It didn’t get a lot of media coverage, but the priestly ordination of a married Catholic deacon on February 27, 2014, was an “historic occasion.”
Wissam Akiki, a married deacon of the Maronite Catholic Church, St. Louis, Missouri, received permission from Pope Francis to be ordained a priest.
The Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch is an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. Its origin goes back to the 4th century when a community of Christians formed around a monk named Maron, recognized for his asceticism and piety.
Today’s Maronite patriarch of Antioch, Mor Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, was named a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
Married priests are common in the Eastern Catholic Churches in Europe and the Middle East but the Vatican stopped the practice in America in the 1920s because Roman rite bishops complained that “it confuses the people.”
As is well-known, the Roman rite insists that candidates for the priesthood assume “the obligation of celibacy.” The other 22 rites (e.g., Maronite, Chaldean, Russian Greek, Coptic) do not.
(Nonetheless, there are priests in the Roman rite who are married. The Vatican has made exceptions for non-Catholic Christian married ministers who convert to Catholicism. Scores of former Orthodox and Anglican married priests are now serving in the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. and Canada.)
It could happen that many Roman Catholics in the shadow of the priest shortage will be served by Eastern Catholic priests. In some places, where a parish has been closed, some parishioners have chosen to go to a near-by Eastern Catholic Church.
At the Second Vatican Council, bishops and patriarchs from around the world acknowledged the high value which the Catholic Church places on the Eastern Churches, including their liturgical rites and traditions. See Orientalium Ecclesiarum, “Decree on Catholic Eastern Churches” (November 21, 1964).
The Council decree solemnly affirmed that “the churches of the east like those of the west have the right and duty to govern themselves according to their own special disciplines” (#5).
Although subject to the direction of the pope, these Catholic churches are urged to maintain their ecclesiastical and spiritual traditions. Orientalium Ecclesiarum urges both eastern and western rite Catholics to think of these ancient traditions as “the heritage of the whole Church of Christ.”
It is estimated that about half of the Maronite priests in Lebanon are married. The people of St. Raymond’s Maronite Church in St. Louis appeared more than ready to welcome Wissam Akiki as a priest.
Akiki labeled his ordination day “historic,” and went on to express his gratitude for two great blessings: his marriage to Manal, his wife of ten years, and his “dream to serve the Lord and the Church as a priest.”
In an article by Associated Press, a woman attending the ceremony opined that he will be a wonderful priest. “The fact that he’s married will be exciting for the Church. It’s tradition in the old country. I guess we’re finally catching up to the old country.”
Francis is not the first pope to make an exception to the rule, and several clerics warned against reading too much into the one for Akiki.
When asked privately about ordaining married men as priests, Francis has not ruled out the idea but neither does he seem set to change the rules on his own initiative. Like Pope John XXIII he waits for the bishops to act, waiting for a bishops’ conferences to discuss the matter and draw conclusions for their own areas of responsibility.
I suspect that when a conference of bishops, maybe in Austria for example, discusses the matter and recommends ordination of married men to the priesthood, Francis’ likely reply will be “Fiat,” “Es soll geschehen,” or “Go for it!”