The Rev. Patrick Dowling was driving near Hannibal, Mo., on a two-lane highway flanked by corn stalks on one side and soy beans on the other.
Dowling had just celebrated Mass on a Sunday afternoon earlier this month, filling in for a sick colleague when he saw the accident. He pulled over, got out of his white Toyota Camry and walked toward members of the New London Fire Department who, for 45 minutes, had been having difficulty extracting 19-year-old Katie Lentz from a crushed, 24-year-old Mercedes 300E.
What he did next would unexpectedly trigger an international media frenzy over miracles, angels and divine intervention.
After officials allowed him to approach the accident, Dowling reached his arm well into the car to touch Lentz’s head with oil. “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”
The prayer was the Anointing of the Sick, an ancient ritual with roots in Judaism that is one of Catholicism’s seven sacraments.
As the priest walked away from the Mercedes, Lentz — a member of an Assemblies of God Pentecostal church — asked him to return and pray aloud with her, which he did. He then moved out of the way so rescue efforts could resume.
Dowling said in an interview this week that he was only doing his job at the sight of someone hovering near death. “You stop and anoint because that’s what Jesus told us to do,” he said.
That casual attitude about the incident may partially explain Dowling’s unceremonious departure from the accident scene. After staying long enough to see the teen evacuated to her hometown of Quincy, Ill., he got into his car, and drove away.
No one saw Dowling leave, and he did not appear in any of the photos of the scene. As officials and witnesses began discussing the nearly two-hour rescue, they looked around for a man in black, but he’d disappeared.
Over the next few days, the story of “the mystery priest” traveled, through traditional and social media, across the world. The story was picked up by USA Today, the Associated Press, the New York Daily News and the London Daily Telegraph. “Good Morning America” featured the story in a segment, calling the unknown priest a “heavenly hero on the highway.”
Rescue officials have said that Lentz’s prospects at survival were dimming when the priest stepped forward, but after he finished praying with Lentz reinforcements arrived — a larger crew, with better equipment, from the Hannibal Fire Department.
“I can’t be for certain how it was said, but myself and another firefighter, we very plainly heard that we should remain calm, that our tools would now work and that we would get her out of that vehicle,” New London Fire Chief Raymond Reed told Quincy’s KHQA-TV. Lentz’s rescue, he said, “was nothing more than sheer faith and nothing short of a miracle.”
The New London Fire Department’s Facebook page filled with comments from those touched by the story. “Thank God for that angel whom appeared,” one person wrote. “For those who don’t believe, now would be a great time to start.”
LIKE A MOTH TO A LAMP
In the first days that the news coverage erupted, Dowling, 68, had seen none of it.
Because the Columbia, Mo., resident spends so much time crossing the state – from Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City to the Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center to Tipton Correctional Center – he doesn’t watch much television, and he doesn’t really read newspapers.
After the accident “I went about my work, got some sleep and had my meals,” he said. “If your nose is in the television, it’s not to the grindstone.”
But now Dowling marvels at the theological excitement his simple act provoked. And he sees a divine hand in all of it.
“When God touches down to earth, people are drawn to him like a moth is drawn to a lamp,” Dowling said. “It’s beautiful.”
Dowling moved to Missouri 33 years ago from Kilkenny, Ireland. He was ordained a priest of the Jefferson City diocese in 1982 and now serves in Hispanic parish ministry and in the diocese’s prison ministry program. He said prisoners and their concerns are easier to understand than Catholics in a typical parish.
“We communicate better,” he said. “We have the same dark sense of humor.”
His accent is still strong, and behind his glasses are a pair of Ireland’s famous smiling eyes, crinkled crow’s feet at their edges when he laughs.
Five days after Lentz’s accident, another priest told Dowling about the “mystery priest” phenomenon, and he realized he had to tell the family who he was.
“Now it’s time to tell the mother,” he thought. “There are facts that the mother should have.”
Lentz was recovering after a nearly seven-hour surgery. The Tulane University student had been hit head-on by a 26-year-old whose pickup had crossed the center lane. Lentz’s mother, Carla, later posted a list of her daughter’s injuries on Facebook: two broken legs, a broken wrist, nine broken ribs, a lacerated liver, a ruptured spleen, a bruised lung. Dowling visited her in the hospital on Aug. 10.
By then, people fascinated by the story had begun guessing the identity of the angel priest. An artist in Tucson drew a forensic sketch of what he might look like. Many thought the miracle had been worked by a dead candidate for sainthood. Had the angel priest been Father Vincent Capodanno? Or maybe it was Father Joseph Walijewski?
Rajah Maples, the KHQA-TV reporter who had begun the media avalanche, said she has never broadcast anything that had rippled around the world like the “mystery priest” story.
Lentz’s story could happen to anyone, she said.
“You’re driving down the road, doing everything right, and someone crosses the center lane and your life is changed,” Maples said. “There’s fear in this story, but then a stranger comes along and through only the love of humankind and a higher power (Lentz) knew someone was looking out for her.”
A LONGING FOR WONDER
On Monday, Maples reported a follow-up segment after Dowling came forward to identify himself as the mystery priest. Reed, the New London fire chief, said while he was happy that he’d get to thank Dowling in person, a part of him was “kinda sad.”
There were “a lot of people who were touched by this story that were grasping onto the thought that this mysterious priest was placed there by God in a form that they had their interpretation of,” he said.
Miracles are simply divine actions in human affairs, said Bruce Reichenbach, a professor emeritus of the philosophy of religion at Ausburg University in Minneapolis. Just because Dowling is human, he said, doesn’t mean God had not been at work. Divine providence, the idea that God has a grand plan for his creation, can be seen even in the small details — that Dowling was filling in for a sick colleague at Mass that morning, for instance.
“We live in an increasingly secular age and we’re suspicious of miraculous claims,” he said. “But in all our hearts is a longing for the unusual and wonder. Whether that’s divine or not doesn’t make much difference, yet God has built into us something that seeks him.”
Dowling also attributes the viral nature of the angel priest story to God’s divine plan. When God shows his face, people know, he said, and “they love when he draws near.”
Since he has come forward, Dowling has had prayer requests from as far away as Switzerland. A number of terminally ill people have asked him to be their spiritual advisor.
“Divine providence is very close in human life, and terribly close at the moment of death,” Dowling said. “Fearfully close.”