Monday, November 07, 2011

Bishop Nicholas (Samra) on the priestly ordination of married men in the Melkite Church.

Orthocath reported on Saturday that recently-enthroned Melkite Bishop Nicholas (Samra) of Newton intends to ordain married men for priestly service in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the United States. This news has been making the rounds of the blogosphere, but as far as I know it has not yet drawn the attention of the news media.

Like most other Eastern Catholic churches, the Melkites have a long tradition of married clergy in their patriarchal territory (in this case, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine) but in North America they - again, like other Eastern Catholic churches - have been compelled by Rome to accept Latin discipline regarding clerical celibacy at the insistence of the local Roman Catholic hierarchy. Orthocath has a detailed and well-sourced post giving more historical background on all this, which you should read if this topic is new to you.

Frankly, this really should not be news: Bishop Nicholas is merely upholding the traditions of his Church, and, as Orthocath notes, the Melkites (and, for that matter, the Ukrainians and, in at least one instance, the Ruthenians) have already ordained married men for priestly service in North America, though they have generally done so discreetly. If there is anything newsworthy about Bishop Nicholas' statement, it is the fact that he is willing to speak forthrightly and publicly on a topic that Eastern Catholic hierarchs in North America have generally been very reticent about. If you want to know what the Bishop actually said, here is the key paragraph, as quoted in the initial Orthocath report:
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.
The above text suggests to me that Bishop Nicholas is taking a very careful, cautious and realistic approach to this issue. I'm particularly glad that the Bishop mentions finances, as this is a real problem that needs to be discussed; the salary of a parish priest is not adequate to support a wife and children, and trying to raise priestly salaries to make them adequate for the needs of families could impose crippling financial burdens on parishes and eparchies. All of the married priests that I know have had to work full-time jobs in addition to their church positions in order to make ends meet; invariably, their spouses work as well. The time that a married priest spends attending to family responsibilities and to his necessary second job means that he has less time to devote to his parish - and that is a reality that must be faced in a church with more married priests.

So, while this shouldn't be news, Bishop Nicholas has given his flock a lot to think and pray about. If this story does become news, I fear that some in the media will misinterpret the facts to try to present this as a new challenge to the discipline of priestly celibacy in the Latin Church (for the ground of my fear, read this post). Clearly, Bishop Nicholas is not challenging the longstanding Latin tradition of clerical celibacy; he is merely affirming the Melkite tradition of ordaining both married and celibate men to the priesthood. I pray that Bishop Nicholas' intentions will be clearly understood, and I pray that all of his efforts to foster spiritual renewal will bear great fruit in the life of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. AMDG.


At 11/08/2011 4:56 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

When I read your thoughtful post, it occured to me that many priests nowadays have more than one job. At least in Montreal that is the case. My own pastor teaches at a nearby university (Concordia). The R.C. chaplain at the same university has a parish to administer. Others have more than one parish to serve. A hospital chaplain I know also administers a parish. In an increasingly priest-poor society, that will be more and more the case.
I realize that fathering a family is a separate and holy vocation on its own, but I think this extra "burden" can be borne by the right people. Bless this Melkite bishop for wisely and cautiously taking steps in that direction, already acceptable in his faith community.

At 11/08/2011 9:22 PM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...


You raise an important point - priests are stretched thin in many places, including here. For married priests who typically also work a full-time, non-pastoral job in order to make ends meet, taking care of multiple pastoral commitments will, I imagine, be even more difficult.

I think you're absolutely right about the "extra burden" element - and not just for the married priest, but for his family. In the Eastern churches, there tends to be a strong emphasis on the idea that being a priest's wife is also a distinct vocation - not just because of the stresses that pastoral work can put on family relationships, but also because of the expected public role that the pastor's spouse is traditionally expected to play in the parish. In a very real sense, the priest and his wife function as a kind of pastoral team.

There is another side of the coin, which I alluded to in my post but which could be expanded a bit: the expectations that parishioners have of their pastors have to be different when the pastor is married (and, certainly, when the pastor is also engaged in other ministries, as you describe). If I might generalize a bit about the experience of Catholics in North America in the last few decades, I think that many (though not all, certainly) have tended to expect parish priests to be always on-call or available; I suspect that this attitude has already receded a bit as people have gotten used to the fact that priests are stretched thin and have to juggle various pastoral commitments, but it has to recede even more in parishes cared for by married priests.

Of course - and this is a point I can't emphasize strongly enough - none of this is prospective or hypothetical, though the media often acts like it is; there are scores of married Catholic priests in Canada and the United States, so there should be a lot of data available on how they're doing. If one wonders how married priests deal with the crush of pastoral and familial responsibilities, one need only go out and ask them!

