"Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43)
How great a promise is this, coming from the mouth of Jesus Himself! Would any sacrifice be too great if we knew that we would get this promise, the promise of eternal life in paradise with Jesus, as our reward? How much more should we work for it since it is so easy to obtain it! St. Luke gave us the story of the repentant thief to serve as an example for us, to show us that if we do what he did, we will be given the reward he received. So let us examine what he did to receive this reward:
"Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, 'Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.' The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, '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 he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.'" (Luke 23:39-42)
1. He was crucified with Christ. St. Paul, in two of his letters, explains what this means for us: "We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin. For a dead person has been absolved from sin. If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him" (Romans 6:6-8); "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). For us to be crucified with Christ simply means that we have chosen to give up our sins to follow Christ and to let Him live in us instead of continuing to live for ourselves.
2. He confessed to Jesus, in person, that he had sinned and deserved to die. He didn't just pray for forgiveness, but he spoke to Jesus in person. We are given the opportunity to do this in the sacrament of Confession, when we speak to the priest who has been given the power to act in the person of Christ. Since the priest, unlike Christ Himself, does not know what our sins are, we also must name each mortal sin we are aware of having committed, so that the priest knows what we are asking absolution for.
3. He humbly begged Jesus to show him a little mercy ("remember me when you come into your kingdom"), knowing that he did not deserve even that much. Again, we have the opportunity to do this in the sacrament of Confession, when we ask God to forgive our sins, knowing that we do not deserve forgiveness.
This is all the good thief did to obtain the promise, and thus it is all we have to do. We must choose to die to our sins and let Christ live in us, confess our sins to Him in person through a priest, and ask God for forgiveness. We do this every time we make a good Confession. And remember that compared to eternity in heaven, our entire life is not even a day, so every time we make a good Confession, we receive the good thief's promise: "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Many saints went to Confession every week. A few went every day. But they all agree that every Catholic should go once a month, minimum, and why wouldn't you, when you can receive this great promise?
There is one condition on this promise: like the good thief, we must remain with Jesus until our death. Clearly, this is harder for us than it was for him, and we can never be certain during our life that we will persevere until death, but when eternity is at stake, it is worth doing whatever we can to remain with Him. The best advice I can give is one of the favorite sayings of St. Padre Pio: pray, hope, and don't worry.
Pray: We know that we cannot make it to heaven by our own strength, so we must ask God to help us get there. We should pray every day that we will persevere until death, knowing that "everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7:8).
Hope: We must desire to persevere, and trust that Jesus will keep his promise that "If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it" (John 14:14). But this doesn't mean that we do nothing and trust that God will take care of everything-that would be like praying for God to help you run a marathon and then standing on the starting line hoping He'll send an angel to fly you to the finish. While it's not impossible, it's not likely that it will happen. If we want to persevere, we must try our best and trust in God to make up for what we lack. Even if we know that we can't even take the first step of the marathon on our own, we must try our hardest and trust that God will give us the strength to finish. So what steps can we take on this race? Frequent Confession and Communion are the most important step-these two sacraments give us the grace to conquer sin and remain in a relationship with God. We should also place ourselves under the protection of our heavenly mother, and consecrate ourselves to Jesus through Mary (I'll talk about this more later), so that she may help us to persevere. Devotion to the other saints and to the angels is also important-I especially recommend entrusting yourself to your guardian angel, whose duty in life is to keep you on the right path, and to St. Michael the Archangel, who leads God's army in the fight against Satan. Finally, we should frequently meditate on the Passion of Jesus (I'll talk a lot more about this later), and consider how much He has suffered for love of us, how much we should love Him in return, and how much He is hurt by our sins, which are even worse since we have committed ourselves to following Him.
Don't Worry: There is no reason to waste time worrying about whether you will persevere for the rest of your life: "Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil" (Matthew 6:34). Remember what Thomas à Kempis said in the Imitation of Christ: "One day when a certain man who wavered often and anxiously between hope and fear was struck with sadness, he knelt in humble prayer before the altar of a church. While meditating on these things, he said: 'Oh if I but knew whether I should persevere to the end!' Instantly he heard within the divine answer: 'If you knew this, what would you do? Do now what you would do then and you will be quite secure.' Immediately consoled and comforted, he resigned himself to the divine will and the anxious uncertainty ceased. His curiosity no longer sought to know what the future held for him, and he tried instead to find the perfect, the acceptable will of God in the beginning and end of every good work."