It was a mysterious — and some say miraculous — event: A priest suddenly appeared at a Missouri highway crash and prayed for a young woman’s life. She was freed from the wreckage and will survive, but the priest suddenly vanished before he could be thanked.

The story circulated widely, making some wonder if divine intervention was afoot. Local news station KHQA quoted New London, Mo., fire chief Raymond Reed: “It was nothing more than sheer faith and nothing short of a miracle.”

In a follow-up to the story, the priest was identified as Rev. Patrick Dowling of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City. Dowling explained that his “disappearance” was not particularly mysterious.

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When he was done, he walked to his car and drove away, leaving Lentz in the care of the paramedics. The fact that few people noticed him leave the scene is unremarkable given that the attention of the firefighters and rescue workers was understandably on the wounded victims.

The “Heavenly Hero of the Highway,” as Dowling was dubbed, was modest about his role in the incident, crediting God for helping save the woman’s life.

Was Rev. Dowling a guardian angel? Whether guardian angels exist is a social, theological and psychological question.

Polls suggest that nearly 70 percent of Americans think angels exist, and more than half believe that they have personally been saved from harm by a guardian angel — and Lentz is surely among them. Many people believe that guardian angels look out for them and perform miracles.

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Both secular and religious folklore are filled with legends and stories of mysterious strangers who appear in times of need, then vanish. Because these legends are well known, people often interpret their real-life experiences in light of their beliefs and expectations.

A History of Guardian Angels

As folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand notes in his “Encyclopedia of Urban Legends,” guardian angel stories are legion: “Biblical and medieval stories, including saint legends, were told of heavenly protectors coming to the aid of believers who found themselves under a threat of danger.

“These stories evolved into classic guardian angel legends recorded in various European sources of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, both (in Europe) and in England…. In the twentieth century, stories about guardian angels circulated widely both in print and as part of sermons or lectures, and a ‘Guardian Angel’ urban legend has developed in which a pious young woman or man is protected from the threat of violence by angelic companions.”

Similar stories have circulated in military folklore, according to researcher Carol Burke in “American Folklore: An Encyclopedia:”

“To explain the irrational or the uncanny, soldiers tell stories of miraculous occurrences, of bullets deflected by Bibles and dog tags, and every war produces its share of angel-helper stories. Typically an older soldier helps a younger struggling soldier, one too tired or too wounded to keep up with his fellow retreating buddies. Upon waking the next morning, eager to thank his rescuer, the young soldier finds that the one who helped him back to friendly lines never existed or was someone who had himself died in combat months or years before. Phantom soldiers fight every war.”

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There are countless variations of this theme. One popular musical example of this legend appears in the song “Camouflage,” by singer/songwriter Stan Ridgway, and today’s “Dear Abby” column refers to guardian angels appearing as blinking streetlights.

Whether literal guardian angels exist may be subject to debate, but metaphorical guardian angels — whether secular or religious — are all around us and likely always will be.

Image: iStockphoto