Local priest worships, dines with the president

Father Charles Dittmeier posed for a photo with President Joe Biden Nov. 12 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Father Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville serving in Cambodia, celebrated Mass and then dined with the president who was there for a summit. (Photo Special to The Record)

While President Joe Biden was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 12 for a special summit between the U.S. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), he made time in his schedule for Mass.

The Archdiocese of Louisville’s own Father Charles Dittmeier, who serves in the Cambodian capital as a Maryknoll Missioner, presided.

He celebrated Mass with the president and about eight White House and embassy staffers in a small room in the Raffles Hotel. Afterward, he enjoyed a casual lunch with the president.

“We had a simple but really rewarding liturgy,” Father Dittmeier recounted by email. “I often invite people to respond to the homily and President Biden jumped right in with a really good observation about really ‘seeing’ people. He also prayed for veterans at the prayer of the faithful.

“I was with the president for an hour and 45 minutes, and it was a really fascinating experience to see how the White House staff works,” he said.

The liturgy was arranged ahead of time by the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia. Father Dittmeier is the pastor of Phnom Penh’s English-speaking Catholic church, as well as the director of the Deaf Development Program there. He also shares his experiences as a missioner in The Record every other month in the “Living Mission” column.

While the Mass was pre-arranged, he said, the lunch was a surprise.

“Off the cuff, the president noted that it was lunchtime and asked if I wanted to eat with them. I thought he meant with the 800-900 U.S. and local embassy staff who were there occupying the hotel, so I said sure if it wouldn’t inconvenience anyone.

“I heard the president ask where lunch would be (he had just flown in from Egypt that morning on Air Force One and didn’t know his way around all the wings of the hotel) and someone said outside and led me to a table on a patio. I was standing there and then the president, his doctor and an assistant came and the four of us had lunch together!”

The menu was simple, Father Dittmeier noted.

“President Biden ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with potato chips. They had asked me if I wanted turkey or PB&J, and since I eat the latter every day, I opted for the turkey sandwich and potato chips.

“We talked about 45-50 minutes about the deaf program, stuttering, mentoring youth, etc. Then I left him to work on his speech for ASEAN.”

Father Dittmeier added that it made for an eventful Saturday in the “Kingdom of Wonder.”

“It was quite an unusual, unexpected turn of events for the day! It was really rewarding, too. The president is just so down to earth, so gracious, so human.”

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