At 11/09/2011 11:10 PM, Anonymous Stuart Koehl said...

The Orthocath report erred in one regard: the Melkite Greek Catholic Church has been ordaining married men in the United States since 1996, when then-Bishop John Elya did so for the first time in recent memory. Prior to that time, the Melkites, like the Ukrainian Greek Catholics, would send promising married seminarians abroad for ordination to the diaconate and presbyterate, after which they would return to the U.S. to begin their ministerial duties.

Since 1996, married men have been ordained by the Eparchy of Newton at a slow but accelerating pace. Neither the Congregation for the Oriental Churches nor the Congregation for the Clergy has interfered in any manner with either the process nor the faculties of the priests involved.

Not that there is much either Congregation can do. The presbyters in question are not incardinated in the Latin Church, and thus do not fall under its jurisdiction. They are answerable to their eparchial bishop, and no one else.

At 11/10/2011 11:04 AM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...

Mr. Koehl,

I was aware of all that, but other readers may appreciate your reiteration of the salient facts.

I should perhaps add that my interest in and study of this topic precedes the Orthocath report; one of the married Melkites ordained for service here before 1996 is a friend of mine, so I know that relations with Rome over this issue have been more strained in the past than they may be now.

At any rate, though, I think that we're in agreement on the underlying principles here, so let's pray that all goes as we would hope.

At 11/12/2011 12:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Stuart, for pointing out the omission and I've updated the article to reflect that. As Fr. Joe says: "If there is anything newsworthy about Bishop Nicholas' statement, it is the fact that he is willing to speak forthrightly and publicly on a topic that Eastern Catholic hierarchs in North America have generally been very reticent about." That's the point the original article was trying to make while providing some historical background.

At 11/12/2011 9:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An important clarification: The 1996 ordination of a married American Melkite deacon to the priesthood, which took place in Manchester, New Hampshire, was not followed by other ordinations here in America. Various Melkite Church members have confirmed that all the ordinations of married Melkite deacons to the priesthood since then were "sent to the old country" for ordination and then returned to serve American parishes. See:

Considering this, the announcement by Bishop Nicholas Samra is very signficant and is news. I have updated the blog article to reflect this.

At 11/12/2011 10:05 PM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks for the clarification and updates, Orthocath - and thank you for all the hard work, care and attention that went into your writings on this topic!

At 12/06/2011 11:08 PM, Blogger Emilia Montoya said...

Prayers to St. Nicholas The Wonderworker that Bishop Samra succeed inGod's work.

At 4/05/2013 10:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having formative experiences in Orthodox parishes, observing the Latin Catholic parish experience through my wife, and now being part of a Melkite parish, I'm puzzled by the perspectives I hear among Catholics about all the difficulties of a married clergy.

In my experience, (and maybe my experience is too limited here) parish culture is just so different between Latin and Orthodox parishes that such extrapolations about what it would be like financially and pastorally to have a Catholic parish with a married priest don't really apply to the culture of Eastern churches that do embrace married clergy.

For example, there seems a different culture of relating to the priest. I've found celibate priests in Catholic parishes far less accessible than in Orthodox ones. It seems like--as far as unspoken parish culture goes--a celibate priest is above and separate from the parish life in some way because of his quasi-monastic vocation. In that culture, I understand how a family hanging on to parish resources from the sidelines would seem like leeches (the sense I get from Catholics talking about the subject). The priests I've had in the Orthodox parishes I've attended are very much a part of the parish fellowship life along with their families. Personally, I miss having a relationship with my priest on the level that common family bonds allow, and a priest who can relate to the concerns of daily community life. The concerns about supporting "the financial burden" of a priest's family also seem explainable to me after I've also noticed a different tithing culture. In this (Melkite) parish, there's no expectation for tithing at all. Instead, our priest tells us explicitly to give any tithe as alms directly to the poor instead. Fair enough; that seems part of Latin culture we've adopted, which prioritizes social ministry. But I never felt tithing to the church as a burden in Orthodox parishes; clergy families (priest, deacons, readers, etc) and lay families all had a sense of common stake and mission in our Body ministry, despite our different callings and functions.

I don't mean to idealize my experience in Orthodox parishes where married clergy are normative. There were problems, for sure. But it had a very different culture, with a correspondingly different mindset that seemed well suited to a married clergy. The Latin phronema, which Melkites seemed to have adopted in their clergy culture, too, is very well suited to the ministry of the celibate priests among them.

The Melkites might have problems supporting the ministry of married clergy, or integrating them into the mainstream of their ecclesial life, simply because their ministries don't fit well into the pastoral culture and phronema we have adopted.


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