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.
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.
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