Today is the feast day of Saint Dismas. Ora pro nobis.
The Good Thief
The Christian tradition of Saint Dismas (or, more correctly, Dysmas) is based on the story of The Good Thief, as told in Luke 23:39-43. One of the criminals crucified with Jesus abused him saying: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself, and us as well”. But the other rebuked him, saying: “Have you no fear of god at all? You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it. but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Jesus replied, “Indeed, I promise you, today you will be with me in Paradise”. (4)
According to Fr. Emmanuel d’Alzon, founder of the Assumptionists, the most beautiful history of St. Dismas was written by St. Anselm in a letter to his sisters meditating on the childhood of the Savior. If this history is at times doubted by modern men, it was nevertheless unanimously accepted during the time of the great Bishop of Canterbury.
It was the time of the massacre of the Holy Innocents. St. Joseph, Our Lady, and the Divine Infant were fleeing from Herod. Leaving Bethlehem, the Holy Family entered the land of Egypt, which Sacred Scriptures calls the country of sin where God had withdrawn from His people, a country that only the sacrifice of Christ could redeem.
On this flight into the country of the Devil, Jesus, Mary and Joseph entered a forest inhabited by brigands. Among them was Dismas, a murderer and a thief. However, in the depths of his soul lay some secret graces he had not refused.
Hidden from sight, waiting for an unsuspecting victim, Dismas saw the approach of a man and a young woman carrying a Child. The three travelers had some baggage, perhaps some of the gifts of the Magi Kings reserved for this long trip. Dismas judged that this unprotected caravan would not offer resistance. The staff of St. Joseph caused him no fear, and he advanced to harm them.
However, his eyes fell on the Child Jesus and he stopped, marveling at the glorious beauty and majesty of His countenance. Deeply touched, he protected the travelers instead of harming them, and hosted them in his cave. This was the means Divine Providence used to help the Holy Family, in this instance not with an Angel, but by means of a thief who for a moment was transformed into a good Angel.
Dismas offered everything he had, and the Divine Infant allowed Himself to be caressed by that criminal. Upon seeing the respect of the thief for the Child, Mary Most Holy solemnly assured him that he would be rewarded for his action before his death. Dismas continued his life of crime, but he always conserved the memory of that promise, trusting that it would be fulfilled.
Nothing is known about the life of this thief during the 33 years of the life of Our Lord. Notwithstanding, he appears along with Gestas, another thief, carrying his cross to be crucified with Jesus Christ. His crimes, however, had so darkened his soul that he recognized neither Jesus nor Mary. (4)
In the Middle Ages Dismas came to be regarded as the patron saint of prisoners and thieves. His feast day is given in the Roman Martyrology as 25th March is the supposed date of the crucifixion. In 1959 in the USA Fr Charles Dismas Clark SJ and attorney Morris Shenker founded Dismas House, a half-way house which offers ex-convicts a temporary home, counselling and help to find a job. Fr Clark’s story was dramatised in the 1961 film The Hoodlum Priest. Today there are many Dismas Houses throughout the US.
Image: The good thief. Artist: Michelangelo Cerquozzi, circa 1620-1660
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff