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Vatican delays laws to ordain married priests

Wednesday, September 02, 1998

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A new set of church laws for the Byzantine Catholic Church in the United States, which included permission to ordain married men to the priesthood, has been placed on indefinite hold at Vatican request.

The 59 laws -- which covered matters ranging from lay eucharistic ministers to fasting -- had been expected to take effect yesterday.

Archbishop Judson Procyk of the Metropolitan Byzantine Archdiocese of Pittsburgh was unavailable yesterday but is on record in support of a married priesthood for Eastern rite Catholics in the United States.

The postponement occurred after sensational and inaccurate stories appeared on the Internet, portraying the restoration of a married Byzantine priesthood as an act of rebellion against Rome. In fact, the new laws had been reviewed by the Vatican's Congregation for Oriental Churches and had received approval in July, according to a statement Procyk had prepared prior to the postponement.

"Everything is on hold right now because somebody announced it prematurely, in a very exaggerated way, and it caused ripples in all kinds of places," said the Rev. John Petro, rector of SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary on the North Side.

Byzantine Catholics are among a group of Eastern rite Catholics who are under the authority of the pope but follow the liturgy and discipline of Orthodox Christianity. In their ancestral territories of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Eastern Catholic men may be ordained after they are married but may not marry after they are ordained. And, as in the Orthodox churches, their bishops are celibate.

But when Eastern rite Catholics migrated to North America early in this century, other Catholics were shocked to see priests with wives and children. In 1929 the Western rite Catholic bishops of the United States asked for and obtained from Rome an edict banning married Eastern rite priests in this country. The edict was later expanded to cover all English-speaking nations.

The edict tore the Eastern rite churches apart, and hundreds of thousands of their members converted to Orthodoxy. The American Carpatho-Russian Greek Catholic Orthodox Diocese of Johnstown was created to accommodate a large schism from the Pittsburgh archdiocese.

The Metropolitan Byzantine Archdiocese of Pittsburgh is the only self-governing Eastern rite jurisdiction in the United States, meaning that it answers directly to Rome rather than to a patriarch in Eastern Europe. Although it stretches as far south as Texas, its 81,000 members are concentrated in Western Pennsylvania. It oversees three daughter dioceses, called eparchies, which cover the nation.

Procyk has been forthright about his desire to see the U.S. church again ordain married men.

"It will happen. It is happening in some instances already," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette late last year.

His reference was to Melkite Bishop John A. Elya of Newton, Mass., who ordained a married man in 1996 without apparent repercussions from Rome.

Hope for a restored married priesthood was sparked by a new Eastern code of canon law and by Vatican pronouncements. Under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican has called for Eastern rite churches to return to their own traditions and rid themselves of western practices they had adopted in order to blend in with Western Catholics.

An Eastern code of canon law released several years ago did not include the edict against married priests in English-speaking nations. It authorized each self-governing church to develop laws for their own territories. Once Rome had reviewed and formally "received" those laws, the bishops were authorized to enact them.

In 1995 Procyk established a commission to draft such laws. That group's proposed statutes included a declaration that marriage was not an impediment to priestly ordination. It would not have allowed current priests to marry, but would have allowed married men to be ordained.

Procyk had planned to announce that all 59 statutes would go into effect yesterday.

But two weeks ago a Byzantine newspaper in Ohio released the story prematurely, Petro said. That account was written in such a way that the story became severely distorted as it jumped to cyberspace. Telephones at the Byzantine chancery and seminary rang constantly, Petro said.

Most were inquiries from people who wondered what was going on. But a few married men asked to be notified as soon as the seminary was ready to accept them as candidates for ordination. The seminary now has 12 students.

Even if the statute had taken effect yesterday, Petro said, considerable planning would have been necessary to accommodate men with families.

But on Aug. 21, Procyk released a letter announcing that all the new laws had been delayed at Rome's request. He wrote nothing specific about the statute on married priests.

"The Holy See has requested additional time in order to evaluate, review, and consider these statutes. When further information with respect to the date of promulgation becomes available, it will be released from this chancery office," he wrote.

Like Procyk, Petro believes that Rome cannot simultaneously call for a return to true Eastern tradition and maintain the ban on married priests.

"My own sense is that (marriage) is certainly a part of the constant tradition of the Eastern churches. There is a married clergy in Europe and in other parts of the world in the Eastern churches -- just about everywhere but the United States. It only seems consistent that it would be restored," Petro said.

Several months ago the Western Catholic bishops of Australia informed the Vatican that they had no objection to married Eastern rite priests in their territory. And Eastern rite Catholics in the United States often argue that the bishops here have no more grounds for objection because their Western priests now include more than 100 married priests who transferred from the Episcopal Church.

However, early this year, the Vatican secretary of state ordered a small group of married Ukrainian Catholic priests who were serving their own churches in Poland to return to Ukraine. Ukrainian Catholics in Poland would have to be served by celibate Polish priests who received authorization to serve Eastern rite churches.

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