The Conviction of Things Unseen: on Mystery Priests and Modern Miracles

The mystery priest came out of the closet. I mean…not that closet. But he came out of hiding, anyway. So, I stand corrected. I never thought we’d hear from him.

Last week, a young woman in Missouri was hit head on by a drunk driver. Her vital signs were dropping quickly, and some of the rescue equipment was malfunctioning. In the midst of this grim scene, the girl asked the first-responders to pray with her. According to witnesses, a priest then appeared out of nowhere and anointed her with oil. They say a feeling of peace descended upon the whole scene.

Then, a second rescue team appeared with working equipment. The girl was saved. And  just as quickly as he came, the priest seemed to vanish. In the considerable footage of the accident scene, there were no images of him. None of the many witnesses from the small community recognized him from town. The local diocese had not follow up information.

There was nothing for it but to call ‘miracle.’ And many people heard and believed…

I said in my sermon on Sunday that, if I were that priest, I would never come forward. This priest got more people believing by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, than any of us will ever hope to do with our preaching. No religious leader in his right mind would come forward after that and be like, “Oh hey, guys, it was me. Happened by, had some anointing oil on me… just doing my thang for Jesus. Glad the kid’s ok.”

And yet, here he is. A real live man. Mortal, flesh and blood. Apparently, he went to visit the young woman in the hospital and introduced himself. Upon meeting her ‘angel,’ she wept. Father Patrick assumed them to be tears of disappointment. Maybe they were. Maybe the whole world is feeling a little disappointed that the ‘miracle’ turned out to be just a guy in a collar.

But hold up. Who says that’s not a miracle?

The widespread, viral reaction to this story proves what religious leaders everywhere know to be true: the world is hungry for a real, authentic encounter with the holy. People are desperate to encounter something supernatural in the midst of their despair, their boredom, their fatigue. They ache for a glimpse of something deeply spiritual that will affirm their very existence, and the shed some hope on all that is bleak and stagnant.

They want to have their faith resurrected in a way that cannot be ignored or denied. And they are watching for the burning bush, the parting sea, the Gabriel moment that will make believing easy.

We try to deliver that sacred glimpse in worship each week but, you know, we’re only human. We cannot call out people’s faith as Lazarus from the tomb. It can’t always be the good news as interpreted by Pixar. Sometimes it takes…well, faith.

So yeah, at first I couldn’t believe that he came forward. But I’m sure glad he did.

Because, now that we know who he is, we can talk about real miracle. Not the movie kind that defies all doubt–but the truly life-giving kind that emerges in spite of doubt. Far too often, religious leaders are tempted to point people toward an other-worldly Creator, a far-off heaven, the promise of a later and someday eternity that will make sense of all this worldly madness. It’s an invitation to escape–just like any fantasy movie or book or video game–and it diminishes the real and present good news that lives among and between us, every day. It ignores the gospel story that we are called to embody, and maybe even co-author, for the world around us. Here’s a priest, though, who said, enough: here I am. I’m a person. But God was still there.

I’m hearing this story today as a gentle reminder to glimpse the sacred in the world, rather than seek a glimpse of beyond. God may not be entirely OF the world, but the world is certainly of God. And full of the Holy Spirit. Why do we need the special effects department–the supernatural visitation of biblical proportions–to point us to the miracle?

Take the angel out of this story, and tell it again: A young woman was sure she was dying; and so were the people who were trying to save her. She requested prayer. A priest–the Rev. Patrick Dowling–stepped out of the void at exactly that moment. He was a real live, flesh and blood, mortal person. He was Irish. Who knows what long and winding road led him to faith; to priesthood; to America; to just that spot, at just that moment, where a frightened girl lay dying, and seeking the voice of God… But whatever led him there–and whatever might have tried to prevent him– he showed up in the flesh, and touched her and blessed her; and she was made well. And many people heard and saw, and believed.

Isn’t that good news?

Photo by Lindy Scavo, via flickr. With thanks!


