Author teaches children depth of God’s mercy through tale of the ‘Good Thief’

by Tony Gutierrez

North Texas Catholic


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“The Thief Who Stole Heaven” by Raymond Arroyo. Sophia Institute Press (Manchester, New Hampshire, March 9, 2021). 40 pp., $18.95.

There’s a scene in the 1961 biopic “The Hoodlum Priest” where a woman notices a “very unusual crucifix,” observing in the face “strength and hope,” yet also “a certain fear, pleading, and even anger.” The titular cleric, Jesuit Father Charles “Dismas” Clark, informs her that the man on the cross isn’t Jesus, but rather St. Dismas, the “Good Thief,” who was a “thief, a convict, probably even a murderer. And yet, he was promised heaven.”

EWTN news anchor Raymond Arroyo translates the story of the Good Thief for children in his second installment of his “Legend” series. Fresh off the heels of his first book, The Spider Who Saved Christmas, Arroyo picks up Thief where Spider left off. Although the stories in the series are meant to be stand-alone, and Thief works without Spider, they also flow together.

The Thief Who Stole Heaven begins with the story of Dismas being abandoned by his parents as a young boy and falling into a gang of thieves. Calling Dismas a “soft idiot,” the gang’s chief, Gestas, slowly beats what little compassion is left out of him until Dismas becomes a hardened criminal earning the nickname “the Prince of Death.”

When Spider ended, we find the Holy Family being saved from Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents thanks to the help of a spider who had an encounter with the Christ Child. It is after this episode that Dismas has his own encounter as St. Joseph leads his family to Egypt.

As Dismas rummages through their belongings, he catches a glance of the Child, whose eyes pierced the thief. After Joseph asks him for mercy, Dismas pleads to Mary, “Let me see your Child again, and I’ll do you no harm.”

The Christ Child grips Dismas’ finger, and the latter asks Him, “If ever a time should come when I need your mercy, remember me.” Arroyo isn’t simply imagining dialogue. “De Vita Eremitica” details the account with Dismas pleading “O most Blessed of children, if ever a time should come when I should crave Thy mercy, remember me and forget not what has passed this day.” This, among other traditions concerning Dismas, were collected in Life of the Good Thief  by French theologian Monsignor Jean-Joseph Gaume.

Over time, it seems that Dismas has forgotten this encounter, Arroyo says, until he finds himself condemned along with Jesus during His Passion. During the crucifixion, Christ’s shadow falls upon Dismas, a moment that leads to his conversion. While this particular aspect is not recorded in Scripture, it is not uncommon for shadows or clothing to have some kind of a healing effect — the bleeding woman was healed after touching Jesus’ cloak (Mt 9:20-22, Mk 5:25-34, Lk 8:43-48), and people brought the sick into the streets in the hopes that St. Peter’s shadow would pass over and heal them (Acts 5:15-16).

With the shadow allowing him to see in the sunlight, he notices the same woman from many years before. The Blessed Mother kisses her Son’s feet, and he sees Christ’s face and has that same encounter. Randy Gallegos returns from Spider to illustrate this moment. Despite the age difference between an infant and a full-grown man, Gallegos masterfully conveys that same look that shows they are one and the same. It is also this look He gave to the spider in the previous book. Through Gallegos’ artwork, the reader can recognize the same individual as if looking at a photograph of the same person as a child and adult.

At this moment, Dismas rebukes Gestas, his thiefly mentor, hanging on the other side of Christ. Arroyo pulls his dialogue directly from the Scriptures (Lk 23:39-43), with Gestas joining the crowds in jeering, yet with Dismas recognizing His innocence. Then, in the words heard during Holy Week, Dismas repeats the words from earlier in the book: “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus replies with one of His seven last words: “Truly I tell you, this day you will be with me in paradise.”

Arroyo doesn’t tone down or hide the evil that Dismas had done. He describes a murder right before Dismas’ encounter with the Holy Family and notes some of the horrible things that he went through as a boy and that he in turn committed against others. But this is not simply violence and brutality for the sake of it. Rather, through this, he shows the depths of God’s mercy.

The claim of Christianity is particularly unique. Most faith traditions rely on individual effort for eternal reward, whereas the Christian claim is one of humility and faith in the One who can save us. Msgr. Gaume writes that crucifixion was a punishment reserved for the absolutely most despicable of criminals, and that to deserve such a punishment Dismas most certainly had to be the worst of the worst. Furthermore, he notes that while the Apostles and other disciples witnessed Jesus at His highest point, performing miracles and healings, Dismas witnessed none of that. All he had were those two encounters.

In an afterward, Arroyo cites the Gospel of Luke and the traditional sources he pulled from in telling this story. Dismas is little-known among adult laity, so for Arroyo to offer this contribution for children is significant. Parents can use his book as a catechetical tool to teach their children about God’s infinite mercy in a practical way.

Not only will it allow children to be less afraid to acknowledge their own mistakes, but it provides a unique twist to the “hero” story. Rather than destroying the villain, the hero — in this case Christ — turns the villain around and saves him. My kindergartener told me her favorite part was when “the bad guy became good.” As Arroyo rightly notes at the end of his story, “before kings and prophets, apostles, and saints, Dismas was the first to break the gates of paradise. … He stole heaven from God Himself.”.

Tony Gutiérrez is a freelance journalist based out of Cave Creek, Arizona specializing in religion. He and his wife are alumni of the campus ministry at St. John Paul II University Parish in Denton, where all three of their children were baptized. Like most children, they do their best to drive him crazy. So far, they are succeeding.

There’s a scene in the 1961 biopic The Hoodlum Priest where a woman notices a “very unusual crucifix,” observing in the face “strength and hope,” yet also “a certain fear, pleading, and even anger.”