Until you watch the news footage on the “mystery priest” incident, you don’t really realize how improbable the story is.
Rural Catholicism means driving long distances for Mass and religious instruction. In some parts of Texas, one priest will have charge of three or four parishes, and will spend more time in his car than any place else except — maybe — his bed.
The only Catholic church in Center, Missouri is on the National Register of Historic Places but not on the Diocese of Jefferson City’s list of active parishes; it’s an eight-mile drive to St. Stephen in Indian Creek near Monroe City. There’s no active parish in New London, just up State Highway 19 from Center; the closest parish, Holy Family in Hannibal, is almost ten miles in the opposite direction from Center. Sacred Heart in Vandalia is over twenty miles south of Highway 19.
That stretch of Highway 19, where all you can see from horizon to horizon are farmsteads and long rows of corn, is where an (allegedly) drunk driver plowed into 19-year-old Katie Lentz’s older-model Mercedes convertible. To intensify the improbability, first responders had blocked off access by road to the scene. So it’s not as though some Blackie Ryan-like character innocuously emerged from, and melted back into, a crowd of urban gawkers who had all inconveniently misplaced their iPhones or had them focused elsewhere; it was just Katie and the New London Fire Department — and lots and lots of cornfields.
And yet, there he was.
The rescuers’ tools were failing, as were Katie’s vital signs (according to ABC News), when she asked them to pray with her. (Katie belongs to an Assemblies of God Pentacostal church.) Then, a man who the NLFD say “looked like a Catholic priest” came on the scene, anointed Katie with holy oils, prayed with her and told the rescuers to remain calm: “Your tools will work now.” At that moment, rescue workers from another department showed up with fresh tools. The priest’s departure was as unnoticed as his arrival.
Of course, since descriptions of the incident include Chief Raymond Reed’s statement that “a calmness that … seemed to come over the entire scene,” disbelievers immediately diagnose hysteria. The first problem with that explanation is, there’s no scientific evidence to prove that mass hysteria creates mass hallucinations. But even if there were, we’re still left with the improbability that Reed and his crew were susceptible to such an experience at that moment. It’s as unlikely as Jesus somehow surviving his crucifixion; trained professionals become incompetent rubes whenever a miracle must be debunked.
But did a miracle take place? Shrug; does it really matter?
There’s no settled doctrine on the extent to which God participates in human acts and affairs. That God does intervene is not just a dogma but the faith behind the Faith: if we didn’t believe in at least occasional divine intervention in human affairs, we shouldn’t believe in the extraordinary intervention that is our redemption through Christ. And it’s equally de fide that “everything that God has brought into being He protects and governs by his providence, which reaches from one end of the earth to the other and orders all things well” (Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith 1:4; cit. Wisdom 8:1).
We must believe in the miraculous nature of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus; that’s central to the redemptive nature of Christ’s sacrifice. We must believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as it has been taught from the time of the apostles throughout our history (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16, 11:23-29). Do we have to believe in “the miracle of the sun” at Fatima? Meh; it wouldn’t kill you to keep an open mind about it.
“Father Blackie’s” appearance at Katie’s crash site was so fortuitous that, even if he weren’t a supernatural being in human form, it would still verge on the miraculous. At the very least, a Catholic priest stumbling onto a crash site in the middle of Hotzeplotz while somehow missing the roadblocks isn’t any more improbable than experienced rescue workers jointly hallucinating a priest coming out of the cornfields — that’s just pathetic.
The thing to remember about miracles, though, is that they’re like sacraments: they shed flashes of light on things God does everywhere all the time without being noticed. For instance, Eucharistic miracles such as the one reputed to have taken place in Guadalajara are reminders of what takes place at every Mass. If God, in the likeness of an angel, was specially present at Katie’s rescue, it’s a reminder that He’s radically present at all rescues … even when, perhaps especially when, the victim(s) don’t survive.
But why there? Why then? We can never know, because God’s mind is impossible for man to encompass; yet we can speculate. Katie asked the rescue workers to pray out loud with her; “For wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). The prayer most likely to be known by everyone present, there in the predominantly free-church Protestant Missouri farmlands, is the Lord’s Prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer, especially in its words “Thy will be done”, is the model of proper prayer because it acknowledges our dependence on God for everything. In that prayer, they submitted themselves to God’s Will: Ecce ancilla Domini; fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum (Luke 1:38: “Behold the servant of the Lord; let it be done unto me according to your word”). In submitting to His Will, they also opened themselves to His grace, allowing Him room to work, so to speak.
Cops know that eyewitness reports rarely tally in all points, so it’s no surprise that some have taken issue with the composite sketch of the mystery priest. That a priest came, anointed Katie with holy oils, prayed for a few minutes and left is indisputable; whether he looked like Walter Matthau or an older man of southern European extraction is ultimately irrelevant detail. The witnesses are more credible than their detractors.
Many people will quote Stuart Chase’s dictum concerning belief and proof. It should be a corollary that some people need to disbelieve as much as some people need to believe.
But I don’t think that the appearance of the mystery priest was ever intended as proof of anything. Rather, it’s a reminder that (as the late Fr. Andrew Greeley wrote) “no one lives, and no one dies, save in the embrace of God’s love.”
Update: August 17, 2013
His name is Fr. Patrick Dowling.
A native of Kilkenny, Ireland, Fr. Dowling (yeah, I know) was ordained in the Jefferson City diocese in 1982, and works in the diocese’s prison ministry. This means he’s constantly on the road crossing the state, from Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City to the Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center to Tipton Correctional Center. He had filled in for a sick friend in Hannibal and was on his way home when he came across the accident.
Father Dowling stayed just long enough to make sure Katie Lentz was evacuated, then went back to work. Because he doesn’t really watch the news or read the papers, for several days he wasn’t even aware that his appearance on the scene was the subject of national wonder: “If your nose is in the television, it’s not to the grindstone,” Tim Townsend at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports him saying.
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.”
So much for mass hysteria.