Melkite Catholic Church to Ordain Married Men to Priesthood in USA — Updated Report

Bishop Nicholas Samra was enthroned as Bishop for Melkite Catholics in the USA in August, 2011

Updated November 22, 2011

At his recent enthronement as the Melkite Greek Catholic Bishop in the USA, Bishop Nicholas Samra stated that the Melkite Catholic Church (an Eastern Catholic Church in union with the Pope of Rome) will begin ordaining married men to the priesthood in the USA. While some American Melkite Catholic parishes currently have married priests, nearly all of these married priests were ordained in the Middle East where the Eastern tradition of a married clergy is normative. Instead of ordaining these married men overseas, the plan is now to develop seminary training of qualified Melkite men — both celibate and married — in America.

Bishop Nicholas Samra, Bishop of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts made the comment in a dinner speech following his enthronement on August 23, 2011. The Bishop’s speech, newly published in the Melkite journal Sophia, contains the first published public statements by the Melkite Greek Catholic Church (or of any Eastern Catholic Bishop in the USA) of their intention to ordain married men to the priesthood for the American Melkite Church.

Bishop Nicholas, the first American-born Bishop to serve the Melkite Church in the USA, noted that “we are on a shoe-string of clergy to serve our Church as priests.” At present, the American Melkite Eparchy, with 35 parishes and approximately 27,000 members  has only “one priest to be ordained next year.” Worldwide, Melkite Catholics number about 1.6 million and are part of the Melkite Partriarchate of Antioch. The Melkite Catholic Church shares similar traditions with the Antiochian Orthodox Church, but entered communion with Rome in 1729.

Encouraging vocations among his American flock is one of Bishop Nicholas’ goals:

We are grateful for our ancestors — priests and laity and bishops who came from the Middle East and brought us to where we are presently. But now we have come of age and we need priests from among our people in this American Melkite Catholic Church.

Bishops at the Enthronement of Melkite Bishop Nicholas Samra in Newton, Massachusetts

Towards the end of his speech, Bishop Nicholas spoke of the need to both study and implement the training of married men to the priesthood in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church so that “hopefully soon we can see the growth of properly formed married clergy”:

God calls men and women to religious vocations. And I believe he also calls married men to the priesthood. We need to study this situation in our country and develop the proper formation for men who are truly deemed worthy of this call. The Deacon Formation Program is a good program; however is not the backdoor to the priesthood. Married men who are called to priesthood need the same formation as those celibates who are called. I have already discussed this issue with those involved in priestly formation and hopefully soon we can see the growth of properly formed married clergy. Of course there are also major financial issues to be looked at and we will embark on this also.

I began my talk with vocations and I end with it also. We need priests for your sanctification and the mysteries of the Church. Seminary formation is a must — please send us vocations. The Church is in our hands, mine and yours. Together we build His Body. [(Sophia, Summer 2011, pp. 8-9; issue released October 2011)]

The Sophia article did not discuss the history of earlier restrictions on the ordaining of married men to the priesthood in America. Bans on ordaining married men to the priesthood for Eastern Catholic Churches in the USA were imposed by Rome in the last century, but enforcement of the Ban has waned in the past fifteen years causing many Catholics, both Eastern and Latin Rite, to wonder if the Ban was still in effect. Earlier, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Melkite Church ordained five married men for service in America as priests but the ordinations were ruled illicit by Rome and their priestly faculties were suspended. However, a 1996 ordination of a married Melkite deacon to the priesthood was noted by the press but was considered “hardly a trend” with no recorded public reaction by Rome. At the time, the 1996 ordination was seen by some as “testing the waters,” but there was no push by the previous American Melkite Bishops to encourage married men to enter seminary. Nonetheless, the Melkite Catholic Church has long felt that their right to have a married clergy is an important part of their canonical tradition. Since 1996, a few married men were ordained as priests for the American Melkite Church, but not by Bishop Nicolas Samra’s predecessors. Instead, these ordinations took place back in the Middle East in the home territory of the Melkite Church where the Ban does not apply and the newly ordained priests returned to America to serve Melkite parishes.

