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I Am Dismas and This Is My Story

By Deacon Frederick Bartels
4/16/2017 (1 year ago)
Catholic Online (

I never imagined things would turn out this way. This is the story of my life.

As a teenager I ran into someone who introduced me to the finer points of the occupation. We fell into the tried and proven method of hiding out on a deserted section of road, ambushing ill-prepared travelers and divesting them of their possessions. It was easier than slaving away for a drachma or two.


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Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? 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 have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Lk 23: 32-33, 39-43)

I never imagined things would turn out that way.

The pax Romana, the peace of Rome, brought about by Caesar Augustus was something I vaguely remember from my childhood. Maybe things would have been different if it had lasted.

My father was a simple merchant Jew who fell in with the Romans. I liked to tell myself he did it for us, for the family. At first things seemed to go well, we were better off and had more of the things we needed, although my mother was never pleased with the arrangement. But that would not last. Most of the trouble started when Tiberius began his reign in the year 14. He was unpopular, to say the least. I won't mention the words I used to describe the man.

My father gradually changed; the caustic Roman environment corrupted him. Perhaps he went along with the Romans, those brutes, because he feared what would happen to our family if he didn't. It drove him and my mother apart. I clearly remember her tears, and the look of uncertainty and hurt in my father's eyes. I think that's when my father's loyalty to Rome began to wane.

Soon after Tiberius appointed Pontius Pilate as prefect of Judaea, my father disappeared. Pilate was unbending, severe, stubborn, and prone to barbaric cruelty. Anyone who he deemed bothersome, he had murdered. Before my father disappeared, he'd had some runnings with Pilate. I know what happened to him. Nobody needs to explain it.

I grew to hate Rome. It ran so deep, that hate, like the torrent of an unstoppable river. It became a painful and unquenchable fire inside of me, one which nothing nor no one could snuff out.

The gap between the rich and poor in Rome grew greater day by day. It was not uncommon to see the emaciated, too weak to move out of people's way, lying in the street. Once a man's eyes are exposed to atrocities like that, he's never the same. The poverty struck my family, too. And no one helped us. No one. Not even our own people.

I had no choice but to choose a life of crime.

As a teenager I ran into someone who introduced me to the finer points of the occupation. We fell into the tried and proven method of hiding out on a deserted section of road, ambushing ill-prepared travelers and divesting them of their possessions. It was easier than slaving away for a drachma or two.

One night we caught a man and woman hurriedly leaving the village of Bethlehem, on the road to Egypt. They had a small child with them. They claimed they had nothing but food. My partner became infuriated. He started shouting obscenities and threatened to kill them. I wanted to have nothing to do with murder. I promised to give him 40 drachmas I'd saved, if he'd let them go on their way. But he refused.

Suddenly the man, much older than the woman, raised his staff as if to strike, and things took an unexpected turn. The mother of the child looked at me and said, "The Lord God shall sustain you with His right hand and give you remission of sins." The words seemed foreign to me, as if impossible. God would remit my sin? I don't think so. But I could see she believed her words to be true.

My partner merely laughed at her. And then I did the same. But I never forgot that night.

Our life of crime continued. Years passed. We began to view everyone as a target. And our hate for Rome grew. That's what motivated us to join forces with a group of rather violent zealots. We carried out secret, sudden raids against Roman citizens and unguarded officials.

I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say we were captured, tried--if you can call it that--and sentenced to crucifixion. When I heard that sentence pronounced, chills of terror shot painfully into the very marrow of my bones. I was no stranger to that most despicable, horrifying and heinous form of execution. No one was. It was Rome's own well-publicized means of inflicting terror. And it was very, very effective.

The day of my execution all too soon dawned. The sound of the jailer's keys, as they opened the bolt on the cell door, through me into such a panic that I could not find the power to move. They had to drag me out of the cell. It's impossible for me to describe the experience, the brutality, the indescribable agony that stops time itself. Once I was raised on the cross, it was actually a relief. I thought the worst was over. All I had to do was wait for the end to come. But what would that mean? What was my end to be?

I looked at the crucified man between us: Jesus of Nazareth. People were walking by taunting him. I'd not met him before, but I had heard about him, about some of the things he'd said and done.

Some people said he was the long awaited Messiah-King, the anointed one of God who would save people from their sins. They claimed he had come as a Savior, to defeat evil itself. Others said he couldn't be the Messiah because he had done nothing to put an end to the oppression we suffered at the hands of Rome. Rather than fight Rome, he had commanded people to "love and pray for their enemies."

