Pope Francis & Married Catholic Priests: Q&A with Bishop John of Parma

Bishop John Kudrick has served as Byzantine Catholic ordinary of the Ruthenian Eparchy of Parma, covering several Midwestern U.S. states, since 2002. Born in Western Pennsylvania to a Byzantine Catholic father and Roman Catholic mother, he grew up with the Roman Catholic Mass and joined the Third Order Regular of St. Francis after graduating from high school in 1965, earning a B.A. in philosophy and mathematics from Saint Francis College in Loretto in 1970. In 1975, he earned his M.Div. from Saint Francis Seminary there and was ordained a Franciscan priest. Bishop John also received an M.S. in mathematics from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1973 and an M.S. in computer and information science from Ohio State in 1977.

While directing Franciscan postulants from 1976 to 1980, then-Father Kudrick assisted Byzantine Catholic parishes in the Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, becoming familiar with the liturgical tradition of his father. This work led gradually to his departure from the Franciscans and formal incardination in the archeparchy in May 1987. He served in several Ruthenian Catholic parishes, including a 1998-2002 assignment as protopresbyter of the Cathedral of St. John in Munhall, before being consecrated a bishop in July 2002.


On Nov. 17, Bishop John was quoted in media reports that Pope Francis had lifted a 1929 ban on married Eastern Catholic priests in the United States and other areas outside of their traditional territories. Although some Byzantine Catholic bishops in the United States had been quietly ordaining married men before this announcement, the Vatican’s announcement now leaves such decisions to the discretion of local Eastern Rite bishops. On Nov. 26, I conducted the following email interview with Bishop John about the significance of this decision for Catholics in the United States.

Why is it significant for you that Pope Francis has lifted the ban on ordaining married men to the Eastern Catholic priesthood?

I see great significance of the removal of the imposition of the obligation of celibacy for Eastern Catholic priests in the “diaspora.” I believe this is a statement that experience of the Eastern Churches in the West needs to differ from that in their homelands. The Eastern Churches have much to offer the New Evangelization but must be able to maintain their integrity to do so.

Because of the dual responsibilities to maintain continuity with our past and to reach out to the society to which we are called, some degree of freedom is necessary. This does not, of course, eliminate or even diminish our obligation to mutual accountability with the other churches.

Why should ordinary Catholics, particularly of the Latin Rite, care about this decision?

In a way, this statement of the Holy See is an acknowledgement of the right of the various churches to exercise a local yet unified evangelization throughout the world. In a similar way, the Latin Church relies on the efforts of the local churches (dioceses) and provides for them certain rights and responsibilities, while providing an over-arching structure. 

Because the vast majority of U.S. Catholics worship in the Roman Rite, many of them don’t know about the Byzantine Catholic churches in union with Rome—including Greeks, Russians, and your own Ruthenians—who worship using the divine liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Since your parishes and liturgical styles resemble Eastern Orthodoxy, some Roman Rite Catholics are not even aware that the “Catholic” on your sign means they can receive the sacraments from your priests. How do you explain the Byzantine Rite to people who have trouble understanding it?

The rites of the church are expressions of our faith. As we all individually have differing histories and experiences, communities of Christians do as well. One will find subtle differences even between parishes.

Jesus Christ founded one Catholic Church with fundamental truths and sacraments. He did not detail the way that should be experienced. History and geography have provided the alternate expressions. With a unified Catholic Church, our differences can be ways of understanding those truths and celebrating the sacraments while protecting their integrity.

You grew up with the Roman Rite yourself and were ordained as a Franciscan priest. Why did you decide to serve exclusively in the Byzantine Rite priesthood?

My father’s family is Byzantine Catholic, which means I was a member of that church from Baptism. My mother was a devout Latin-rite Catholic and I was raised in that tradition. I realized my calling to be a Franciscan priest, which meant that I would need to share in the Latin rite. I was given an accommodation by the Holy See.

While in the seminary, I had many opportunities to learn about and experience the Byzantine rite. The participation in both rites was very appealing to me. It seemed to connect me with both sides of my family and with my Slavic roots. With time, this aspect of my spirituality became dominant and I realized that I could not live on a fence and opted to leave the community I loved to serve where I believed God wanted me.

One of the first things a newcomer notices in Byzantine Catholic parishes is the prevalence of icons rather than statues, just as in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but there are other differences between the Byzantine Divine Liturgy and the Roman Mass. What are some important distinctions people should know about?

The icons in a Byzantine Catholic Church are more than decoration. They enter into the liturgy. The visual representation of the saints helps the congregation to realize the Divine Liturgy requires the participation of full communion of saints. The incense directed to the altar, the saints’ icons as well as the congregants serve to unite all. Similarly, the icons of the events of salvation (e.g., the Resurrection) remind us that those events are eternal and present, not just moments of history.