However, this latest move by the Melkite Catholic Church in the USA should not be interpreted as a revolt against Rome. In a subsequent news report based on this story, Catholic News Service confirmed that even though the Ban is still in effect, dispensations from it are made available. The CNS news correspondent in Rome contacted the Eastern Congregation in Rome and received this explanation:

Archbishop Cyril Vasil, secretary of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, told CNS [Catholic News Service] in Rome that the Vatican reconfirmed the general ban in 2008, “but in individual cases, in consultation with the national bishops’ conference, a dispensation can be given” allowing the ordination.

Based on this latest statement from Rome published by Catholic News Service, it appears that the occasional ordinations of married men to the priesthood by some Eastern Catholic Churches in the USA and Canada (by Ukrainian, Romanian and Ruthenian Catholic Bishops) were authorized by “individual” papal dispensations, granted through the Eastern Congregation. Prior to this, it was thought that only the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Metropolia of Pittsburgh had to get such dispensations as they were required to insert a canon requiring papal dispensations for ordaining married men  in their 1999 Particular Law. An earlier 2003 statement from a representative of the Eastern Congregation, published in America Magazine, similarly reconfirmed the Ban but did not specifically mention the dispensations.

It is also not known what the criteria would be that might result in a negative reply to a dispensation request. Some have speculated that one reason for the dispensations is to discourage married men from transferring from the Latin Rite who might also eventually seek ordination.

As Archbishop Cyril Vasil explained, these dispensations are given by the Eastern Congregation “in consultation with the [Latin Rite's] national bishops’ conference.” In some countries (such as Canada and the USA), the national bishops’ conferences apparently do not object. The publication Program of Priestly Formation, published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, explains how this works in the USA:

An applicant for the priesthood must testify that he is not married or, if he is married, he has the approval of the Holy See. If an Eastern Catholic candidate is married, a certificate of marriage is required along with the written consent of his wife (CCEO, c. 769§1, 2°) and the approval of the Apostolic See…” (Program of Priestly Formation, 5th edition, 2006, paragraph 66)

Presumably, the Melkite Church will be following this procedure when married men are ordained to the priesthood in the future.

The situation is not the same in other Western countries. For example, in Italy, the Italian Episcopal Conference has vetoed allowing married Eastern Catholic priests from serving in Romanian Catholic parishes there. The bottom line seems to be how the Latin Rite bishops’ conference in each country feels about the issue. For further on these most recent developments, see the article : Vatican: Ban on Ordaining Eastern Married Clergy in Western Lands is Not Dead.

Bishop Nicholas’ public call for married men to be included in the call for priestly vocations for American Melkite Catholics is a first and is likely to signal greater acceptance of married clergy for Eastern Catholics in the USA. Greater acceptance of married Eastern Catholic clergy by Rome in Western lands may also now be occurring. Will it lead to a full repeal of the Ban on the ordaining of married men in Eastern Catholic Churches outside their traditional territories? Only time will tell.

For further reading:

Can East & West Coexist With Married Priests?

Italian Catholic Episcopal Conference Vetoes Married Priests

A Critical Consideration of The Case for Clerical Celibacy

Monogamy, Celibacy, and Fatherhood: Meditations on Catholic Priesthood

Fr. Touze and Roman Miopia

Romance Blooms in a Catholic Seminary for Fr. Roman

21 Responses to Melkite Catholic Church to Ordain Married Men to Priesthood in USA — Updated Report

  1. This is wonderful news!

  2. Ratzenberger has an extremely strong authoritarian streak. I would be surprised if he tolerated this.

    • orthocath says:

      Hopefully, you were just mistaken on the Pope’s name before he became the current Pope. That was Cardinal Ratzinger. It would be best to refer to him as Benedict XVI.

      At any rate, even though Rome still says the Ban is in effect, it has also said it is not doing anything to stop these ordinations. Nor has it removed priestly faculties on these ordinations since before 1996. As the article notes, a previous Melkite Bishop (Bishop John Elya) ordained a married deacon as a Melkite priest in December of 1996 and there was no recorded complaint from Rome. I don’t believe any other married men were ordained in the American Melkite Church since then. Certainly, there were no announced plans to encourage married men to enter seminary for training for the priesthood as this most recent call by Bishop Nicholas.

      So, I’m laying bets that Rome will either continue to ignore these ordinations, or, hopefully, it will announce the end of the Ban — a Ban that it seems to ignore — though it impacts other Eastern Catholic jurisdictions still (the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Metropolia and the Coptic Catholics).

