A VOCATION TO FAMILY

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As a newly ordained priest, Father Wissam Akiki hasn't been assigned to his first parish yet, but already he's been preparing for another big assignment: He'll be filling in at a parish in Cincinnati during Holy Week, perhaps the most important week in the life of the Church.

Already, his plate has been filled. In addition to assisting at his temporary assignment, St. Raymond's Maronite Cathedral in St. Louis, he's been preparing his homilies for Holy Week and tending to another major part of his life -- his wife, Manal, and 8-year-old daughter, Perla.

Last month, Father Akiki, a native of Lebanon, made headlines when he was ordained for the Maronite Catholic Church at St. Raymond's. It was the first time a married man was ordained for the Maronite Church in the United States. (See related story, page 13.)

The Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic Church and is among 22 Catholic Churches that are in union with each other and under the authority of the pope in Rome. The spiritual heritage of the Maronite Church is traced to a fourth-century hermit, St. Maron. The Maronite Church has a presence in the Middle East, primarily in Syria and Lebanon, where nearly half of all Maronite parish priests are married.

Despite the full schedule, Father Akiki said he is fully aware of the double vocation to which God has called him in marriage and the priesthood. It wasn't a decision he came upon lightly, and it included a discernment process that was rooted in prayer, thought and determination. But despite the uniqueness of his own calling, it's that kind of serious approach that everyone should take when considering their own vocation, he said.

"A doctor has his own vocation to his people. The one who cleans the floor has his own vocation," he said. "But to make your vocation strong, you have to be committed to it, you have to be honest in your vocation. And to make a vocation strong, you have to depend more on God and pray more, to take time for yourself to pray, to contemplate, to meditate.

"For me, now as a priest and as a married person, my vocation for my (parish) people and my vocation for my family is going to be the same," he said, adding that he will rely on both family and parish to support the other vocation.

"I'm trying to do my best, as a married person and a priest, to give myself to my God first, to my family and to my people. And to do my best ... with honesty and from my heart," he said.

Calling to priesthood

As a ten-year-old, Wissam began sensing that God might be calling him to the priesthood. During the week and especially on weekends, the youngster would go to the Maronite Catholic church in his hometown of Zahle, Lebanon, to serve at Mass. He attended Catholic school, where he was a student activities leader.

During his studies at Holy Spirit University of Kaslik in Lebanon, he met a young woman, Manal Kassab.

"We were in the same Christian organization, and we had a lot of activities together," recalled Manal. She was studying translation and languages, and he was starting his theological studies.

"The theology department was right next to the language department," she said. "We used to criss-cross ways often."

The two became good friends, but that was the extent of it. "At that time I was studying to be a priest, but not a married priest," he explained.

Because his English wasn't the best, Wissam asked Manal to help him fill out the application to study for the priesthood in the United States. During a visit to Lebanon, now-retired Bishop Robert Shaheen, head of the St. Louis-based Eparchy (diocese) of Our Lady of Lebanon, met Wissam and invited him to finish his studies in the United States, with the hope he would be ordained for the eparchy someday. He arrived in 2001 and continued his studies at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary in Washington, D.C., and later at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.

"We stayed in touch when he came here," said Manal. "Nothing is hard now with the Internet and all the technology. And he used to go back and forth to Lebanon. So we kept our relationship as friends going on."

After maintaining a long-distance friendship, Wissam began to realize that there might be something more to the relationship.

"I said, 'After two years, either I marry her or let her go on,'" he said. "I realized, 'I think I have two vocations.' I want to be married and also to be a priest. And in our culture, it's not that strange, to have a person married and to live the sacraments in the Catholic Church."

Married priests in the Maronite Church generally need to be mature and settled with children first, and then they're ordained to the diaconate before the priesthood. Once a priest is ordained, he cannot later be married. It was a difficult decision, Manal said. "He was here serving the Church, and I knew this was really his vocation. It's either I encourage him in what he's doing, or I let this relationship go on in its own way."

The path changes

In mid-August 2003, Wissam met with Bishop Shaheen just before he was to be ordained a subdeacon. He told his bishop there was something he needed to know before going through with the ordination, and he told him about Manal.

"He said, 'My son, you're not losing anything," he recalled. "'Get ordained a subdeacon. Even if you'd like to go back to Lebanon, you can still live your vocation'" to the priesthood and be married.

After a year of serving as a subdeacon at St. Raymond's, he told Bishop Shaheen he was going to head back to Lebanon to discern. After all, the culture there was used to married priests as a long-held tradition. Speaking at the 11th General Synod at the Vatican in 2005, former Maronite patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Peter Sfeir noted the value of married priests. "Married priests have perpetuated the faith among people whose difficult lives they shared, and without them this faith would no longer exist," he said.

Wissam and Manal married in Lebanon on Aug. 24, 2003, and Wissam continued to weigh his options. On one hand, he was prepared to stay in the United States and serve as a married deacon, but in considering a move back to Lebanon, he first asked Bishop Shaheen if they could try one more thing -- seek the pope's permission to stay in the United States as a married priest. Since the 1920s, the practice of permitting married priests from Eastern Catholic Churches generally had not been permitted in the United States, part of a long-term developing understanding Eastern Churches have had with the Latin Church in the United States.

"I said, 'Let's try to do one thing. Send my file to Rome,'" he recalled. "If Rome accepts my file to be a priest in this country, it means the Holy Spirit wants me to be a priest here. If Rome refuses me to be a married priest in this country, I'll go back to Lebanon."

Bishop Elias Zaidan, who was ordained bishop and succeeded Bishop Shaheen as head of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon last fall, hand-delivered the file to the Vatican in June 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI was still at the helm; Pope Francis later took on the case. The process also included conferring with others, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan, then-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Bishop John Kudrick, chairman of the Eastern Catholic bishops in the United States.

At that point, Wissam knew in his heart it didn't matter where he would serve. He handed everything over to the Holy Spirit, and they all waited for the answer from Rome.

Vocation to the family

The response that came back last October was affirmative: Pope Francis gave the OK for him to become a priest in the United States. On Feb. 27, he was ordained at St. Raymond's during a liturgy that lasted more than two hours. Bishop Zaidan was the main celebrant -- his first ordination of a priest. Joining them were Bishop Shaheen, cathedral rector Chorbishop Moussa Joseph, and clergy from throughout the eparchy and the United States.

Father Akiki is expected to be assigned to his first parish this summer. The eparchy covers 34 states, from California to Ohio and from Michigan to Alabama, and includes 45 parishes and missions. Father Akiki said he and his family are prepared for whatever assignment he will receive.

Manal explained that supporting her husband in his two vocations is not different from any wife who supports her husband in his career. "If he has a meeting or a certain thing he has to attend, if he cannot be with us, I have never had a problem with that," she said. Manal sometimes receives help from her mother, who frequently travels from Lebanon to be with the family.

Father Akiki said that while there can be challenges of living out two vocations at the same time, he sees his role as taking care of two families -- his own family and his parish family. "Both of them are vocations, but distinct. The vocation to my family is to be with them, to lead them, love them, care for them and listen to them as head of the household."

Likewise, "my vocation for the priesthood is to be with my people, to listen to their voice, to listen to their pain, and to minister to them in sad times and happy times. I am going to give as much time to my parish and to my people as I give to my family."

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