Pope Francis OK'd the ordination, which will occur Thursday.

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In a move that could open the doors for more wedded priests in some Catholic churches across the USA, a married Maronite deacon will be ordained Thursday as a priest in St. Louis.

Deacon Wissam Akiki, who serves St. Raymond's Maronite Cathedral, will be the first married Maronite Catholic in the United States to become a priest, said Bishop Elias Zaidan of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, which has its headquarters in Missouri.

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"In the Middle East, it is normal (for a priest) to be married," Zaidan said Tuesday. "Here, this is the first."

The Maronite church is one of several Eastern Rite churches — including Armenian, Chaldean and some Byzantine Catholics — that recognize the authority of the pope in Rome. Many Maronite Christians in the U.S. trace their lineage to present-day Lebanon and Syria.

Although Roman Catholic priests are not allowed to marry, Catholic priests who married before they were approved for ordination are allowed to remain married. An example: Catholic priests who were converts from the Anglican communion and other Protestant denominations.

"The Vatican was open to it on a case-by-case basis," said Zaidan, and Pope Francis approved Akiki's ordination, which was in the pipeline for about a year.

William Ditewig, executive professor of theology at Santa Clara University in California, said Pope John Paul II opened the door for this possibility decades ago in his encyclical calling for the traditions of the Eastern churches to be respected.

"I'm reluctant to project too much too fast" for the Roman Catholic church and the future of married priests, said Ditewig, who also works for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey. "I think this is interesting and significant, but I don't necessarily think it is earth shattering."

Akiki has been a deacon at his St. Louis Maronite church for nearly a decade and has been married for 10 or 11 years, the bishop said.

Akiki could not be reached for comment. He is married to Manal Kassab, and they have a daughter, Perla.

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"In the United States, the ordination of married men to the priesthood is not just a 'fix' to the priest shortage but rather a re-establishment of an ancient and honored tradition in the Maronite church," Zaidan wrote in this month's Maronite newsletter.

Akiki attended Holy Spirit University of Kaselik in Lebanon, Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary in Washington, and Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, according to information from the Maronite Eparchy.

"The tradition in the Maronite church in the Middle East has been married priests since the beginning" of the church in the 4th century, said Chorbishop Seely Beggiani, retired rector of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary where Akiki attended for a year. "But we did not have any married priests as full-time pastors in the U.S. for many years" since the Vatican in the mid-1920s decided to restrict married Maronites from the priesthood in North and South America.

He estimated that half the Maronite priests in the country of Lebanon, where marriage before ordination never was restricted, are married. And until the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church had married priests.

The U.S. has about 100,000 Maronite Catholics, Beggiani said. And as many as 2 million people in this country have roots in the Maronite church.

Pope Francis gave permission for Akiki to function like any other diocesan priest after his Thursday ordination, Beggiani said.

"This may be precedent setting," Beggiani said. "I won't know the significance of it until I see the next 10 years."

Zaidan called Akiki an excellent candidate for the priesthood, well equipped, educated and mature.

"He is well settled in life, and he found the calling," the bishop said. Zaidan thinks the Vatican could permit other married Eastern rite deacons to become priests though no one else in the U.S. Maronite church has requested it yet. "Now it could be faster because they are becoming used to it."

Contributing: Aja J. Williams, KSDK-TV, St. Louis

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