      • Contra says:

        Father Miguel Grave de Peralta is a married priest who has been ordained since 1996. However, his is a different case since he was a married ordained Orthodox priest who reconciled with the Catholic Church.

  3. [...] Orthocath reports: At his recent enthronement as the Melkite Greek Catholic Bishop in the USA, Bishop Nicholas Samra stated that the Melkite Catholic Church (an Eastern Catholic Church in union with the Pope of Rome) will begin ordaining married men to the priesthood in the USA. [...]

  4. Scoob says:

    “Ratzenberger has an extremely strong authoritarian streak.”

    Who?

  5. [...] Melkite Catholic Church to Ordain Married Men to Priesthood in USA [...]

  6. Akany says:

    1 Timothy 3:1 This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. 2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach…

  7. Paul says:

    Married clergy has been a wonderful part of our Christian heritage since ancient times and is definitely biblical (1 Timothy chapter 3). At the same time, celibacy is also a wonderful gift to those that God gives it to. There is no contradiction here. The USA churches are in great need of more shepherds. God’s sheep will scatter without a shepherd. For the sake of God’s Church and God’s people may we seriously consider what modifications to the discipline of celibacy should be made. May God continue to bless and guide our pope and all our bishops. For His Glory.

  8. pasisozi says:

    I personally know four married Catholic priests in my city–one of the Latin Church and three of Eastern Churches–and I have no trouble whatsoever with married priests.

    BTW–one of these priests is the best confessor I’ve ever had.

    I believe the Church needs lots of married priests, lots of celibate priests, and lots of monastic priests. The three kinds have different and complimentary gifts.

  9. Darice says:

    A bishop who is closely involved with eucumenism in our diocese mentioned that celibate priests had the added advantage of mobility, which even other Christian pastors admitted. A priest can be transferred very quickly to an area where he is most needed, even to a remote or challenging or dangerous area, without having to worrying about how a family would adjust.

  10. [...] Catholic bishop announces plan to begin… …ordaining married men in the United States Melkite Catholic Church to Ordain Married Men to Priesthood in USA At his recent enthronement as the Melkite Greek Catholic Bishop in the USA, Bishop Nicholas Samra [...]

  11. irishsmile says:

    As the mother of a Roman Rite priest I would like to present a couple of problems in this scenario. Unmarried priests live on a shoestring as far as salary is concerned. Married priests will require much more in the way of salary, housing, insurance and assorted other benefits. Additionally, the Anglicans have discovered just how expensive alimony and child support are when a spouse divorces a priest & it happens. Lastly, the church has seen ‘late vocation’ in which older widowers with families are ordained. On some occasions, adult family members with problems end up at a rectory with their dad or grandpa priest. This happens, too. Some priests have been prosecuted for porn. How does one assess the danger to other priests when young family members are accessing computers in rectories.

  12. Michael B Rooke says:

    It might be noted that celibacy and priesthood are biblical and came from Jesus.

    In Matthew 12 Jesus was reproved for “breaking the Sabbath” because his disciples plucked ears of corn to eat. Jesus replied referring to the incident that David requested and was given the bread of Presence that was made by the priests on the Sabbath but who did not break the Sabbath because they were serving the Temple.

    3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry,
    4 how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering which neither he nor his companions but only the priests could lawfully eat?
    5 Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent?
    6 I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.

    The holy bread also known as shewbread, showbread or bread of presence was only allowed to be eaten by priests who were celibate for the time they served as priests. David was only allowed to eat the holy bread in 1Samuel 21: because he and his men were celibate which was a requirement for a military campaign.

    1Samuel 21:
    4 Now what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves, or whatever you can find.”
    5 But the priest replied to David, “I have no ordinary bread on hand, only holy bread; if the men have abstained from women, you may eat some of that.”
    6 David answered the priest: “We have indeed stayed away from women. In the past whenever I went out on a campaign, all the young men were consecrated—even for an ordinary campaign. All the more so are they consecrated with their weapons today!”
    7 So the priest gave him holy bread, for no other bread was on hand except the showbread which had been removed from before the LORD and replaced by fresh bread when it was taken away.

    David was also a priest, he was anointed in 1 Samuel 16 :13. He wore the ephod, the priestly garment, in 2 Samuel 6:14. Psalm 110 – a Psalm to David states in verse 4 that David was “You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech.”.

