All that we know with any authority about this saint is what we have from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Tradition tells us that his name was Dismas and that he was the good thief who was crucified next to Jesus on Good Friday.
There is a story, which is not substantiated and considered myth, which comes from the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy. The story is that the two thieves who ended up on each side of Christ at His crucifixion actually had a run-in with the Holy Family when Jesus was just an infant. In this story, the thieves held up Mary and Joseph as they were fleeing to Egypt with the infant Jesus to escape Herod’s soldiers. Apparently Dismas bribed the other thief, named Gestas, with forty drachmas to not harm the Holy Family. At this point in the tale, the Infant Jesus predicted that the thieves would be crucified with Him in Jerusalem and that Dismas would accompany Him to Paradise. Again, this story is not substantiated and is considered myth.
The only valid information we have on Dismas is the account in the Gospels. This account is from Saint Luke’s Gospel:
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with Him. And when they came to the place, which is called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide His garments. And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself, if He is the Christ of God, His Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up and offering Him vinegar, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over Him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who was hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingly power.” And He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:32-43).
Questions frequently arise from this Scripture verse concerning Dismas. One usually posed from non-Catholics is that the good thief (Dismas) was taken to heaven and was apparently not baptized, surmising that this must mean baptism is not necessary for salvation. Another question concerns good works. If this man apparently lived a life of sin and was being crucified for his sins, thereby not able to do anything good before his death, how is it he could go straight to heaven?
In response to these questions, the Catholic Church teaches that in cases where there is no baptism of water, there may be a baptism of desire. This can occur in situations where there is no opportunity for baptism. Vatican II documents and the Catechism of the Catholic Church state: “Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation.”
Dismas certainly proved by his words to Jesus and to the other thief on the cross that he fit the criteria and received baptism of desire. Secondly, according to Scripture, (1 Peter 3:19-20 and Ephesians 4:8-10) and the Nicene Creed, Jesus descended into Hades, which is also known as Sheol (or the place of the dead, where both the righteous and unrighteous went) between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. So if He descended into the abode of the dead and preached to the prisoners (1 Peter 3:19) then He didn’t go straight to heaven. The Paradise he spoke of to Dismas was Hades or Sheol, which we might call Purgatory. It wasn’t heaven, but a place or state of being where the dead would be before they could go to heaven. Furthermore, Scripture states that Jesus didn’t actually ascend into heaven until forty days after His resurrection (Acts 1:3, 9-11; John 20:17).
Remember Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene when she saw Him outside the tomb on Easter Sunday: “Do not hold Me for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (Luke 20:17). So when Jesus said to Dismas, “This day you will be with Me in Paradise,” He must have meant that Dismas would first go with Him to Paradise (Sheol) to preach to those there, before taking the righteous to heaven.
Some feel that it is not “fair” that Dismas was a criminal who not only was apparently not baptized but also had lived a life of sin and then in his last minutes of life on earth was saved. They feel that it doesn’t seem right that someone could lead their whole life in sin and then be saved at the “last minute” whereby they have striven all their lives to be good and righteous. Recall the parable of our Lord in Matthew’s Gospel about the householder who went out to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. In this parable the master (who symbolizes God) hired some workers early in the morning to work in his vineyard. Around noon he hired more laborers and then at the last hour of daylight, he hired more laborers. At the end of the day, he called them all together to pay them their wages. When all received the same wage, those who had been hired in the morning and worked all day protested that they should be paid more than those who had been hired at the end of the day and only worked for an hour. The master replied, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last.”
Lord Jesus, help us to be merciful as You are merciful. Let us see that all are Your children and remember that we are not to judge. When we look on one such as Dismas, let us see an opportunity to offer hope and salvation. Let us witness the good news of salvation to the sinner and never judge anyone as unworthy or hopeless. Just as Dismas repented at the last moments of his life on earth, let us see that this is great hope for all and grant that we never grow weary in our efforts to bring the light of salvation to all. Amen.
Other Saints We Remember Today
Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Margaret Clitherow (1586), Wife, Mother, Martyr