But wasn't I an enemy? Hadn't I made everyone my enemy, including this man? I wondered if he would pray for me, a hardened criminal; a man who had caused people to suffer, perhaps to starve? I suddenly realized the irony of my crimes: I turned to crime in order to survive--so I thought. And, in doing so, I took from people their own means of survival.

Gestas kept shouting at him, mocking him. I mocked him too, but not with much conviction. Then I looked at Jesus and Gestas's voice strangely faded away. As I gazed on this man Jesus, I suddenly knew he did not deserve this terrible death. He'd done nothing wrong. Of course, I'd heard he had done great things--good things. Lot's of people liked him. But, also, lots of people feared him. The chief priests, scribes and elders hated him. Yet somehow, and again I can't explain it, I was certain of this man's goodness and innocence.

Yes, I'd heard about Jesus of Nazareth.

I'd heard how he changed water into wine. I'd heard how he fed thousands of hungry people by blessing a few loaves and fishes, then sharing them.

I'd  heard about how he healed the paralytic, how he restored sight to the blind man after he washed in the pool of Siloam, how he claimed to forgive people's sins, even people who had committed sins against others but not against him! How can that be?

I'd heard about how he invited everyone into the "kingdom" he talked about, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

And I'd heard crazy things about him. How he claimed that people who ate his flesh and drank his blood would have eternal life!

I'd also met some of his followers. They didn't think he was crazy. There was something special about him, they said. And there was something special about them: they had an inner peace and joy that, I had to admit, I wanted. But more than that, they claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was no mere man, but the Son of God!

It was then that I noticed a woman standing at the foot of Jesus' cross, looking up at him with tears streaming down her face. Suddenly, I was reminded of those words from long ago, spoken on the road to Egypt: "The Lord God shall sustain you with His right hand and give you remission of sins." And I knew who she was.

I looked back at Jesus. He was staring at me in a knowing way. I don't know for how long; I couldn't tell you. But what I can tell you, is EVERYTHING changed. His gaze was a gaze of divine penetration and power.

The hate that before burned in my like fire was transformed. In an instant, I saw myself, my life and my sins. I saw how alone I was, how wrong I had been. I saw my wretchedness. I saw how I had blamed others for my troubles, how I had used and abused people. How I had killed people. I saw how desperately I needed God's forgiveness.

And, in that same instant, I saw also that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, was the Son of God! A great peace came over me. There are no words to describe it.

I remembered what he had said to Lazarus's sister, Martha: "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" (Jn 11: 25-27).

Suddenly, I heard those same words, loudly, clearly: "Do you believe this?"

Jesus was still looking into my eyes. Had he ever looked away? I answered, "Yes, Lord," though no sound passed my lips.

Then I remembered something from the Scriptures my mother used to read to me as a young boy:

See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted. Even as many were amazed at him--so marred was his look beyond that of man, and his appearance beyond that of mortals--So shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless; For those who have not been told shall see, those who have not heard shall ponder it. . . .

. . . he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. . . .

The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, . . . (Isaiah 52, 53).

I rebuked Gestas. He should not be mocking this man. And then those well-known words spilled from my lips: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

And I began to cry.

My name is Dismas. You've now heard my story.

People often wonder if I was a true disciple of Christ. No. I received an 11th hour pardon.

Sometimes they ask if my pardon was deserved. What do you think? The answer to that question should be obvious.

I was a sinner of the worst kind. Yet if there is one thing I know, it is that Jesus came to save sinners such as I.

Sometimes people call me the "good thief." Believe me, there's no such thing as a "good thief." I am the repentant thief. Today I'm called St. Dismas, but that title means nothing to me. What matters above all, what makes all the difference, is that Jesus of Nazareth, the innocent Son of God, died on the cross for me, in sacrifice for my sins. He asked nothing from me in repayment of his love, other than my repentance and my love of him from that day forward.

He asks the same of you.


Deacon Frederick Bartels serves the Diocese of Pueblo, Colorado, as a member of the Catholic Clergy. He is a Catholic writer and speaker who knows his Catholic Faith is one of the greatest gifts a man could ever receive. He is a contributing writer for Catholic Online. Visit him also at, Facebook. Watch for his videos on Youtube and his podcasts available on Itunes and Google Play.


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