The decision by the Pope Francis to allow a married American man to be ordained a Maronite Catholic priest has caused excitement at St. Joseph Maronite Church in Waterville, according to the church’s priest.

A St. Louis man, Wissam Akiki, was ordained into the vocation Thursday, nearly a century after the last married Maronite priest was ordained in the United States. Under Eastern Catholic tradition, married men are allowed to become priests, but single priests are not allowed to marry.

Since the 1920s, however, the Catholic Church has not allowed married men to undergo ordination.

“It means a great deal,” said the Rev. Larry Jensen, of St. Joseph in Waterville. “This is a really exciting time for the Maronites to be able to follow their traditions in the United States.”

Maronites are among 22 Eastern Catholic church groups that accept the authority of the pope but have many of their own rituals and liturgy.

St. Joseph’s Maronite Church was founded when Lebanese immigrants began arriving in Maine in 1890 and brought their eastern religious tradition to the community in Waterville. Maronite Catholics in the Waterville area attended church services at Sacred Heart Church and other Latin Rite churches until 1924, when the church was founded, five years prior to the ban on Maronites ordaining married American men.

In Lebanon, nearly half of the priests are married; so while the event is unusual for the U.S., it’s commonplace in the greater tradition.

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. Pope Francis gave permission for Akiki to be ordained.

“I think this could be very beneficial with Orthodox relations, because maybe they will see the pope as respecting their traditions,” Jensen said.

Even so, Pope Francis’ action does not lift the ban on married priests in the U.S., but allows Akiki to be ordained as an exemption.

Experts are cautioning against reading too much into the pope’s decision, particularly as it relates to the Roman Catholic Church.

“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 St. Louis University.

Jensen said the local Maronite community is hopeful the decision suggests that the pope will allow more ordinations of married men.

“One man already had approached me, and now that he knows there’s that possibility to be a priest, he would at least like to explore the chance,” Jensen said. “He knew he felt called to be married and the call to married life was strongest, but also thinks he may be called to be a priest.”

A U.S. Maronite publication available at St. Joseph church, The Maronite Voice, said the decision could lead to more men entering the priesthood.

“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 our Maronite Church,” the publication states.

Akiki, 41, emigrated from Lebanon in 2002, and almost immediately became a subdeacon at St. Raymond’s, ascending to deacon in 2009. It was about a year and a half ago that he and the church petitioned the Vatican to allow him to enter the priesthood.

Akiki 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 and his wife have one daughter, 8-year-old Perla.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252kschroeder@centralmaine.com