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  • Peggy Kelly

    Amen. God works through each and every one of us every day to be present in this world – if we will allow ourselves to be the vessels.

  • Pofarmer

    Uhm, what the whole story proves is that people are superstitious, and need to be educated. Blah, blah, blah. A priest happened to be near a car crash on a Sunday morning in MO. Given that there are something like 10,000,000 injury accidents in the U.S. per year, I’d say the chances of clergy being near any given accident, especially on a Sunday morning, are pretty good.

    • ThisIsTheEnd

      Yeah it’s nice that it all turned out relatively well but I fail to see how being proved wrong that a travelling priest for an angel made the whole episode more of a miracle. Just shows how credulous people are. So now even “No Shows” count as hits.

  • axelbeingcivil

    This article is beautifully written, and it echoes sentiments I had and expressed when among the faithful, but they’re ones that we ultimately have to disabuse ourselves of.

    Sentiments like these – which declare how fantastical it is that, by sheer coincidence, something and/or someone just so happened to be in the right place at the right time – are a very human sort of mental blind-spot: We count the hits but not the misses. We praise the Lord for this particular miracle, but then ignore all the examples of an all-too-painful reality. We praise the Lord for this woman having succor and survival, but ignore the 32,000-some-odd road fatalities that occurred in 2011.

    God was here for this woman. Where was He for everyone else?

    Ultimately, we can come up with answers for this. Perhaps we can say that their deaths have no sting, for ultimately they shall be rejoined with the Lord, but, unless you are a believer in universal reconciliation, the common view is that many thousands of these people were surely unbelievers whose souls burn in eternal hellfire. Of course, even for people who believe in that view, they have to resolve the inherent conflicts of such a view with the idea of an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent deity that allows suffering to begin with.

    Perhaps, then, we say that their deaths were the result of human free will; the blame is off of God and on the human being instead. However, if we assert this, then why did this one woman get a miraculous intervention of some sort and many others likely died alone, scared, and in pain (and, if you don’t follow the aforementioned universal reconciliation view, were then thrown into eternal pain and misery)? Is God playing favourites?

    Or perhaps this was all part of the Divine Plan, to show people a miracle and make them believe (far less efficiently, it must be said, than if the Almighty set angelic traffic wardens to oversee every road, in all their shining glory). This is just me, however, but rare is the person who does not already believe that will take this as a miracle, except by believing that it was some sort of ghost-priest. No atheist is going to be turned to religion, and no religious person to convert, by being told of the wonderful story that a priest just so happened to be there at the time.

    We long to witness some spark of the supernatural, some glimmer of a greater world, because we want to silence doubt. We want freedom from fear; to have death possess no sting, to have our intellectual sides satisfied, to know that the things to which we dedicate ourselves have real, everlasting, intrinsic meaning. A coincidental arrival of a priest does not do that. A universe with or without God would have the priest arrive the same time, the same way, with the same results. No divine intervention is necessary, only mere coincidence.

    Beautiful words, Reverend Wathen, but only words.

    • Monimonika

      Beautifully stated, axelbeingcivil. You put into words my thoughts without being condescending (which is a skill I sadly lack most of the time).

      One answer that I tend to encounter when reading answers to questions of the form “Why did/didn’t God…?” is that God’s reasons are beyond human comprehension and thus are above simplistic questioning. But here we have people (who also happen to overlap significantly with the people who give the answer I mentioned) making presumptions about what God was aiming to accomplish.

      It has always bothered me how self-centered people can be when viewing the motives of a supposedly all-powerful and/or omniscient God figure which supposedly created the universe. The concerns of such a figure usually gets narrowed down to individual people or to the human species (minus whatever populations that aren’t acknowledged), neither of which I consider as that high in importance considering the vastness of said universe. I myself don’t claim omniscience, so I feel free to be concerned with more local things than about the stuff beyond Earth’s orbit and don’t feel the need to project my concerns out as God’s own.