Former Catholic priests in the southern Indian state of Kerala have launched an illicit "rent a priest" service to meet the spiritual requirements of Catholics who do not avail of services from their parishes. The service aims to help Catholics who have been critical of their parish priests to hire former priests listed with the association called Catholic Priests, Ex-Priest and Nuns Association. Former priests in this association provide spiritual services, including administering sacraments. According to Catholic practice, a priest who has left the priesthood is not supposed to administer sacraments or celebrate Mass for the public. Although the sacraments administered are valid, the acts are considered illicit as the former priests have had their rights to do so revoked. Reji Njallani, a layperson and national president of the association said their aim is to help Catholics who want spiritual help get it because they "have fallen away" from their parishes for whatever reasons. The association formed in March 2015 aims to attract social acceptance for priests and nuns who have quit their ministry. Traditional Catholics in Kerala look at former priests and nuns as those who have brought a "bad name" to the church just because they left. The association now has some 200 former priests and those who have retired from active ministry. "We are ready to add more priests if there is more demand for the service," Njallani said. According to his estimate India has some 10,000 former priests across India's 168 dioceses. Those who seek the service need to pay only for the travel and boarding expenses of the priest. "If they like, they can also make a small voluntary contribution to the priest," he said. The association plans an online platform to register for services. Those receiving sacraments from former priests will get certificates issued by the association. "Though such certificates are not approved by the Catholic Church, they will be valid for official purposes like registering marriages since the association is registered under Indian law," Njallani said. Father Paul Mullassery, a canon lawyer in Kerala's Kollam Diocese told ucanews.com that the former priests commit "sacrilege" and "engage in sinful action" when they administer the sacraments. Catholics who receive the sacraments, knowing the illicit nature of the act, from persons who cannot licitly administer them, also are "in sin because they know they are acting against the faith," Father Mullassery said. Although new in India, "rent a priest" service has a history in the West. It was first launched in the United States in 1992 by Louise Haggett after she failed to get a priest to regularly see her ailing Catholic mother. She later learned that many priests who left the priesthood and got married still wished to continue their pastoral services, said her organization's web site
. Haggett claimed that church laws do not prevent former priests from administering sacraments. K.P. Sibhu Kattamparampil, a former priest and a founding member of the Indian association told ucanews.com that "the number of people leaving the church is rising in India because of the wrong practices of the authorities." Njallani said the issues in Kerala are not about a lack of priests. "Here a large number of people are denied sacraments for reasons such as not paying parish dues or for criticizing priests and bishops," he said.
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The church in Kerala has sought to downplay down the issue of former priests. The official spokesperson of the Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church told ucanews.com: "There is no need for the church to comment on every development. There are several organizations like this among Christians. We cannot comment on the activities of each and every organization."