is being called: 'Outsourcing of Holy Mass'," says Thrissur archbishop Jacob Thoomkuzhy.

The main reason for the outsourcing of mass intentions to Kerala is an acute shortage of priests in the West and the high costs of spiritual services in the US and Europe.

"We get lots of services, like requests for Holy Mass, for thanksgiving and memorial prayers for the dead," Archbishop Thoomkuzhy says.

The church hierarchy in Kerala has established a set of rules and regulations for taking up the spiritual outsourcing jobs. Mass intentions that church authorities in the West pass over are routed to the diocesan heads that are the bishops. The bishops then hand over the work to parishes that are relatively less busy and poor, especially in the villages.

Each mass is conducted in front of a public congregation in the Malayalam language. The Holy Mass in the Roman Catholic Church re-enacts the last supper of Jesus Christ. It is considered the spiritual source of grace for whose intention it is offered. Many of these spiritual intentions are offered for thanksgiving, departed souls and other religious causes.

But these masses are not for free. Each mass that is outsourced to a local church in Kerala also carries a fair amount of money. For instance, a mass that is outsourced from the US generally is charged $40. Fee for a mass intention made in Germany is 50 euros. For a local church, $40 and 50 euros for a mass is a significant amount. The church generally gets only Rs 50 for a similar special mass that is conducted by the local people.

The outsourced mass is locally known as 'dollar kurbana' (dollar mass) because the payment is made in foreign currency.

Church officials say the earnings from the 'dollar kurbana' are generally used for charity, to pay parish priests, and to develop the local parishes.

Church authorities do not have the officials figures as to how many mass intentions are outsourced to different Kerala churches.

"We do not want to look at it commercially. But it is a huge service. The churches abroad also see this as an opportunity to help out cash-starved parishes and monasteries here," a senior church member said.

Considering that Kerala has some 40 dioceses and hundreds of churches across the state, the number of masses being outsourced is estimated to be quite large.

Kerala's Syro Malabar Catholic Church spokesperson Father Paul Thelakat says there is nothing new in the so-called outsourcing of mass or prayers. "Churches in Kerala have been doing this for years now. Mass intentions abroad are carried out here by local priests because there are not enough priests in the Western countries," says Father Thelakat.

"Suddenly, everyone calls it 'religious outsourcing' because of the controversy of the corporate outsourcing from countries like the US," the priest says.

Already, the news about this spiritual outsourcing has led to comments from Western countries.

'Religious services and prayers for the dead are being offshored from the United Kingdom to India because of a lack of priests,' Amicus, the UK's largest manufacturing, technical and skilled persons' union, recently said in a statement.

'This shows that no aspect of life in the West is sacred. We have identified 25 different skilled jobs (in Britain) that have been offshored -- but saying mass and delivering religious services is a real shock,' Amicus said.

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