Many people would like to contrast the Byzantine Divine Liturgy with various misunderstandings of the Mass following the Second Vatican Council. This is very unfair. As an unsophisticated scholar of theology, I must admit that I see more significant similarities than differences between the rites. The basic Byzantine teaching on theosis as a progressive journey from God to God is not that different from the Latin teaching of progression from purgative to illuminative to contemplative stages, neither understanding being limited by one’s physical life.

Pope Francis has spoken of his admiration for the sacrifices made by married Eastern Catholic priests in his native Argentina, where he worked closely with many of them. What has been your own experience of married priests?

Certainly, celibacy is not the only sacrificial blessing for a priest. The priests who enjoy the blessings of marriage face many sacrifices as well. Both find the difficult balance between ministering to fellow faithful while maintaining a certain distance from them. The Catholic priest’s remuneration is seldom found in material wealth but in the opportunity to serve God. The married priest’s family shares the blessings and the sacrifice with him.

In the Byzantine Rite churches, as in Eastern Orthodoxy, only celibate men are eligible to be bishops, excluding married clergy from that office. Why is that the case?

I understand that this is primarily a practical one. The property of the church is entrusted to the bishop, even deeded to the bishop. It is important that the bishop have no obligations to family. Also, the bishop is expected to travel a lot; this would be unfair to a family.

Often theological and spiritual reasons similar to those given for a celibate clergy are given for a celibate episcopacy.

Some Eastern Orthodox Christians once referred to Byzantine Catholics as members of “uniate churches,” a derogatory word that described your roots as Eastern Orthodox churches which returned to communion with Rome after the Great Schism between East and West in 1054. This word often carried the negative implication that Eastern Catholic churches, including those which never split from Rome, gave up their principles in capitulating to the pope. What’s your impression of the current relationship between Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern Rite Catholics, the latter including non-Byzantine churches like those of the Syro-Malabar and Maronite rites?

I often compare church unity with the unity of the members of a family. If Mom and Dad separate, they usually blame the other and even try to convince the rest of the family. The children are usually forced to side with one or the other. Being separated, aspects of their life will differ. To justify or exalt their own life, they may speak against the other. After a period of time, the children or descendents may realize that such a division is not healthy.

For almost 1,000 years, the churches of the East and West have found ways to blame the other for the separation, even calling names. Even today, members of the churches believe that loyalty to one requires a distinction from the other. Thankfully, many now realize that the unity of the church, a unity called for by Jesus Christ, is especially needed in the face of today’s challenges.

The unity of the church is found in various levels. Complete union and mutual acceptance is certainly the goal, as it is in marriage. Being weak, sinful human beings, we don’t despair if we do not meet the goal. We continue to take steps toward it.

Although the Eastern Catholic churches have a great deal of theoretical autonomy from Rome, and are even governed by their own Eastern Code of Canon Law, there have been some practical frictions between the Vaticanand Eastern Catholics in the past. Other than lifting the ban on married Eastern priests in the diaspora, what are some positive things we might do to heal those rifts?

I have seen sincere efforts by the Holy See to serve the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox. Certainly the Second Vatican Council formulated a commitment. Similarly, the development of the Catechism of the Catholic Church demonstrated an eagerness to include the Eastern Churches, although some may suggest that it wasn’t enough. I see the church experiencing theosis, just as individuals must. The progress may be slow because God’s participation is our hope.

In my 12 years as a bishop, I have found a sincere desire from the Holy See to be sensitive to the needs of the local churches while attempting to maintain good order and appropriate cooperation between them. This includes its service to the Eastern Churches.

Some observers may think the pope's recent decision is a sign that married clergy will soon exist in the Roman Rite, or at least in the new Anglican Use that is a form of it. As a former Roman Rite priest, do you believe that a pope will or should extend permission for married clergy to the universal church at some point in the future?

Clearly, the church, East and West, has not backstepped in its respect for the blessings of celibacy for clergy nor its concern for scandal or a desire for good order. I believe the long-standing Latin-rite theological basis for a celibate priesthood will prohibit such a change.

In the Byzantine Rite, there is no distinction between transitional and permanent diaconate, nor is there a fixed time for serving as deacon before ordination to the priesthood. A candidate must be married before ordination and cannot remarry if his spouse dies. As a Ruthenian Catholic bishop, how do you determine which of your married and celibate deacons are worthy of being ordained priests?

Certainly, we rely on the recommendation of those entrusted with the formation of a candidate. For ordination to the diaconate, I expect a stable marriage in addition to an appropriate formation.

