Before his ordination four years ago, James T. Paris was getting pressured by his mentor, the Rev. George Papaioannou.

"Come on. You've waited long enough. Let's ordain you now as a celibate priest," Paris recalled Papaioannou saying. "We need some good bishops."

Papaioannou, then senior priest at Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Bethesda, told Paris he had the potential to become one of a dozen bishops in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the largest Orthodox denomination in the United States.

Paris knew the drill. Because Orthodox bishops come only from the ranks of unmarried priests, he faced the choice of all Orthodox seminary graduates: Be ordained unmarried and promise to remain that way throughout your career, or get married and then be ordained. Once ordained, there's no turning back.

The decision was not difficult for Paris.

"I always wanted to get married and did not want to choose the celibate route," Paris, 41, said at home this week with his wife at his side. But he acknowledged that the older he got as a bachelor, and the longer he postponed his ordination, the more likely he was to choose the life of an unmarried priest.

Fortunately, he said, he met Eleni Mathios, fell in love and married. On Nov. 1, 1998, Paris was ordained and has remained at St. George's, as associate priest and eventually priest of the 850-family parish.

Paris had a choice his Roman Catholic counterparts do not have.

Since the 12th century, celibacy -- defined by Webster's as "the state of being unmarried" and "complete sexual abstinence" -- has been required of all Catholic priests, said Chester Gillis, a professor of theology at Georgetown University. Previous synods had addressed the matter, but it wasn't until the First Lateran Council in 1123 that mandatory celibacy became "normative," he said.

By that time, Christianity had begun to split into two branches, Western and Eastern, over theological and political issues. The married priesthood was one point of dispute, said the Rev. Robert Stephanopolous, dean of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in New York. Orthodox Christians said optional celibacy had been allowed since the 1st century; Roman Christians said it had not.

U.S. cardinals meeting in Rome this week restated support of mandatory celibacy for Roman Catholic priests, calling sexual abstinence a "gift to the church from God" and asserting that there is no scientific evidence linking celibacy and pedophilia.

But the crisis of confidence brought by the current scandal could bring celibacy to the discussion table in June, when 300 U.S. bishops will meet in Dallas to discuss the cardinals' recommendations for preventing further abuses and restoring the trust in Catholic leadership, observers say. The bishops cannot act without Vatican approval.

"Is it time to look at optional celibacy? It might be," said the Rev. William J. Byron, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown and former president of Catholic University.

Optional celibacy would allow candidates for "secular" or diocesan priesthood, those who planned to work as parish priests, to marry and have families. The option would not apply to men and women who join religious orders, said Byron, a Jesuit priest who called celibacy one of the "organizing principles" of religious communities.

The Greek Orthodox practice of appointing only celibate priests as bishops dates to the 5th century, when the church decided to halt the loss of extensive land holdings to heirs of married bishops, Stephanopolous said. Thereafter, bishops were chosen from the ranks of monastics, who have always taken vows of chastity.

There are precedents for married priests in the Catholic Church. Many Eastern Rite Catholic priests, those who head Orthodox-style churches under the authority of Rome, are married. And several dozen married Episcopal priests have switched to Roman Catholicism since 1980, when Pope John Paul II approved a provision allowing them to serve as Catholic priests.

Dean Hoge, a Catholic University sociologist who has studied Catholic and Protestant churches over three decades, said the rule of celibacy is unlikely to change under the current pope. But practical demands eventually could overshadow theology and tradition in bringing about a shift in policy, he said.

"The big issue is not whether celibacy is a good or bad thing, but about the terrible shortage of priests," Hoge said. The Catholic population in the United States is 63 million and continues to grow, but the number of priests continues to decline, increasing clergy workload, frustration and burnout, he said.

Studies have shown that allowing priests to marry would dramatically increase the pool of potential candidates. After a 1985 survey of Catholic undergraduates, Hoge predicted that there would be a "fourfold increase" in men considering the priesthood if celibacy were made optional.

A recent survey of new priests concluded that "satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the celibate life is the strongest factor affecting overall priestly satisfaction," Hoge said. Ten percent to 15 percent of Catholic priests resign within five years of ordination, and more than half of the resigned priests questioned for the 2000 study did so for reasons related to celibacy, he said.

About one-fourth had fallen in love with a woman and wanted to continue the relationship through marriage or other means; about one-fourth were heterosexuals who had no love interest but decided that they could not continue the celibate life; and 5 percent to 15 percent were homosexuals who wanted an open, long-term relationship with a man.

Most others who left the priesthood "felt lonely or unappreciated," said the report, which will be published as a book in July as "The First Five Years of the Priesthood."

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America also has too few priests for a growing population. But a tradition of married clergy has helped create stability, said the Rev. Michael Kontogiorge, vice chancellor of the New York-based archdiocese.

About 91 percent (575 of 630) of active Greek Orthodox priests in the United States are married, and it is "very rare" for Greek Orthodox clerics to resign, he said.

Only three priests have resigned in the last two years in the 1.5-million-member denomination. All were widowers who had young children and wanted to remarry, Kontogiorge said.

Under Orthodox rules, a celibate priest cannot marry after ordination, and a non-celibate priest cannot remarry and remain a priest, even if his wife dies, he said.

Widowers who remain celibate can become bishops, but that's happened just once. Five years after Papaioannou's wife died in 1993, he became the first married priest to be appointed bishop in the century-old U.S. Greek church. He died in 1999.

Paris, who was a banker and financial analyst for eight years before realizing his true calling as a priest, said most Greek Orthodox seminarians "take for granted they will all find young ladies and get married."

Eleni Paris, 29, a marriage and family therapist, said she wanted a husband who was "strong in the faith" but never thought about marrying a priest until she met James.

"We've grown a lot together," supporting each other's jobs and looking forward to having a family, she said. A married priesthood "establishes some normalcy of human connection of love" that allows the priest to experience the same "ups and downs" of married parishioners, she said.

Their schedules increasingly clashed as "Father Jim" took on greater responsibilities at St. George's. "We always eat breakfast together, but I can't remember when we've shared dinner," he said. They try to take one weekday for personal outings.

The pressures will increase after June 1, when Paris assumes his new appointment as dean of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Phoenix, a rapidly growing parish of 1,000 households. Eleni Paris will be moving away from her home town of McLean, and once the couple settles in, they hope to start a family.

But Paris said she knew what she was getting into as a presvytera, or priest's wife. "I love people and I love talking with people," she said. "It's hard to complain about it."

James Paris said he looks forward to the challenges of his new job and will try to avoid the mistake many priests make by "being married to the church" and spending too little time with their families. He knows the pitfalls, having grown up in a family of priests, including his father, dean of Ascension Cathedral in Oakland, Calif., a brother, an uncle and a grandfather.

Paris also is content knowing that he might never make bishop. "That's as high as I can go," he said of his new role as head priest of one of the denomination's 34 cathedrals. "God willing, I will spend the next 25 to 30 years" there as pastor and father.

The Rev. James T. Paris, a priest at the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Bethesda, sits at home with his wife, Eleni Paris, a marriage and family therapist."I always wanted to get married and did not want to choose the celibate route," Paris said. He will soon be dean of a cathedral but is barred from being a bishop.