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

“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: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.