Every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., Father Charles celebrates mass in Bziza, a rural village in north Lebanon. On this particular day in January, he tells the congregation of a hundred how angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was pregnant. Then they stand to sing and kneel to pray.
After the Eucharist, Charles Kassas takes off his white cassock to join his wife Brigitte and their three children — Nadim, Celine and Mathieu. In Western countries where priests must take vows of chastity that scene would cause a scandal, but in Lebanon it is very common.
“Of course I know he is married, so what? It would be strange if he weren’t!” says an old woman exiting the church.
In Bziza, the majority of the population is Christian Maronite — members of the Eastern Catholic Church founded in the 5th century. It follows the Vatican but does not require priests to be single. As a result, more than half of the priests in Lebanon have a family.
For Kassas, there is no contradiction between conjugality and the call of God — in fact, it is just the opposite. He thinks that having a family gives him personal balance. “You can’t serve others if you are not at peace. Being a husband to my wife and a parent to my children helps me being a better father to the parish,” he told Al-Monitor.
Charles and Brigitte have been married for over 20 years. In small parishes like this one, the priest’s wife has an important social role. In Arabic, she is called "khouriye," the feminine for "khoury" — priest.
“She is the strength that holds up our family and she is a real partner for me,” Kassas added.
A priest's wife is expected to attend church celebrations and all other events such as births, christenings, weddings and funerals. She can sometimes give advice and is the go-to person when her husband is unavailable. Their family home must be open to visitors 24/7.
“It’s not easy at all. When I got married I didn’t know being a priest’s wife would require so much. There is always something to do, someone to visit, someone to accommodate,” she told Al-Monitor.
To prepare women to endorse that role, several priests’ wives have set up workshops and training programs for young brides.
In larger towns and cities, priests tend to work from an office. Their homes are private and their wives have fewer responsibilities toward the churchgoers.
Married priests are a tradition that dates back to the early days of Christianity, before the Latin Church banned it in the 11th century. For a long time in Lebanon, villagers would choose their priests from among married men who had already proven they could be in charge of a family. Those who wished to remain single would join monasteries to become monks.
Today, the question of whether or not to get married usually arises during seminary studies in Lebanon.
Charles took his decision when he was 25, during his fourth year of theological studies. “I came to the conclusion that I wanted to join priesthood, but I also deeply wished to have a family. I felt the need to be loved by a woman and to have children,” he told Al-Monitor.
When asked if he would have been able to give up family life for God, like European priests do — he said he wouldn't have. “Some people can live like hermits — I can’t. I don’t have the capacity to endure that kind of loneliness,” he said.
Allowing married men to become priests is also a way for the Church to welcome older people who have had another life before.
This is the case of Mansour Zeidan. At the age of 36, he is about to switch careers. For the time being, he is the proud owner of Mr & Mrs Clown, a birthday events company he created 10 years ago. But costumes and party decorations will soon be part of his past. In a few weeks, he will be ordained priest.
"I'm afraid he will spend all his time in church and leave me alone with our son," Yolla, his wife, said.
"I wanted to have the time to try several things before making my decision," he said, listing his previous jobs as a supermarket cashier, night watchman, site manager and school supervisor.
Zeidan is studying hard to join priesthood. He takes theology courses at the university and is finishing a practical training in a church near Beirut.
Father Marwan Mouawad, who is also married, teaches him how to draw on his experience as a family man to feed his relationship with the faithful. "When it comes to man and wife issues for instance or the parent-child relationship, it is not just theories for us; we can take examples from our personal lives and for people that is very important," Mouawad told Al-Monitor.
At night, Zeidan joins a group of seminarians in Burj Hammoud, a deprived neighborhood near Beirut. Between meal distributions and prayer circles, future clerics discuss marriage.
"Being a priest is a vocation but so is having a family. It is dangerous to stifle an inner desire at the expense of the other; you can never be happy that way," said Charbel Fakhry, a 29-year-old seminarian who chose celibacy.
While married men can become priests, it does not work the other way around. Priests who are ordained while single can’t change their minds later. They can aspire, however, to climb up the hierarchy and become bishops, which is forbidden for married priests.
Johnny Estephan, 22, is still undecided. "A father has a sense of responsibility, he knows what it is to get up at 2 a.m. to feed a baby. It prepares you to be in charge of a parish, but you have to be able to handle both," he told Al-Monitor.
You must also be able to support your family. In Lebanon, a priest’s salary at roughly $400 a month is not enough. Therefore, priests often have another job.
After his ordination, Zeidan plans to resume his old job as a supervisor in a Christian school. He also dreams of having a second child.