Some more progressive U.S. Catholics hope the Vatican will expand married clergy to the universal church because it will pave the way for women priests, as has already happened in many Protestant denominations. What would you say to them?

I don’t believe a married clergy will lead to the ordination of women. I believe ordaining married men is a matter of discipline, while ordination of women is a theological/anthropological one. Without denying the equality of women with men, to be the Body of Christ, the church needs to respect the fundamental differences of its members. The experience of other ecclesial communities seems to have come from a congregational understanding of the church as a collection of individuals.

What is your impression of Pope Francis so far?

I am very impressed by him. He seems to give a personal touch to the philosophical and theological teachings of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. At times, I miss the precision of the latter.

What is your favorite scripture verse?

“He [God] must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

Do you have any hopes for the future?

I have great hope for the future. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us on his visit to the church in the U.S.A, “Christ is our hope.” I look forward to contributing our particular Byzantine Catholic culture to the “culture of encounter, culture of accompaniment, and culture of witness” called for by Pope Francis.

Any final thoughts?

The Eastern Catholic Churches in the U.S.A. have a special role to play in the New Evangelization. We haven’t been accustomed to think in those terms. I pray we will live up to the responsibility.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
ed gleason
3 years 3 months ago
There are about 17,000 Latin Rite Diocesan married deacons. We are closing parishes all over the country... How about Pope Francis issuing an "Executive Order ' inviting the married deacons to 'full ordination' and solve the lack of growth and ignore the so-called leaders in the Curia?
Henry George
3 years 3 months ago
All I know is every Bishop cries "lack of money" in terms of explaining why most people who work for the Catholic Church are paid so poorly - Priest/Nuns/Teachers/Deacons... whether this is true or not I do not know. If we do have married priests as the norm - where is the money going to come from to pay for them and their families - just a practical question admits a sea of theoretical theological ones.
Sean Salai, S.J.
3 years ago

Thanks for reading. You will not find big money, or even guaranteed financial stability, in the priesthood today. The salaries of U.S. Catholic diocesan priests are very low--lower even than many lay parish staff--and do not often compare favorably to the earnings of public school teachers. There is even less money for priests in the Eastern churches. Byzantine Catholic deacons, married or otherwise, are generally unpaid. Many of the Byzantine Rite priests, married or otherwise, have day jobs to help support themselves. The latter sitution is very similar to the Episcopalian Church, where so-called "worker-priests" labor at full-time jobs during the week while ministering part-time in their parishes on weekends.

Zach Egermayer
3 years 3 months ago
I like what Bishop John has to say about the "diaspora" in the first question. The Eastern Churches in the West do need to differ from the other churches so they could branch out into something new as opposed to doing what they homeland wants them to,
3 years 3 months ago
Questioner: In your Eastern rite, why can priests be married, but not bishops? Response by Bishop Kubrick: " I understand that this is primarily a practical one. The property of the church is entrusted to the bishop, even deeded to the bishop. It is important that the bishop have no obligations to family." His statement reflects the origins of mandated celibacy in the eleventh century. Until then, most Latin rite priests were married. The practice had developed of the parish priest giving church property - apple orchards, wheat fields, etc to their sons. The next pastor lacked the church property, which had provided the income to support the parish. The previous pastor's sons now owned the corn and wheat fields. To protect this diversion of church resources, the popes mandated celibacy for priests. No marriage, no legitimate sons. The issue was fiercely contested by the priests and many bishops. Bishop Ulric of Imola contended against Pope Nicholas II ( 1058-1061 ), who legislated against priests marrying. Ulric asserted that the new rules violated the basic human right to marry and were ill-advised in that they might incline some priests towards homosexual or other illicit relationships! Ulric lost; Nicholas won. No married priests! Celibacy was then subsequently cloaked in the garb of sacrifice and virtue. The Church today has more sophisticated ways of protecting Church property. But today celibacy subjects the priest to a form of institutional control that is near total. To have control over a person's sex life is to have remarkable control of that person. It touches not only his private life but shapes his social and public life to a remarkable degree. And in today's Church that includes one's employment, compensation, and residence. In light of it's origin and its power of control, there is little reason to wonder why priestly vocations are in small supply! Celibacy is a curious element in personal and institutional life. It should be more widely discussed!. Monsignor Harry J. Byrne


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

The cardinal stepped down as archbishop in February 2013 after three priests and one former priest alleged Cardinal O'Brien had made sexual advances toward them 20 years earlier.
The meeting will help the Vatican prepare for its synod on young adults in 2018.
Jesus understands you when you are disappointed.
James Martin, S.J.March 19, 2018
The Vatican has released the complete letter by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI about Pope Francis after facing criticism for manipulating a photograph of it.
Gerard O’ConnellMarch 17, 2018