    Thus celibacy was prefigured in the Old Testament as temporary celibacy . The disciples of Jesus were allowed to “ break” the Sabbath because they were serving something greater than the Temple ie Jesus himself and they were celibate. The priests in the Catholic Church serve Jesus not for a period of time as in the OT but daily and thus celibacy is a requirement.

  13. This is woderful news, the Eastern rites should be able to do what they have done for centuries. Rome has a problem with married priests serving the East which is the norm, but has no problem with the ordaination of married men who were previous Protestant clergy to the Roman rite where married priests is not allowed except in the previous mentioned case

  14. Byzcat says:

    I have been told that in the East, the married priesthood developed due to the rural nature of the Church. A married clergy, with priestly families was normal, accepted, and gave the local communities a strong sense of identity and support. In my opinion, there was no valid reason to ban these valid traditions in America, except that the US Bishops did not wish to have Eastern Catholics under a different jurisdiction than they themselves. Not only were married clergy banned, but even the traditional architecture of Eastern Churches was banned in some cases, notably the Romanian Catholic Church in the US. Several of these churches were forced to adopt Romanesque architectural models rather than traditional Eastern architecture. It is interesting to note that most Roman Catholics are unaware of the existence, much less the rich apostolic traditions of their Eastern brethren.

  15. Byzantinos says:

    No one, so far, has mentioned the patristic and historic precedent, or lack thereof, of “following ones tradition” in the geographic/diocesan/eparchian limits of another (long-established).

    The problem isn’t married clergy: Rome has “allowed” this since Our Lord ascended gloriously into Heaven. The problem is an Eastern Bishop demanding that Rome adjust its long-standing praxis in one country, when Melchites, historically, have had hardly any presence outside of their original eparchies. Granted, the Muslim persecutions have pushed many to the West, but what is the real solution to the priest-shortage crisis? Married clergy? Really?

  16. Fr. Deacon Daniel says:

    Byzantinos,

    Speaking as an Eastern Catholic, the question is: are Eastern Catholic bishops with canonically established Metropolias and Eparchies true bishops able to govern their own local churches according to the norms of their own sui iuris Patriarchal or Archepiscopal Churches, without the imposition of artificial limitations?

    The Melkite Greek-Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch has a governing patriarchal synod of bishops, of which all bishops regardless of their location are a part. To ask these bishops to disregard the traditions of their sui iuris Church and its governing Synod in deference to either local Latin clergy or the decision of a so-called “Episcopal Conference” undermines the authentic identity of these Churches and makes them more or less a part of a permanent ecclesial underclass.

    No Latin bishop in the traditional canonical territory of an Eastern Patriarch would tolerate such a position coupled with the imposition of Eastern practices (such as the ordination of both married and celibate priests) upon his own local Church contrary to the disciplines of the sui iuris Latin Church. Why, then, should the reverse be true?

    Given the migration of Eastern Christians away from their traditional homelands due to persecutions or economic plight, it seems only sensible to regard every local Eastern Catholic Church in the diaspora as under the full, personal governance of its Patriarch as its spiritual head with his Synod, much like the Latin Churches maintain an unbroken, full connection to the Pope of Rome as head of the sui iuris Latin Church.

    As to the “real solution” to the priest-shortage, the answer quite clearly is to ordain more priests. And since the jurisdiction of Bishop Nicholas is an Eastern Catholic one, this means BOTH celibate and married priests.

    We need to decisively reject the obtuse and self-serving reasoning on the part of the Latins that brought about the moral failure of “Cum Data Fuerit” on the part of the papacy and the US Catholic hierarchy in the 1920′s and which we saw tragically repeated very recently by the Italian Episcopal Conference. If the Latin Church is to be taken seriously in it’s expressed desire for rapproachement with the Orthodox East, it must begin by abandoning any pretense of a Janus-like ecumenism, with one face towards Eastern Christians in full communion with her and one face towards those who are not. No Orthodox jurisdiction would ever accept such an artificial restriction as the imposition of a Western discipline based upon some presumptive universality of all things Latin. Each jurisdiction must be free to govern itself based upon its own received tradition, and the decisive, apostolic, longstanding, canonical, magisterially affirmed and praiseworthy tradition of the Christian East is the ordination of both married and celibate men to the priesthood.

    God grant many happy, blessed and fruitful years to Bishop Nicholas Samra and the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church in North America!

  17. priestswife says:

    Many years- Bishop Samra!

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