The Maronites of Lebanon commonly trace their origin back to the late 4th century. They began as an Eastern rite Catholic Church, in the same Apostolic Faith and sacraments, and united with the chief Shepherd of the Church, the Pope, as all Roman Catholics throughout the world.
However, they have their own distinct theology, spirituality, liturgy, and code of canon law.
A Maronite monastic community was established in the United States in 1978, when the Maronite Monks of the Most Holy Trinity were canonically approved by the Vatican and established in the Eparchy of St. Maron.
It has been more than a century since a married man was accepted into the fold. Catholic churches in the Middle East and Europe commonly ordain married men. But the Vatican banned marriage in America during the 1920s, primarily because many bishops complained that it might be confusing for parishioners.
However, Wissam Akiki was ordained as a Maronite Catholic priest Thursday night in St. Louis, and welcomed by hundreds of supporters, including his wife and daughter. He called it a "historic day" and said he had been given two great blessings: marriage to his wife of 10 years, Manal, and "the dream to serve the Lord and church as a priest."
Over the years, popes have looked at Eastern Catholic married priests on a case-by-case basis. However, Pope Francis gave permission for this ordainment.
"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," said Deacon Louis Peters, chancellor at St. Raymond's.
But many followers of the religion believe this could be a starting point to allowing marriages within the church.
Such as Stephanie Baker, a 57-year-old lifelong member of the church, who said:
"I really think it sets a precedent, there are a lot of people who have it (the priesthood) in their hearts. This opens it up for other people."
That remains to be seen. Peters said the pope's action does not lift the ban on married priests in the U.S. It is simply an exception.
Although it is something that has been a controversial topic in the church for decades, experts warn not to 'read too much into this.'
"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.
Perhaps it should be considered more closely by Pope Francis, he is definitely the pope destined to bring about change.
Image: Maronite Coat of Arms, via Wikimedia Commons