ST. LOUIS — Surrounded by his wife, daughter and the bishops of his Church, Father Wissam Akiki made history in February as the first married man in 90 years to enter the priesthood for the Maronite Catholic Church in the U.S.
But for Catholics of most Eastern-rite Churches in the U.S., including the Maronites, the fact the priest is a married man isn’t that extraordinary: What’s extraordinary is that they have to ask the Vatican for permission to ordain married men in the first place.
Eastern Catholic bishops of the Ukrainian, Ruthenian and Melkite traditions have been cautiously ordaining married men to the priesthood in the United States since Blessed John Paul II relaxed decades-old rules and opened the door to them on a case-by-case basis approved by the Vatican. Now, the Maronites are following suit.
On Feb. 27, Bishop Elias Zaidan of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon ordained Father Akiki.
“It’s been an ongoing discussion,” said Deacon Louis Peters, the chancellor of the St. Louis-based eparchy. “Pope Francis said he could suspend the rule for this ordination, and so we proceeded.”
But the Holy Father’s approval of Father Akiki’s ordination marks “no change at all” to the Latin Church’s ancient tradition of a celibate-only priesthood, explained Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, an authority on Eastern Churches with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The tradition of a wholly celibate diocesan clergy is really something that is a characteristic of the Latin Church, but not the [entire] Catholic Church,” he said.
In the tradition of most Eastern Churches, married men are ordained as parish priests. However, celibate men take vows as monks and can be ordained as priests, and bishops are chosen from the celibate clergy. But once ordained, priests can never marry.
A Tragic History
But the “real issue” that makes Pope Francis’ approval of Father Akiki’s ordination newsworthy for the U.S., Father Roberson explained, is a 1929 Vatican decree called Cum Data Fuerit, which imposed a requirement of celibacy on Eastern Catholic clergy in the U.S.
Back then, U.S. Latin-rite bishops, openly hostile to the Eastern Catholic liturgy and traditions brought over by Eastern European immigrants, had heavily lobbied the Vatican, calling their married priesthood a “scandal.” They were considered a stumbling block to their plans for a uniform American Catholic Church. These actions helped drive tens of thousands of Eastern Catholics out of communion with Rome — some estimates are as high as 300,000 — and into the Orthodox churches.
According to Father Thomas Loya, a pastor in the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma and host of “Light of the East Radio,” the Vatican’s ban on married priesthood “devastated” the Eastern Catholic parishes in ways that would not be obvious to Latin-rite Catholics.
“Part of the structure of the Eastern Catholic Churches was pulled out from under it, and nothing replaced it,” Father Loya said. Neither the Vatican nor the Latin bishops appreciated the role of the priest’s wife in the Eastern tradition. “It would be as if the Eastern-rite Churches had turned around and said to the Latin-rite priests [in their territory], ‘You’re not going to have housekeepers, you’re not going to have cooks, directors of religious education, youth coordinators, and you’re going to survive and run your parish that way.’”
Vatican II Calls for Restoration
The Second Vatican Council finally repudiated the theology behind these “Latinizing” policies in the Church and established that the Latin Church and the Eastern Churches enjoy status as Churches with “equal dignity.” The Council also gave “all members of the Eastern rite” a mandate both to “always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life” and to “take steps to return to their ancestral traditions.”
But despite these declarations of Vatican II, the spirit behind Cum Datum Fuerit still persists in the Church. Father Roberson explained that the thinking behind the U.S. restrictions are that, “when you get outside that territory into areas that are really dominated by the Latin Church, then it’s a different story” of whether the Eastern Catholic bishops can ordain married men.
Still, the declarations of Vatican II about the equal rights of the Eastern Churches have encouraged Eastern Catholic bishops to take steps to recover their traditions.
Bishop Nicholas Samra of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Mass., called for a study in November 2011 to determine what was needed to prepare married men for ordination to the priesthood in the U.S. and generate more U.S.-born Melkite vocations to the priesthood.
Father Loya said that many Eastern Catholic vocations to the priesthood, both married and celibate monastic, were traditionally formed from priests’ families. He explained that if the Eastern Catholic Churches in the U.S. restore the married priesthood “in the right way,” it would strengthen their character and ability to evangelize effectively.
But he also rejected the idea that the Eastern Catholic married priesthood would lead to a “flood of seminarians” in the U.S. leaving the Latin rite for the Eastern rite as “unfounded and unnecessary.”
“It’s just not that easy. The Eastern Churches are not going to allow that,” he said. For one thing, joining a rite means “embracing that spirituality in a profound way,” as well as its culture. Such a move would cast doubt on his motives and be an instant disqualifier to a bishop looking for an authentic candidate.
No Easy Task
Although Blessed John Paul II relaxed the old Vatican policy, the case-by-case requirement discourages Eastern bishops from setting up the infrastructure needed for restoring the discipline of married clergy, such as seminaries for married men.
Another potential obstacle for restoring the discipline is finances. The 1990 Code of Canons for Oriental Churches requires that bishops must ensure a priest’s family is provided with adequate material support.
According to Deacon Peters, the Eastern bishops right now appear mainly interested in selecting married candidates from former seminarians (as was the case with Father Akiki) “who were pretty close to finishing their theology and then chose to get married.”
Father Loya said he views the current restrictions as part of a transition period. Returning to the discipline of married clergy in the U.S. would have to be done “very judiciously and prudently, because we’ve been without it for a very long time.”
Developing formation programs for the wives of seminarians, who will share in their husband’s vocation, will also be key. The priest’s wife is no easy task, and the task is even more challenging for a woman who has not grown up in a priest’s family and therefore doesn’t know what that vocation entails.
Father Loya explained that, in the Eastern traditions, seminarians who were going to be married priests “tended to marry girls who were the daughters or granddaughters of priests.” Such a woman “understood very much what it meant to be the wife of a priest” and her responsibilities as the “spiritual mother” of the parish. This included a witness to celibacy’s pointing toward the life to come by abstaining from sexual relations during periods of fasting. It also meant that in times of danger she would take the family to safety, while her husband would tend to his flock and possibly die.
“That would have to be a concept we would have to have in America to restore this,” said Father Loya.
Change in the Air?
Relations between the Latin bishops and the Eastern Catholic bishops in the U.S. have improved drastically over the years.
Father Roberson said that while he could not speak for the USCCB on this issue, he did believe recent trends, including the acceptance of the Anglican ordinariates with their married clergy, indicate the U.S. bishops might be willing to take up the issue again.
He said “the last thing said on the subject with official status” was a 1999 speech given by then-Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., vice president of the USCCB at the time to a gathering of Eastern Catholics in Boston. Bishop Gregory, now archbishop of Atlanta, suggested that the U.S. bishops would give the “highest consideration” to following the example of the Australian bishops, who voted in 1998 to restore Eastern Catholic bishops’ right to ordain married clergy as they chose.
“He thought the bishops would be open to that change,” he said.
Father Roberson said Father Akiki’s ordination is still an isolated case, and one case does not yet make a trend.
“What will be interesting to watch, however, is if this is the first of a number of cases.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.