Friday 22nd March 2019

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A Thief’s Redemption

March 11, 2019 Featured Today No Comments

By RAY CAVANAUGH

Crucified alongside Jesus, he is known as the Penitent Thief, who asked Jesus to remember him upon reaching Heaven. Jesus responded by telling him, “I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Later given the name “Dismas,” he is the patron saint of prisoners, particularly those condemned to death. He has also served as a subject for artists and has inspired organizations that seek to assist persons who live on the fringes of society — or have been removed from society altogether. March 25 is his feast day.
According to the Arabic Infancy Gospel, Dismas had robbed Jesus’ family when Jesus was a baby, only to be reunited with Him at the scene of their mutual crucifixions some 30-plus years later. This account, however, is considered doubtful at best.
Viewed as a more plausible account is the Gospel of Luke. This work relates that while Jesus and the two thieves were on their crosses at Golgotha, the other crucified criminal, who was less penitent than Dismas, was rather confrontational toward Jesus, saying that if He was indeed the Christ, it was high time for Him to generate some divine intervention so that they would not die on their crosses. Dismas objected to the other criminal’s attitude and pointed out that the two of them were receiving punishment for leading lives of crime, but that Jesus was being unjustly punished.
The scant bit of existing biography on Dismas has proven compelling enough to sustain a legacy for the last 2,000 years. Indeed, as far as surviving information is concerned, his life basically began at his execution. But this near-complete lack of detail has not prevented the example of the Penitent Thief from attaining a long-lived symbolic power: Wayward souls can be saved, and wayward lives can find meaning.
The medieval period saw Dismas appropriated as subject matter for visual artists, and he has reappeared in more recent epochs as well: The seventeenth-century Italian artist Michelangelo Cerquozzi depicts him as suffering alone on his cross; a sixteenth-century Russian icon depicts Dismas in Heaven; a separate Russian icon from the seventeenth-century shows Jesus leading Dismas through the Gates of Paradise; and the nineteenth-century Franco-Russian painter Nikolai Ge portrays Dismas looking pleadingly at Jesus while the two are suffering on their crosses.
Aside from such artistic depictions, there are several churches that bear Dismas’ name: Waukegan, Ill., has the St. Dismas Church; the Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, Canada, has the Church of the Good Thief; and the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., has the Church of St. Dismas, the Good Thief.
Recent decades have seen the appropriation of Dismas’ name and example by various organizations seeking to assist incarcerated persons. These groups — which are based in such places as California, Indiana, North Carolina, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Alberta, Canada — also frequently provide post-incarceration services aimed at reintegrating former inmates into society.
As a prison chaplain, Rev. Mr. Gary Haney noticed that in many cases the positive changes inmates made during incarceration often “disappeared upon release,” and “due to a lack of support and encouragement they ended up falling back, and returned [to prison] even more at a loss.”
So, after spending more than a year researching different post-incarceration programs worldwide, Haney, who serves as a deacon in the Diocese of Calgary, “adopted the common successful best practices” and formed the St. Dismas Prison Ministry Society (dismasprisonministry.org) in 2010.
With incarcerated prisoners, the society provides resources that include recovery from substance abuse and a service club program that enables inmates to work together for a shared productive goal that contributes to the larger community.
When prisoners are released, someone from the society meets them “at the gate” and thus begins a post-incarceration program of mentoring and support tailored to each prisoner’s unique needs.
Haney says that the society explains the reason for the Dismas name to the prisoners. He adds that, “St. Dismas was the repentant thief who was promised a place in God’s Kingdom through the love, forgiveness, and inspiration of Jesus Christ. We try to provide the same example to inmates.”
St. Dismas is a “man of humility and true contrition” in the view of Sharon [last name withheld], who serves as the director of the St. Dismas Guild in California (stdismasguild.org).
Established in 1989, this guild provides prisoners with spiritual mentors, along with Bibles, Bible study workbooks, Catechism literature, and a monthly newsletter.
Sharon adds that if inmates “let us know that they are being released, we send them a letter encouraging them to keep in contact with us.” The guild also continues to provide religious literature to ex-prisoners.
Some inmates, of course, will never leave their prisons. Among them are convicts on California’s Death Row. About these condemned prisoners, Sharon says, “We do receive requests from some, and we send the materials that they ask for, but we have no specific involvement other than that.”
Though Sharon has never heard the prisoners talk about what Dismas represents to them, she says “they do ask us about who he was.”

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