Our disapproval of prisoners runs deep and across the globe there is precious little empathy, let alone sympathy, for those who for whatever reason have been incarcerated. Most of us have never visited prison and have no desire to do so, in point of fact we rarely give thought to prisoners, and if we do there is every likelihood our thoughts are unlikely to be of a charitable kind. Granted there are those who have committed heinous crimes, yet there are very many more whose crimes are far less grave, with some individuals serving sentences of a matter of weeks in prisoners with less draconian regimes, some even in what are known as Open Prisons in certain parts of the world. Penal Reform is not a vote winner and has few champions, that said, there are those who see it as their duty to do what they can to improve rehabilitation opportunities. A range of splendid organisations and charities exist that are working tirelessly to help create a more purposeful time for prisoners, as well as endeavouring to reduce rates of recidivism.
Internationally it is interesting to discover how often the Penitent Thief, Dismas or Saint Dismas is associated with efforts to engage in prison ministry, and also organisation whose purpose is to help ex-offenders adjust to and find a place back in society. The Penitent Thief stands as a symbol of hope and redemption, and thus his example resonation both with those with a religious person, and thus who have no desire to proselytise those that they work with. At the heart of such work is the believe that people can change for the better. A classic case of where there is life there is hope.
To those observers who were present at Jesus Crucifixion they witnessed two criminal executed alongside him, yet even then the miraculous was to happen, one criminal turned away from his former life and both acknowledged Jesus’ kingly power over death and asked to be remembered. On 7th June 1991 Pope John Paul II (Kaol Jozef Wojtyla) visited Plock Penitentiary in Poland, when he spoke to the prisoners it was event that he had the figure he would have known as Saint Dismas in mind when he address the following words to the inmates: “You are convicted, that’s a truth, but you are not yet condemned. All of you can, with a help of God’s grace, become a saint.”. We know that in the Catholic church had the aforementioned Pope is now regarded as a saint, and one who was nailed next to Jesus on a cross is now reflected upon and revered across the world. In Barczewo, Poland there is a Prison Church of Saint Dismas whilst in San Quentin Prison, California, USA the chapel contains a huge painting of St. Dismas, the person variously described as the Good Thief or the Penitent Thief. The belief that change is possible right until the very end of our earthy existence is extraordinarily powerful. We should be grateful that there are those who rather than castigating and shunning those who have been detained or have a criminal past, see instead potential and endeavour to provide practical and emotional support. The fact that the name Dismas is at the forefront of such activity is no accident and serves as a reminder that he remains relevant and will continue to do so.
The Prison Church of St. Dismas, Barczewo, Poland