Angel statueMany of my readers will have heard about the so-called “angel priest” in Missouri. If not, here’s a quick sketch: There’s a car accident and a teen is trapped in a car. Crews are trying to extricate her, but having no luck. A priest magically materializes out of nowhere, prays with her, tells rescuers their efforts will now be effective, and voilà! they free her. The priest then magically disappears. Later photos show no one at the scene who looks like a priest. There doesn’t seem to be any way a priest could have just wandered up to the accident and left without anyone seeing him go, so everyone decides this “priest” is an “angel” and the teen’s rescue is a genuine miracle. It was widely reported, including in this USA Today article (cached), although virtually every media outlet in the country mentioned it in some way.

I’m sure some of you wonder why I never mentioned this story while it was racing through the country last week. The reason is, I was sure there was more to this story that hadn’t been revealed, and didn’t want to remark on it until additional information had come in.

It turns out I was right to wait. There was more to be told about this event. As CNN reports, we now know this priest was no “angel,” but a plain old flesh-&-blood human being (WebCite cached article):

[The Rev. Patrick] Dowling, a priest since 1982, revealed in a comment on a story posted on the National Catholic Register that he was the man who prayed over Lentz, 19, while emergency workers treated her for injuries after an August 4 accident.

Dowling wrote in the comment, which has since been deleted: “I absolved and anointed Katie, and, at her request, prayed that her leg would not hurt. Then I stepped aside to where some rescue personnel and the pilot were waiting, and prayed the rosary silently.”

Dowling’s presence had been a mystery because officials at the scene said it seemed as if he appeared from nowhere, couldn’t be found in any pictures taken at the scene and left without anyone seeing where he went.

Rescuers said the mysterious priest told them to be calm and their tools would now work.

I want everyone to note that Fr Dowling’s account of this event differs a bit from the reports of those involved. In particular, he never says he told crews their equipment would now work, when it hadn’t before. It turns out, there’s a reason they were able to free the trapped teen: Right about then, the car had been righted, and fresh equipment was brought up to the crash, those did the job.

He also mentions that he identified himself to a trooper or deputy, so people later claiming that no one knew who he was, were lying.

This is a sterling example of how “miracle” stories can be confabulated and fabricated from otherwise-mundane events. We have an accident scene with a lot of people around, all trying to get something done (namely, free someone from a wrecked car, and gather evidence for an accident investigation). It’s chaotic and hard for anyone involved to know what’s going on outside of whatever it is s/he is doing. There’s also a little embellishment, plus some strategic omissions (e.g. the trooper to whom Fr Dowling identified himself conveniently failing to mention he knew who the priest was, while this story about an “angel priest” flashed around the country). And there’s also the little matter of lying about the circumstances (i.e. folks insisted there’d been no possible way anyone could have approached the accident scene; obviously that couldn’t have been true).

I have to give credit to Fr Dowling for his honesty afterward in revealing who he was. I’m sure lots of believers out there will nevertheless view this is a “miracle” in spite of his admission and in spite of the fact that it was righting the car — plus a fresh rescue crew with fresh equipment — that got Ms Lentz extricated, not some mysterious “angel priest’s” magical intervention. Believers never let pesky little things like “facts” get in the way of an emotionally-compelling story.

Note: The famous urban legend debunking site Snopes just weighed in on this story (cached).

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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