Catholics, who have drifted away from the church in the southern Indian state of Kerala due to various reasons, need not miss the sacraments that they believe nourish their spiritual life.
An association of former priests in the state, which is believed to be the cradle of Christianity in Asia, has come out with a ‘Rent a Priest’ service to deliver them not only sacraments but also other spiritual services.
Catholics attach much importance to sacraments as they believe it is the vehicle of grace created by Jesus Christ himself. There are seven sacraments. They are Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Annointing of the sick, Marriage and Holy orders.
The 'rent a priest' service is part of a move by the former priests to establish an open church as a common platform for themselves as well as those who have fallen off the mainstream of the Church due to various reasons.
The movement initiated under the auspices of Catholic priests, ex-priests and nuns association is similar to “church without walls” gaining popularity in many countries in the West. Reji Njallani, national president of the association, said the open church proposed by them will not have the trappings of organized religion.
“It will neither have an administrative system like the existing Church nor any social or commercial institutions. Members who join the Open Church will be free to follow and practice traditions according to their wishes,” he said.
Reji told the Firstpost that they would also try to attract members of the conventional Church who like to free themselves from the shackles of organized religion. There are thousands of faithful in the Catholic Church who are disillusioned with the wrong practices of the Church.
“They have been silently tolerating them as they feared persecution from the Church. It is a common practice in the Catholic Church to deny the faithful sacraments like baptism, marriage and burial whenever they speak against the wrongs of the Church authorities,” Reji said.
Reji said many faithful were sticking to the Church as they were not ready to forgo the sacraments. Under the rent a priest service launched for the first time in India in July this year, the faithful can hire any ex-priest listed with the association to officiate wedding, funeral or any other ceremony.
The association which was formed in March 2015 with the basic objective of ensuring social acceptance and protection to priests and nuns who have either retired from active ministry or quit the vocation due to various reasons has at present 200 priests, including 15 retired priests as its members.
Apart from these, there are about 10,000 ex-priests spread all over India. Most of them were willing to serve the faithful in whatever way they can, said KP Shibhu Kalamparampil, secretary of the association.
The ministering by ex-priests is not approved by the Roman Catholic Church. The ex-priests are not worried about this since those seeking the sacraments in the state are those who are living outside the purview of the Church.
The ‘rent a priest service’ is similar to the one originated in the United States in the early 1990s. The service in the US was launched in 1992 by Louise Haggett after her devout mother passed away without a priest to perform her last rites.
She found that many of the churches in her area (Brunswick) did not have even mass on Sundays due to shortage of priests. The shortage was caused by a steady rise in the number of priests who opted for a married life.
Though the Catholic Church does not allow married priests to continue their pastoral duties, Haggett claimed that the Canon Law that the Catholics follow did not prevent them from administering sacraments.
“The problem in India is not shortage of priests as in US and other western countries but denial of sacraments by the practicing priests. The Church has been denying this to many for various reasons,” says Reji.
A retired priest from Veropally diocese active in the association said a major problem was the conflict between the Church rules and the modern life. Modern youth is not ready to comply with many of the Church rules, especially those related to marriage.
“While a youth like to marry a partner he likes, the Church wants him to confine to his faith. If the Church is not ready to conduct such a wedding, the parties involved in it will leave the Church and go for registered marriages. The rent a priest service can prevent this by solemnising the marriage,” said priest.
Mounting financial demand from the Church is another major reason for the flight of faithful. The demand has been rising with the Church expanding its activities in the state in a big way. Besides building new churches or rebuilding old churches, the Church has also been trying to establish new colleges and hospitals. The money for these activities will have to come from the laity.
“Those who have not paid the money will be forced to pay it whenever they approach the parish for any service. Priests normally administer sacraments only after they clear the dues. This is the reason why many are denied sacraments. Those who are unable to pay will apparently leave the Church,” says Reji.
He said a farmer in Idukki district had approached the association for blessing his farm house at Chelachuvadu after the church there tried to extract money from him. Augustine Kurian, who built the farm house to take care of the crops in the land he owned outside his native place, alleged that church had tried to take money from him by asking him to take a membership in the parish under which his farm house comes.
Augustine Kurian, who is already a member of the parish at Karikunnam where his house is situated, refused to take dual membership and got the farm house blessed by an ex-priest. The 60-year-old Catholic told the Firstpost that he was happy that the priests association did not demand any money from him.
“The number of people leaving the Church is rising in India because of the wrong practices of the authorities. We have launched the ‘rent a priest service’ to retain them within the Church,” says Shibhu, who blessed Augustine’s farm house.
“Our idea is to bring all Christians under one umbrella. At present they are scattered in different denominations and sects. We will begin the unification with the Catholics. Being the major denomination, Catholics have the responsibility to take a lead in this regard,” Reji added.
The Church authorities have sought to play down the moves by the ex priests. The official spokesperson of Syro-Malabar Church, the largest of the three Catholic rites in Kerala, refused to comment on the development when Firstpost sought his reaction.
“There is no need for the Church to comment on the move by the priests association. There are several organisations like this among the Christians. We cannot comment on the activities of each and every organisation. Normally we do not make any such comments,” the priest said.