A Priest of Palestine

How a middle-aged soldier gave up the army to embrace the priesthood.

by Desmond Sullivan
art direction/illustration by P.J. McCue

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“I am the parish priest of a dying Church.” These are the words of Father George Rabadi, a Catholic parish priest in one of the world’s oldest Christian villages.

His village, called Taybeh, is proud of its history. When threatened with death, Christ himself took refuge among the families of Taybeh where he knew he would be safe (formerly, Taybeh was called Ephraim/JOHN 11:53-54). Villagers claim that Taybeh has been Christian since that time, and even the oldest inhabitant does not remember non-Christians having lived there.

In 1967, Taybeh had 3500 families. Now there are only 960. Every year more young men and women leave the village in search of educational opportunities and a better future in the Americas, Europe or Australia. Few return.

Father George is a man with a fascinating personal history. A tall and commanding figure, he was a Sergeant Major with General de Gaulle in the Free French Forces of Damascus during Hitler’s war. He spent eight and a half years with the Jordanian Frontier Force under the British. Later, he joined the Arab Legion and became a personal friend of General Glubb Pasha, the British officer who trained and led the army of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

No longer a soldier, George Rabadi has become a priest. He is also married with five children, and is the grandfather of ten. His family, which has seen him go from army man to cleric, has witnessed changes in his personality. As his wife comments, “When he was a Sergeant, he gave many orders. The children and I were a little afraid of him. As a priest he is different. One day I said to him, ‘Father, you are not the same. When you were an army man you were so strict with the children. Now you even wash the dishes. You have changed and have become so gentle.’”

With the emigration of so many villagers, the parish is shrinking and Father George and his family have become very poor. There is little money even for food. But according to Mrs. Rabadi, the family has peace and contentment. “During Mass George looks like an angel. Our lives have changed,” she says.

The story of how George Rabadi became a priest is both fascinating and unique. In 1949 he was the personal escort of Jordan’s King Abdullah. The Queen paid George and his family a visit one afternoon, and while taking the traditional cup of coffee Arabs offer all their guests, she remarked in surprise that the Rabadis had seven daughters but no son. The couple told her they had yearned for a son for many years, but to no avail. After the visit of the Queen, the Rabadis made a momentous decision which was to radically alter their lives. They went to the King and asked leave to travel with all their family to visit the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem. King Abdullah granted their request and provided them with a car and a gift of money.

In his halting English, Father George recalls solemnly how he and his family walked through the old city of Jerusalem, with his two youngest girls perched one on each of his big shoulders. “When I came to the Tomb,” he says, “I spoke to Jesus. ‘Give me a son, and I shall become a Father of your Church.’ After Mass was celebrated, I put 100 dinars ($250 U.S.) on the plate and took my children back across the Jordan.”

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