A miraculous story has been making the rounds on the internet about the “angel priest” who witnesses say mysteriously appeared at the scene of a Missouri car accident a week ago, prayed with the young victim, and then disappeared without a trace. The supernatural element may seem silly to some, but it speaks to a quintessentially human need.
After a head-on collision, authorities spent nearly an hour trying to cut the seriously injured Katie Lentz out of her car, but the tools weren’t sufficient and she was running out of time. Lentz asked the rescuers to pray with her.
Then a priest appeared from somewhere, although emergency responders had blocked off the highway. He anointed Lentz and her rescuers with oil, prayed with them and brought calm to the scene. The fire department arrived and was able to free Lentz – but the priest vanished, and he does not appear in any of eighty photos from the accident scene.
“I think that this time I've actually witnessed a guardian angel at work,” said a member of the fire department. A friend said that “Whether it was a priest as an angel or an actual angel, he was an angel to all those and to Katie.”
Pop culture-saturated as I am, I was immediately reminded of similar scenes from two movies. In 1997’s The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall in a brilliant performance as a disgraced Southern preacher who earns redemption, he comes across a car accident on a rural road. With an ambulance coming, Duvall makes his way through tall grass to the flipped car and its occupants, a young couple. The wife seems peacefully asleep, or more likely dead; the husband is conscious but barely hanging on.
Duvall lays his Bible on the car hood and reaches in to lay the wife’s bloodied hand on her husband’s. He leans in close to the young man and offers salvation in the name of Jesus Christ.
“Thank you. Thank you, sir,” the husband manages to respond.
In Wings of Desire, a multiple award-winning German film from 1987 (not to be confused with City of Angels, Hollywood’s terrible Nicolas Cage-Meg Ryan remake), angels visible only to children walk the earth offering solace and hope. In one scene, the protagonist angel Damiel arrives at the scene of a motorcycle accident and squats beside the dying biker, listening to his thoughts. The gathering crowd is oblivious to Damiel’s presence.
“It can’t be that simple,” the victim wonders silently. “I’ve still so much to do.” Damiel can’t save him, but he places his hands gently on the dying man’s head and says, “As I came up the mountain, out of the misty valley into the sun…” It sets the man’s thoughts toward eternity, through the poetry of his own memories. He and Damiel begin to speak as one, until the dying man takes over the stream-of-consciousness reminiscence and the angel walks away:
…The veins of leaves. The blowing grass. The color of stones. The pebbles on the stream's bed. The white tablecloth outdoors. The dream of the house in the house. The dear one asleep in the next room. The peaceful Sundays. The horizon. The light from the room in the garden. The night flight. Riding a bicycle with no hands. The beautiful stranger. My father. My mother. My wife. My child.
Whether you consider Katie Lentz’s priest to be heavenly intervention or not, our fascination with her story reflects the very human need for reassurance that at the moment we are confronted by our mortality, we will be guided to transcendent peace. Celestial or human, Missouri’s “angel priest” embodied that divine presence when he brought comfort and calm to Katie and those working to save her.
Update: The angel priest has come forward, and he seems to be more Duvall than Damiel: Fr. Patrick Dowling, from a nearby diocese, who came upon the accident and attended to Katie. “There was a calmness that, to me, seemed to come over the entire scene” when Dowling arrived, reported Fire Chief Raymond Reed, whose firefighters say their equipment kept failing until Fr. Dowling appeared.
“I have no doubt the Most High answered their prayers and I was part of his answer,” says Dowling. “But only part.”
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/13/13)