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, speaking at the end of the two-hour ceremony, 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," Deacon Louis Peters, chancellor at St. Raymond's, said.
The ordination ceremony featured several bishops from within the Maronite rite. Many members of the St. Raymond's congregation are of Lebanese descent, and many of the prayers, hymns and readings were in Arabic.
Members of the church said they were ready to welcome the new priest.
"He'll be a wonderful priest," Linda Hill, 54, said. "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."
Stephanie Baker, 57 and a lifelong member, agreed.
"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.
Akiki emigrated from Lebanon in 2002, and almost immediately became a subdeacon at St. Raymond's, ascending to deacon in 2009. It was about a year-and-a-half ago that he and the church petitioned the Vatican to allow him to enter the priesthood.
Akiki completed seminary studies at Holy Spirit University in Lebanon, Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary in Washington, D.C., and the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.
He and his wife have one daughter, 8-year-old Perla. She read a brief prayer at her father's ordination.
Peters said that in the most recent Maronite Patriarchal Synod, the church reaffirmed its position in support of allowing married priests, a tradition that, worldwide, dates back centuries.
In a statement, the Archdiocese of St. Louis congratulated Akiki.
"The Archdiocese of St. Louis values its strong relationship with the Maronite community in St. Louis," the statement read in part.
Those attending the ordination applauded the new priest several times, which clearly left him moved.
"It is a day of grace and of joy," he said.
Associated Press Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.