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Maronite Catholic Church in US ordains its 1st married priest in nearly a century

Deacon Wissam Akiki, who is married, rear center, is ordained into the priesthood during a ceremony at St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, in St. Louis. Akiki is the first married priest to be ordained by the Maronite Catholic Church in the United States in nearly a century. (AP Photo/Erin Stubblefield)

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Deacon Wissam Akiki, who is married, rear center, is ordained into the priesthood during a ceremony at St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, in St. Louis. Akiki is the first married priest to be ordained by the Maronite Catholic Church in the United States in nearly a century. (AP Photo/Erin Stubblefield)

ST. LOUIS - The Maronite Catholic Church in the United States has ordained a married priest for the first time in nearly a century, after Pope Francis gave his permission.

A ceremony at the ornate St. Raymond's Maronite Cathedral in St. Louis ordained Deacon Wissam Akiki on Thursday night.

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.

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 the U.S.

"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.

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."

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Associated Press Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.

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