ST. LOUIS -- When Deacon Wissam Akiki is ordained as a Maronite Catholic priest Thursday night in St. Louis, he's expected to have hundreds of supporters there for him, including his wife and daughter.
For the first time in nearly a century, the Maronite Catholic Church in the United States is ordaining a married priest in a ceremony at the ornate St. Raymond's Maronite Cathedral near downtown St. Louis.
Akiki was in retreat before Thursday's ceremony and unavailable for an interview.
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.
"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 Thursday.
Pope Francis gave permission for Akiki to be ordained. Maronites are among more than a dozen Eastern Catholic church groups in the United States. Eastern Catholics accept the authority of the pope, but have many of their own rituals and liturgy.
Peters said the pope's action does not lift the ban on married priests in the U.S. It is simply an exception.
Whether the decision would open the door for more married priests wasn't clear. Experts 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, 41, 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 has been a deacon at St. Raymond's since 2009 and worked as the assistant to the bishop. He and his wife, Manal Kassab, have one daughter, Perla, 8.
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.
Peters said having married priests "does not in any way detract from the value that the church finds in the vocation to celibacy. The celibate priesthood continues to be highly esteemed."