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Good thieves part of what keeps me Catholic

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Pope Francis…a thief? When I first heard it mentioned, I smiled faintly in disbelief. If anyone knows not to break the seventh commandment — You Shall Not Steal — it’s this guy. Yet, come to find out, it is true. The pope’s a thief.

At a recent Lenten gathering in Rome, Pope Francis, as he is want to do, departed from his prepared text and shared the story of his blessed burglary. From his days in Buenos Aires, Francis came to know a beloved priest and famous confessor, Father Aristi. (Pope John Paul II even went to see him when he visited Argentina.)

On Easter morning some years ago, Pope Francis received a fax stating that Father Aristi had died the previous day. After lunch with a group of retired priests, Francis decided that he was going to pay his respects at the church. Upon arriving he proceeded to go down to the crypt. There he saw two elderly women praying beside Father Aristi’s coffin. Francis found it all too spartan, empty, though. At which point, Pope Francis said to himself: “But this man, who has forgiven the sins of the entire clergy of Buenos Aires, also mine, does not have even one flower.”

From there Francis went to a local florist shop. Returning to the coffin, he began to arrange the flowers. That’s when he saw it — Father Aristi’s Rosary —and “that robber that is in each of us came out.” At which point, the future pope took hold of the cross of Father Aristi’s rosary and pulled it from his dead hands saying, “Give me half of your mercy.”

Pope Francis carries it to this day in a cloth pouch underneath his white cassock. Whenever he has an evil thought against someone, Pope Francis says that’s where his hand goes and he feels the grace.

Thank goodness for good thieves.

For most Christians, however, there’s an even better thief than the pope — tradition knows him as St. Dismas. Rather than just steal a rosary, St. Dismas stole heaven. Matthew’s Gospel refers to him as a revolutionary, while Luke’s Gospel describes him as a thief. Either way I’m sure nailed to a crucifix near Jesus was the last place he expected to be.

Next to both Jesus and Dismas was a third criminal Gestas. In anger, despair, and fear, this person reviles Jesus saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” Dismas, however, rebukes him and replies, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then Dismas says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Repenting of his sins before Jesus, Dismas makes a choice and an act of eternal significance and “theft” — union with God in heaven.

Don’t we do much the same at Baptism? There we “steal” the name Christian and take upon ourselves all the graces and gifts that this sacrament offers to us. Likewise, in a whole host of other ways, through the celebration of countless other sacraments, don’t we steal God’s mercy? The beauty of all this though is that God is in on the theft the whole time. God wants his grace and mercy, ultimately his love, to be stolen; taken from him and offered to others.

Trying to become a better thief, like Pope Francis and St. Dismas — it’s what keeps me Catholic.

Michael Daley is a freelance writer and teacher at St. Xavier High School. 

This What Keeps Me Catholic column originally appeared in the May 2014 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.

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