- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

COCHIN, India — When German race car driver Michael Schumacher won the recent Australian Grand Prix, a rabid fan had a thanksgiving Mass for the victory conducted at a church thousands of miles away in this southern Indian city.

The Rev. Roy Velakombil, a Catholic priest in Cochin in Kerala state, also has held a remembrance Mass — in Malayalam, the local language — for someone in France mourning the death of a close friend.

As U.S. and European companies outsource high-tech work to India to benefit from abundant low-cost skilled labor, the Roman Catholic clergy is doing likewise, paying for memorial Masses and other special services here to compensate for the acute shortage of priests in the West.

Foreign priests ship out “Mass intentions” — requests for services such as thanksgiving and forgiveness of sins — to congregations in India, with each earning a Kerala priest the equivalent of about $6.

The Mass intentions usually come by post or e-mail through the church, although some Indian priests take down the requests by telephone from friends and contacts made abroad.

“When I am offered to say a Mass, I don’t look at the origin or person behind it,” Father Velakombil said in an interview. “It may be from [the French city of] Lyon or from my own native village in Kerala. As a priest, my duty is to perform the Mass in the most sacred manner.”

“When I am working in Kerala, I would say the Mass in Malayalam irrespective of the fact that the Mass intention was from an offering made by someone in Europe or the U.S.,” he said.

The outsourcing of Mass is a decades-old tradition in Kerala, where Christians make up 23 percent of the state’s population of 30 million. Local media term the ceremony the “Dollar Mass.”

But the practice has been thrust into the spotlight because of new concerns in the United States and Europe over job losses from corporate outsourcing to South Asia, according to Paul Thelakat, spokesman for the local archdiocese and editor of the largest-selling Catholic weekly in Malayalam.

The issue of outsourcing has even become a point of contention in the White House race between President Bush and Democratic challenger Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who argues that the administration has done too little to stop the loss of American jobs to India.

“Outsourcing religious services has been going for many years. This has nothing to do with the current fad over business-process outsourcing or service-sector jobs,” Mr. Thelakat said.

But while the phenomenon does not take jobs away from other parts of the world, unlike its corporate equivalent, critics say unscrupulous priests are scrambling to make a profit, with no way to verify whether the clerics actually performed the ceremonies.

“The only motivation for this is the lure of money,” said Joseph Pulikunnel, honorary director of the Indian Institute of Christian Studies.

Church officials noted, however, that priests were restricted to saying one Mass a day to prevent the hoarding of requests.

“We are quite capable of surviving without such help,” said Jose Porunnedam, chancellor of the Syro-Malabar Church, an Eastern Rite Catholic church based in Kerala that recognizes the authority of the pope.

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