Saint Dismas: the Good Thief

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The Church’s Latin liturgy remembers on March 25 Saint Dismas, the Good Thief, to whom Jesus said on Calvary, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The choice of March 25 is not accidental. This date is not only that of the Annunciation and Incarnation of the Word but according to an ancient tradition it is also the day on which the Savior of Humanity consummated his supreme sacrifice. The Gospel tells us that on Calvary they crucified Jesus with two Thieves, placing one on his right and one on his left (Lk. 23:39-42). We know their names from the apocryphal Gospels: Dismas, the good Thief,and Gismas, or Gesta, the bad Thief.

The word Thief should not mislead. The term Latrones denoted street robbers, not just thieves but murderers and robbers, punished by death among all peoples of antiquity. The most dastardly of the many who filled Pilate’s prisons were chosen to humiliate Jesus. Dismas was a brigand leader, probably Egyptian, who lived and grew old amid the gravest crimes, including that of fratricide. On his cross was written, Hic est Dismas latronum Dux.

Death on the cross was among the most painful, and the condemned man suffered terribly, suspended from four nails. The two evildoers cursed in spasms, while Jesus endured the torments with unalterable patience. His first words on the Cross were of mercy for his executioners, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:24).

Both Thieves heard these words, both received sufficient grace to recognize Christ’s innocence, but one converted, the other continued to blaspheme. St. Luke relates that of the two thieves, hanging on the Cross beside Christ, one mocked him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us too!” But the other rebuked him, “Have you no fear of God either, though condemned to the same penalty? We are justly condemned to the Cross, for we receive righteously for our deeds; he, on the other hand, did nothing wrong.” He added, “Lord, remember me when you enter your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 39-43).

Dismas therefore rises up at his fellow robber’s words of outrage against Jesus and openly, severely corrects him, accusing him of not understanding that Jesus is innocent, while they are guilty and justly condemned. His is an act of repentance, but he does not merely acknowledge his own guilt; he proclaims Christ’s innocence, saying, “He has done nothing wrong.” He proclaims this, when the whole world condemns Jesus and the Apostles are silent. Dismas breaks the silence, and publicly affirms the truth.

To affirm Jesus’ innocence the light of reason, illuminated by grace, was sufficient; to proclaim him God required the blazing grace of faith. After defending Jesus against the evil thief, Dismas received the grace of supernatural faith, which he expressed in the words, “Lord, remember me when you enter your kingdom”(Lk, 23:42). He was not among those who had followed Jesus in his preaching; no angel had suggested it to him. He did not see the Deity of Christ, but a humanity disfigured by suffering.

Yet, even seeing him crucified, he did not doubt that he was God. St. Robert Bellarmine says, “He calls Lord one who looks on naked, wounded, suffering, publicly mocked and scorned, hanging with him, and affirms that after death he will go to his kingdom. From this we understand that he did not dream of a temporal reign of Christ on earth, as the Jews expected, but an eternal kingdom after death in Heaven. Who had taught him such high mysteries? No one certainly but the spirit of truth” (The Seven Words of Christ, in Spiritual Writings, Morcelliana, Brescia 1997, pp. 556-557).

Jesus had said, “Whoever confesses Me before men I will confess and honor before My Father and His Angels” (Mt. 10:32). And he keeps his promise. Dismas will obtain the most precious of rewards.

Dismas’s words, “Domine, memento mei, cum veneris in Regnum tuum,” is a prayer to be repeated with a humble and trusting heart. To this prayer Jesus answers, “Amen dico tibi: hodie mecum eris in Paradiso”; “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” This is Jesus’ second word on the cross. The word Amen is almost the oath of Christ, who does not say to Dismas, you will be with me in Paradise on the Day of Judgment, nor even in a few years, months or days, but promises that on that very day the gates of Heaven would open for him.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise,” are the most angelic and harmonious words that can resound to a human ear, and that is why so many composers, from Franz Joseph Haydn to Charles Gounod to Théodor Dubois, have set them to music, with moving melodies singing the hope of eternal salvation (

The reason for Dismas’s conversion was the divine grace that flooded his soul. The Fathers attribute the instrumental cause of this conversion to the shadow Christ cast on the Thief as he spoke his first words on the Cross. Christ’s face, writes Msgr. Jean-Joseph Gaume (1802-1879), was turned to the West, the sun was at noon, and the Redeemer’s shadow stretched at his right hand over Dismas calling the Good Thief from the nothingness of sin to the life of grace (History of the Good Thief, Tip. Ranieri Guasti, Prato 1868, pp. 135-136). But if it is true that all grace comes from Mary, how can one doubt Our Lady’s primary role in Dismas’s conversion? She stood between the Cross of Christ and that of the Good Thief and certainly prayed for him. When she then heard Dismas’s words, she had immense consolation, for these words proclaimed before Heaven and earth the truths of her Son’s innocence and His divinity. On Good Friday, no one outside of Dismas had a faith similar to Mary’s unwavering faith.

Three crosses rise on the top of Calvary. On the right is penitent humanity about to ascend to Heaven. On the left is unrepentant humanity falling into hell. In the middle is the Man-God Supreme Judge of the living and the dead. On the Day of Judgment, the elect will be on the right of the divine Judge, and on the left the reprobate. Of the two who will stand in the field, the Gospel says, one will be taken and one will be left (Lk. 17:34). The good thief is the image of the elect, the bad thief of the reprobate.

Among the extraordinary miracles that followed Jesus’ death was an impressive one, which St. Matthew describes in these words, “the sepulchres were opened, and many bodies of dead saints were raised.  And coming out of the tombs, after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many” (Mt, 52-54). Prophets and Kings of Israel were among those who appeared in the streets of Jerusalem converting some, but failing to shake the unbelief of the many.

What an astonishment it was for the inhabitants of the Holy City to see among these resurrected people the old brigand Dismas proclaiming the truth of Christ, transfigured in soul and body. The resurrected remained in Jerusalem until the time of the Ascension when Jesus took them with him to Heaven. The ruling that the resurrected of Calvary are in Heaven body and soul is, according to theologians, the most certain, and among these resurrected, one must include Saint Dysma, the Good Thief (Gaume, op. cit. pp. 278-288).

Saint Dismas is the protector of sinners who are at the point of death. Today the world reviles Christ like the bad thief on Calvary. Let us ask the Good Thief to infuse his penitent and trusting spirit into the dying West. The promise of Fatima has the same sweetness as Jesus’ second words on the Cross. The triumph of Mary’s Immaculate Heart will be the historical paradise of nations, that is, the restoration of Christian civilization that will follow the historical hell of our time.