St. Dismas: A penitent thief and the paradise of belief

Aaron Lambert

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

There is power in words, and especially so in the words of Christ. While hanging on the cross, Jesus speaks these words to the penitent thief, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. The Church’s tradition holds the “good” thief to be St. Dismas. This is one of the most powerful moments in all of the Gospels, and is, at its core, a shocking and even scandalous display of Christ’s love; shocking because it is not something you’d expect to be told to a criminal who has been condemned to death, and scandalous because in a way, it appears to contradict Jesus’ own teachings.

You see, St. Dismas, by all assumptions, was not always a man of faith, and he was certainly not someone who had been striving to live a sinless life. The situation he finds himself in on the day of Christ’s death proves this: he was a criminal, and for his crimes, he had been sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate alongside Jesus and another thief. As the Gospels say, “One of the criminals who was hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ (Lk 32:39). However, Dismas rebuked the other thief, 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” (Lk 23:40-41).

Then, in perhaps the most vulnerable moment of his life, Dismas utters words that not only reveal his heart, but transform it entirely: “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power” (Lk 23:43). Jesus responds, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). It’s interesting that Dismas, having come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, expressed this through his words and not just in his heart. Would Jesus have saved him had he not said anything? We can’t know for sure, but it can be assumed that Jesus knew Dismas would be on the cross next to him at the time of his death.

Of course, Dismas also wasn’t baptized, so how could be be saved without undergoing this most fundamental tenet of the Christian faith? In this way, Jesus breaks his own rule, so to speak, but he is Jesus. How often have Christians throughout the ages argued about the means by which a person can be saved? Jesus is very clear about salvation, and of course, he gave authority to the Church to be the keeper of the means to achieve it, but perhaps that’s why Dismas is so important, and why God deemed it necessary for him to be mentioned in the Gospels. With a truly penitent heart and a sincere belief in Jesus Christ as the savior of the world, paradise can be anybody’s; heaven itself is a paradise of belief, as it were.

In a very tangible way, St. Dismas illustrates the perfect power of faith. What Jesus asks of humanity is both extremely simple and profoundly difficult: to love him and to take up our crosses and follow him. Dismas, in his dying gasps, did just this, and the Lord granted him access to paradise. Yes, faith without works is dead, but in the case of St. Dismas, his faith was a work in and of itself. Following his example, then, may the faith of each of us be the work that gets us to heaven, and may our faith be spoken in a way that transforms our very hearts, just as it did St. Dismas.

COMING UP: From rare books to online resources, archdiocesan library has long history of service to students

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

National Library Week, observed this year from April 4 to April 10, is the perfect occasion to highlight the essential role of libraries and library staff in strengthening our communities – and our very own Cardinal Stafford Library at the Archdiocese of Denver is no exception.  

Since 1932, the library has served as a religious, intellectual, and cultural resource for seminarians and students at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.

As the library of the seminary, we are always responsible for the four dimensions of the priestly formation of our seminarians. The library is charged with being responsible to all the divisions of the Seminary: the Lay Division (Catholic Biblical School and Catholic Catechetical School), the Permanent Deacon Formation Division, and the Priestly Formation Division, said Stephen Sweeney, Library Director. 

In addition to being one of the main resources to the seminary, the Cardinal Stafford Library serves the needs of other educational programs in the Archdiocese of Denver, including the St. Francis School for Deacons, the Biblical School, the Catechetical School and the Augustine Institute. While the library is currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was previously open to anyone, giving people access to more than 150,000 books, audios, and videos. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library was named after Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican and former Archbishop of Denver from 1986 to 1996. He was a dedicated advocate of the library and of Catholic education.

In 1932, the library was established by two seminarians, Maurice Helmann and Barry Wogan. While they were not the first seminarians to conceive the idea of establishing a library, they are considered the founders for undertaking its organization.  

Since its founding, the library has grown and compiled a fine collection of resources on Catholic theology, Church history, biblical studies, liturgy, canon law, religious art, philosophy, and literature. Special collections include over 500 rare books dating back to the early 16th century and many periodicals dating back to the 1800s. The oldest publication in the library is a book on excommunication published in 1510. The Cardinal Stafford Library is also home to various relics and holds bills personally written by some of those saints.  

Over the past few years, the library has undergone a process of beautification through various renovations that include improvements in lighting, flooring, and even furniture restoration. During these difficult times, libraries are doing their best to adapt to our changing world by expanding their digital resources to reach those who don’t have access to them from home. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library provides a community space; we subscribe to about 200 print journals and have access to literally thousands more through online resources available on campus computers, Sweeney added. “I have been the Library Director for almost 11 years. I absolutely love my work, especially participating in the intellectual formation of the faithful from all of the dioceses we serve”.  

For more information on the Cardinal Stafford Library, visit: 

Featured photo by Andrew Wright