Mainstream media outlets are now reporting that the mystery of the so-called “angel priest” has been “solved.” After many days of wondering, we now know that the priest who appeared at the scene of a horrific accident in Missouri was not an angel from heaven or a long-dead saint, but just an ordinary (as it were) in the Diocese of Jefferson City. According to Catholic News Agency, Fr. Dowling happened to be passing by when he decided to ignore the detour set up by first responders and go to help, but is that all there is to the story?
By all accounts, the arrival of Fr. Dowling at the scene was a turning point in the rescue operation. Prior to his appearance, firefighters were unable to free Katie Lentz from her car. After he arrived and performed the Last Rites (which were fortunately not her last), the situation rapidly changed for the better. In his own words, he “said [his]rosary silently until the lady was taken from the car.” There was no angelic visitor descending from on high swathed in cloud and light, but it seems clear that something miraculous did take place.
When this story was first reported, the details were hazy and the presence of a clear and unmistakable Catholic figure gave rise to much speculation. Perhaps the priest was an apparition of St. Padre Pio or St. Jean Vianney? Perhaps it was an angel, or one of the prophets, or even Christ himself?! But in fact, when a priest performs the rite of reconciliation, he is doing so in persona Christe. A terrible car accident is probably not cause for the second coming, but it is cause for many miracles.
In our age of advanced medicine and our obsession with personal safety and health, we expect to survive whatever accidents may befall ourselves. We shouldn’t. Death has been around a lot longer than we have. It’s smarter and has more practice. When someone like Katie Lentz emerges alive from the crumpled two-ton soda can that used to be her car, that’s a miracle all by itself. When she does so after seasoned professionals start to worry she might not make it, that’s an even bigger miracle. When she does so after a priest goes out of his way to investigate the scene of an accident without knowing what he will find, the hand of God in our affairs in unmistakable.
As faithful followers of Christ, we yearn deep in our hearts for signs of Biblical proportions. Indeed, the Gospel—as it always does—speaks to this desire in a timely fashion. Jesus tells us, “Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.” Like servants awaiting the master’s arrival, we are anxious and unsettled at every noise and every movement beyond the barrier which separates this world from the next. In this state of nervous anticipation, we expect the master to arrive in splendor and finery, with great pomp and flourishes of trumpets.
This is not how God works. He comes to us “like a thief in the night,” slipping in to our lives in that moment of silence and reflection when we least expect it. Many miracles happened on that bright and clear Sunday in Missouri which saw darkness and death draw near to Katie Lentz. The moral of the story is clear: prayer works! Pray the rosary! Miracles do happen. God always gives us the help we need when we need it, but we must be attentive, because the help that He gives may not be what we expect.