The world is waiting for God. This is one lesson we can take from the “Mystery Priest” incident earlier this month in Missouri, when a Catholic priest appeared apparently from nowhere to anoint and pray for a young woman trapped in a car that was hit head-on by another driver. After 19-year-old Katie Lentz was rescued, the emergency workers wanted to thank the priest, but he was gone. A study of dozens of photos from the scene failed to show the black-clad, tab-collared man.
Once the story got out from rural Missouri, the web lit up with news and conjecture about the “angel dressed as a priest” or “the priest who came like an angel,” and even network TV picked up the story of “the heavenly hero of the highway.” Who was this quiet figure on God’s mission?
We know now that he was Father Patrick Dowling, a priest for 31 years of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., who was just going about his normal duties on a Sunday morning, driving between churches to offer Mass, when he saw a line of cars and emergency vehicles on a stretch of country road. He pulled his car over, walked about 150 yards to the crash scene, and was told the trapped young woman wanted someone to pray with her. Father Dowling did what he says any priest would do in the situation. He anointed her, stood aside to let the emergency workers do their job as he quietly prayed the Rosary, then left after Lentz was freed and rushed to the hospital by helicopter.
He had done his priestly duty, had another Mass to offer that day, and saw no need to stay around to receive the thanks he never imagined he deserved. His identity was only discovered days later from a comment he had left on the National Catholic Register’s website – a discovery that set off another round of web activity and landed him on TV news shows to tell his simple, humble story.
Father Dowling was born in Ireland and still speaks with the soft accent of his native land, and now works with prison populations and Hispanic ministry in the Jefferson City Diocese. He has given praise to the emergency workers and police, and insisted that his prayers were only part of God’s work that day to save the life of a young woman. But he acknowledged that his priesthood and connection to God made his role more noticeable and meaningful to others.
“When God touches down to earth, people are drawn to him like a moth is drawn to a lamp,” Father Dowling told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It’s beautiful.”
Indeed, even in our secular, skeptical age in which so many profess “none” as their religion, it takes only one incident along a remote, rural highway to remind us of our thirst for God and our need to connect with him through the humble yet extraordinary service of a “mystery priest.” The fact is that we are blessed to have so many wonderful priests among us, and the real mystery is that we don’t thank them for all the things – little and large – they do for us each day.