God works through means: a story

God works through means: a story August 21, 2013

I’m not sure if we looked at the media coverage of the “miracle priest” in Missouri. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s an early Associated Press account of how a “mysterious priest” “suddenly appeared” and prayed over and anointed a badly injured car accident victim with oil. That piece is headlined “Priest comes out of nowhere to aid accident victim.” Here’s a News-Tribune (Jefferson City, Mo.) follow-up with more details.

The initial coverage looked at how onlookers were looking for the priest who helped the victim and how no photos of the accident scene showed the priest, even though many people had seen him. A perfect August story.

The priest ultimately revealed who he was. That was also covered. A typical example is this New York Daily News piece, which begins:

There’s no mystery to this Father Dowling — he’s a prince of a priest.

But the best story was definitely the one that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The reader who sent it along wrote:

I realize that there as been a lot of coverage of this story but this St. Louis Post-Dispatch article is actually quite good in both explaining Church teaching, letting the “religion” survive the reporting, and it even follows up with a university professor explaining how this event could still be a “miracle” even if God was acting just through a human being.  It is quite good.

Couldn’t have said it better. Reporter Tim Townsend introduces the backstory before adding:

What [the Rev. Patrick Dowling] did next would unexpectedly trigger an international media frenzy over miracles, angels and divine intervention.

After officials allowed him to approach the accident, Dowling reached his arm well into the car to touch Lentz’s head with oil. “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”

The prayer was the Anointing of the Sick, an ancient ritual with roots in Judaism that is one of Catholicism’s seven sacraments.

As the priest walked away from the Mercedes, Lentz — a member of an Assemblies of God Pentecostal church — asked him to return and pray aloud with her, which he did. He then moved out of the way so rescue efforts could resume.

Dowling said in an interview this week that he was only doing his job at the sight of someone hovering near death. “You stop and anoint because that’s what Jesus told us to do,” he said.

I loved this story about the mystery priest, but not for “miraculous” reasons. My dad is a pastor and that meant that my childhood was full of random roadside stops where my father would see what help was needed and would pray with and for those who needed help. I thought the lack of photos was a weird detail, but mostly I just liked how it showed that many clergy act as first responders.

The Post-Dispatch article does a great job of describing the initial accident and recovery scene as well as how the story spread globally. We also learn so much about Dowling. How he came to be a priest, what his work is like, what his sense of humor is like. We learn how he came to hear of the story and how he decided to handle it.

The end of the piece turns to the “so what” of it all. It’s worth reading in entirety, but I rather liked the quote from the professor at a Lutheran school in Minnesota (it should read Augsburg):

On Monday, [Rajah Maples of KHQA-TV] reported a follow-up segment after Dowling came forward to identify himself as the mystery priest. [Raymond] Reed, the New London fire chief, said while he was happy that he’d get to thank Dowling in person, a part of him was “kinda sad.”

There were “a lot of people who were touched by this story that were grasping onto the thought that this mysterious priest was placed there by God in a form that they had their interpretation of,” he said.

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.

The Christian teaching that God works through means is poorly explained, if ever even acknowledged, in mainstream journalism. What a tremendously pleasant surprise to see a follow-up story that looks at so many interesting theological concepts and handles them deftly.

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4 responses to “God works through means: a story”

  1. About clergy as first respondents like Mollie’s pastor dad and Father Dowling. With the rise of secularism the value of spiritual power is being pushed aside in some places. There were some media reports after the Boston bombing that priests and other clergy were hindered or barred from reaching the victims to provide solace or spiritual comfort.

  2. Shock, caused by trauma, kills faster than the actual injury. Father Dowling’s presence turned out to as important as the rescuers, although the story clearly shows that he’ll never take such credit. Kudos to the Dispatch for an extremely well-written story.

  3. A side note in case any reporters want to do a further story. While in Florence, Italy, I saw an ambulance on its way to get a sick or injured person with a man sitting in the front passenger seat in a funny-looking outfit and head gear. An Italian explained that it was a member of a religious group – didn’t catch if it was an ordained person or a member of something like our Knights of Columbus. Anyhow, before Italy became a secular country this religious group did the rescuing and/or medical treatment of people [ like the monks that rescued mountain climbers with their dogs bearing small kegs of spirits]. Now that’s a government responsibility, but the state allows one member of the religious community to ride along; at least Florence permits it. The members still wear their distinctive garb just like the Swiss Guards at the Vatican continue to wear their ancient outfits. I don’t speak Italian but I think I got this right.