ST. LOUIS – When Wissam Akiki was ordained as a Maronite Catholic priest Thursday night in St. Louis, he was welcomed by hundreds of supporters, including his wife and daughter.
For the first time in nearly a century, the Maronite Catholic Church in the United States ordained a married priest in a ceremony at St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral near downtown St. Louis. Maronites are among more than a dozen Eastern Catholic church groups in the U.S. Eastern Catholics accept the authority of the pope but have many of their own rituals and liturgy.
Akiki, 41, called it a “historic day” and said he had been given two great blessings – marriage to his wife of 10 years, Manal, and “the dream to serve the Lord and church as a priest.”
Eastern Catholic churches in the Middle East and Europe ordain married men. However, the Vatican banned the practice in America in the 1920s after Latin-rite bishops complained it was confusing for parishioners. But Pope John Paul II called for greater acceptance of Eastern Catholic traditions, and over the years, popes have made exceptions on a case-by-case basis for married men to become Eastern Catholic priests in America. Pope Francis gave permission for Akiki to be ordained.
“Almost half of our priests in Lebanon are married, so it’s not an unusual event in the life of the Maronite church, though in the United States it is,” said Deacon Louis Peters, chancellor at St. Raymond’s.
Stephanie Baker, 57 and a lifelong member of the church, welcomed the new priest.
“I really think it sets a precedent,” Baker said. “There are a lot of people who have it (the priesthood) in their hearts. This opens it up for other people.”
That remains to be seen. Peters said the pope’s action does not lift the ban on married priests in the U.S. It is simply an exception.
Experts, too, cautioned against reading too much into it.
“This is certainly not an automatic indication that the mandate of celibacy within Roman rite will be overturned,” said Randy Rosenberg, a theological studies professor at Saint Louis University.