Sight to Behold -- Father Mick Lambeth captures a stunning photo of the throng who convened on the White House grounds to hear Pope Francis' address. Photo courtesy of Father Mick Lambeth
Sight to Behold -- Father Mick Lambeth captures a stunning photo of the throng who convened on the White House grounds to hear Pope Francis' address. Photo courtesy of Father Mick Lambeth

By David Karas | Correspondent

Father K. Michael Lambeth, pastor of St. Theresa Parish, Little Egg Harbor, was driving back to his parish after visiting someone at the hospital this past August when he received a unique call from parish coordinator Cathy Mazanek.

 “The president has just called you,” she told him.

 “I said, ‘the president of what’?” Father Lambeth recalled. Mazanek clarified that it was the President of the United States who had dropped him a line on the parish phone.

“I said, ‘what did he want’?” he recalled, chuckling.        

President Barack Obama was calling the pastor in response to a letter he had written to the White House on Memorial Day, expressing his concerns related to a speech that the president had delivered during the ceremonial laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA.

The former third class signalman in the United States Navy, and a veteran of the Vietnam War, couldn’t help but take notice when President Obama singled out veterans from World War II and conflicts in the Middle East, while glossing over the “jungle” warfare of the nation’s past without the same level of acknowledgement. The omission reminded Father Lambeth of the all-too-often oversights that plague his fellow veterans, and so he wrote the White House to express his thoughts.

“I continue to be disappointed in the manner American society seems to have in disregarding or turning their backs on my brothers who served in Vietnam,” he wrote in his words to the president – intended, he said, not to be angry, but merely to share his reaction.

His letter included remarks on the profound impact that military service had on the young draftee, and on how he continues to pray for President Obama each day.

"I never expected to hear anything back from that,” he said. “I just needed to say it.”

His expectations were far surpassed with the call from the White House, as well as a written and hand-signed letter from the president. But what moved the pastor the most was the invitation to be a guest of the president and the First Lady during the Sept. 23 arrival ceremony of Pope Francis at the White House.

“It was just a once-in-a-lifetime experience for these two occasions to come together, for me as a Vietnam veteran and as a Catholic priest,” he reflected. “It was beyond anything that would ever happen in my lifetime.”

With his parish community “in my heart,” Father Lambeth journeyed to Washington, only to be greeted with the offer of a private West Wing tour the evening before the arrival of the Holy Father. He recalled finding himself pausing in the Oval Office, pondering how many decisions that have impacted his life might have passed through the room.

But the truly transformative experience came when all of the guests were seated on the South Lawn and Pope Francis arrived.

“It was just a holy and very wonderful moment for me,” he said, recalling being moved to hear “Hail to the Chief” and other patriotic hymns. There was an audible gasp when Pope Francis first stepped out of the Popemobile.

“You could hear a pin drop when the Pope was speaking, and there were 14,000 people there,” Father Lambeth said. “Catholics, non-Catholics, believers and nonbelievers – here we were, gathered in our nation’s capital and at the White House, and here is this humble, gentle man and this is his first stop, his first experience in public in our country.”

He added, “It was a remarkable, emotional and spiritual moment for me.”

Reflecting back on the reason behind his invitation to be there for the arrival of his Pope – the feeling of not being remembered in the president’s remarks on Memorial Day – Father Lambeth shared a realization he was brought back to while listening to the Pontiff’s words during his Mass celebrated at The Catholic University of America.

What is most important, he said, is being remembered by God.

“That reality comes back that we are remembered,” he said. “The Pope made that so clear.”

While his time at the White House was profoundly moving, that would not be the last time the pastor would cross paths with the Pope.

After checking out of his hotel, Father Lambeth was driving away and navigating road closures when he suddenly found himself driving up to a barricade. A few moments later, he saw the Popemobile passing by, and the Holy Father waving to the crowd.

Father Lambeth recalled speaking out loud as he waved back to the Pope, a chance for a personal farewell, of sorts.

“Goodbye, Papa,” he said.