Wissam Akiki is now a Catholic priest.
What sets him apart is that he was already a married man.
Akiki, 41, is the first married man in the Maronite Catholic Church to be ordained into the priesthood in the United States with the blessing of the pope.
The pews were packed Thursday for the ordination ceremony held at St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral in St. Louis, a large, oval church just south of downtown.
Inside the church, prominent images include the former Lebanese monk and priest St. Charbel, as well as those that any Catholic would recognize: pastel portraits of the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on the building’s beams; a large painting of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus facing the pews, as well as a picture of her husband, St. Joseph.
Bishop Elias Zaidan, bishop of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, which is based in St. Louis, led the ceremony.
Mayor Francis Slay was on hand and presented Akiki with a key to the city, noting that wherever his ministry took him, he would always be welcomed back to St. Louis.
Richard Cullins, 27, a parishioner at the church, called the ordination “revolutionary.”
“I think the problems of the Catholic Church could very well be coming to an end tonight,” Cullins said. “It’s going to open the doors for so many people and bring people closer to God.”
Manal Kassab, who has been married to Akiki for about a decade, and their daughter, Perla, 8, were also present.
The couple are enrolled at the Aquinas Institute of Theology. Akiki previously attended Holy Spirit University in Lebanon and Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary in Washington.
Akiki had been a deacon at St. Raymond’s since 2009 and worked as the assistant to the bishop.
The Maronite Catholic Church, with roots in Lebanon and the Middle East, is part of a larger group of 22 Catholic churches belonging to the Eastern rite. Unlike the Orthodox Catholic Church, Eastern Catholic churches recognize the authority of the pope and are in communion with Rome.
In Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, many Eastern Catholic priests are married, but since the 1920s the practice has generally been banned in the United States. Eastern Catholic churches that have sought to ordain a married man for priestly ministry in the U.S. have typically petitioned Rome for permission, though until recently, the Vatican response has usually been a resounding “no.”
Some wonder whether opening up priestly ordination to married men in the Eastern rite will swing the doors open for Roman Catholic men.
Adam Deville, a professor at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind., who focuses on the Christian East, says the Maronite Church has traditionally taken a conservative stance on the issue of married priests in the U.S. and sees Akiki’s ordination as momentous.
It’s like conservative Republican politician Rick Santorum’s coming out in favor of gay marriage, Deville said.
The Maronite Church is “the most conservative and the least willing to rock the boat on this question,” said Deville. “If they can do it, anyone can do it.”
Ines Angeli Murzaku, a professor of church history in the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, agrees that the ordination is significant but adds that she doesn’t think the move is “breathtaking and would mean an immediate lift of the ban.”
“It seems to me that the pope is responding ... on a case-by-case basis,” she said.
But Anthony Dragani, associate professor of religious studies at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, Pa., says many Eastern churches would rather sidestep the debate revolving around married Roman Catholic priests.
“We’d rather just stay out of it,” Dragani said. “The Roman Catholics can do their thing, and we want to be able to just maintain our own traditions.”
“I know Pope Francis wants to do everything he can to respect the traditions of the Eastern churches, and this would be a part of that.”
In St. Louis, in addition to St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral, there are several other Eastern Catholic churches, such as St. Mary’s Assumption Ukrainian Catholic Church and St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Mission.
In the early centuries of Christianity, it was common for priests to be married, though churches in both the East and West have always valued celibacy.
Over time it became the norm for priests in the West to remain unmarried, though that tradition never took hold in the Eastern churches. Catholic bishops, whether part of the Eastern or Latin rite, however, have always been expected to remain celibate, as are unmarried men who already serve as priests.
Some argue that the Roman Catholic Church has been reluctant to ordain married men for the priesthood not solely for theological reasons — such as the argument that an unwed priest is more like Jesus Christ himself — but for practical reasons as well.
Dragani of Mount Aloysius College, for example, points out that flexibility is demanded of priests in the Roman Catholic Church, where they are often moved around like chess pieces so they can care for different parishes. Supporting married Catholic priests is also more expensive.
There is, however, a little-known pastoral provision, created by Pope John Paul II in 1980, which has allowed married Episcopal priests to enter ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. Still, married Roman Catholic priests are the exception rather than the rule.
Akiki, for his part, said that without his family his ordination would not have been possible.
“I want to give myself completely to our Lord Jesus Christ,” he said.