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Vatican, eastern rite catholics suffer with deep-rooted conflict

NEW YORK (AP) — A deep-rooted conflict has arisen between the Vatican and Eastern rite Catholics in this country over the ordination of a married man to the priesthood.

The strains go beyond that specific action, however, involving the insistence of Eastern rite churches on their independent jurisdiction over worship forms and rules of ministry.

«The Western Church has failed so far to understand the rights and autonomy of Eastern churches.» says the Rev. Joseph Francavilla of the Holy Transfiguration Melkite Church in Vienna, Va.

«That’s crucial to the whole matter. We’ve been looked on as stepchildren by Roman bureaucrats. It’s caused a very strained relationship.»

There are nearly a million Eastern Catholics in this country of various rites, mainly the Ukrainian, Ruthenian and Melkite-Greek rites.

Although their liturgy and disciplines parallel those of Eastern Orthodoxy, numbering six million in this country, the Eastern rite Catholics differ in that they are in union with the Latin rite Church headed by the Roman Pope.

The particular conflict emerged after Melkite rite Patriarch Maximos V. Hakim of Damascus ordained in Montreal, Canada, a Brooklyn, N.Y., married man and father of two children, the Rev. Romanos Russo, 35, serve in the United States.

The Vatican Congregation for Eastern rite churches denounced the ordination as «illicit.»

But Patriarch Hakim, in a strongly worded statement, spurned the criticism, calling it at an attempt at «juridictional Latinization» and «an affront to the integrity of Catholic Eastern churches.»

The repetitious assertion that the ministry of Eastern married priests is somehow pastorally undesirable in the United States is completely unfounded,» the patriarch said, adding that many of them are serving effectively in this country.

It is not «illicit in any way,» he said, and for the Vatican office to make such a claim is «totally false, misleading and offensive to church unity.»

In most cases of married Eastern rite priests in this country, they were ordained in central Europe or the Middle East before coming here, but Rome is particularly edgy about married Americans being ordained to serve alongside the predominantly Latin rite priests, who must be celibate.

In the Eastern areas, where there are more than 10 million Eastern rite believers in union with Roman Catholicism, married priests are common.

Like Orthodoxy, Eastern Catholics broke from Rome in the 10th and 11th centuries, but gradually reunited with it in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, while the bulk of Eastern Orthodox Christians — which also have married priests — remained separate from Rome.

«Rome is paranoid about married clergy,» Father Francavilla said in a telephone interview, adding that the particular incident reflected broader issues of rights of Eastern churches to set their own operational rules.

About 50 years ago, in 1929, when Rome suppressed married Eastern rite clergy in this country, it precipitated the exodus of 500,000 members into Orthodoxy. The present dispute had echoes of that situation.

Although the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council specified the freedom of Eastern rite Catholics to preserve their own customes, the Vatican two years ago suspended three married priests ordained in the Ukrainian rite, but the rite reportedly ignored the suspensions.

Only recently was the U.S. diocese of the Melkite rite established, headed by Archbishop Joseph Tawill of Newton, Mass. It is the first such rite organized in the United States under direct jurisdiction of a patriarch. Patriarchs have authority over church regulations.

But Rome claims this was limited to their old geographic areas in regard to married priests.

On the other hand, Father Francavilla said: «The United States now is in the patriarch’s legitimate territory. In the New World, wherever our people are, the Church takes care of their needs.»