The Passion Narratives of the Gospels do not name the characters in question; rather, the names are part of the early tradition that developed within the Church. Nevertheless, considering both of these individuals whom the Church considers as saints is beneficial.
First, St. Dismas. The Gospel of St. Luke presents the following account: “One of the criminals hanging in crucifixion blasphemed Him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Then save yourself and us.’ But the other one rebuked him: ‘Have you no fear of God, seeing you are under the same sentence? We deserve it, after all. We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ He then said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your reign.’ And Jesus replied, ‘I assure you: this day you will be with me in paradise’” (23:39-43). The Gospel of St. Matthew only states, “The insurgents who had been crucified with Him kept taunting Him in the same way” (27:44).
From these few verses, we know the following: First, others were crucified with our Lord, which would fit the Roman methodology of execution. Second, the “thieves” were more than thieves; they were probably insurgents who were involved in some threat or action against Roman rule since only such a crime would result in crucifixion. Note that for this reason the Jewish leaders changed the charge against our Lord from blasphemy to claiming to be King of the Jews when He was brought to Pilate; only the latter charge would result in crucifixion. Third, one thief blasphemed our Lord, while the other one made a confession of faith and thereby was welcomed into Heaven
In tradition, the “good thief” has been named St. Dismas, and the “bad thief,” Gestas. (Note that Sr. Anne Catherine Emmerich in her visions of the passion recorded the name of the “bad thief” as “Gesmas,” which was also used in the movie The Passion.)
Another story that circulated in the early Church but has no substantiation relates how the Holy Family encountered these two thieves on their journey to Egypt when fleeing the wrath of King Herod. Moved with compassion, Dismas wanted to leave the Holy Family unharmed, but Gestas wanted to rob and hurt them. So, Dismas bribed Gestas with forty drachmas to leave them in peace. The Blessed Mother said to Dismas, “The Lord God shall sustain you with His right hand and give you remission of sins.” Thereupon, the Infant Jesus added, “After thirty years, mother, the Jews will crucify me in Jerusalem, and these two robbers will be lifted on the cross with me, Dismas on my right hand, Gestas on my left, and after that day, Dismas shall go before me into Paradise.” (This pious story is found in the apocryphal “Gospel of the Infancy,” which lacks apostolic foundation. Variations of the story also use different names for the thieves, but “Dismas” and “Gestas” were predominantly used in the West.)
Nevertheless, St. Dismas’ feast day is March 25, and the Roman Martyrology announces the feast day with this proclamation: “At Jerusalem the commemoration of the holy thief who confessed Christ upon the cross and deserved to hear from Him the words: ‘This day shalt thou be with me in paradise.’”
Second, St. Longinus (identified in the movie as Cassius). St. Longinus pierced the side of the Lord with his lance: “One of the soldiers thrust a lance into His side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (John 19:34).
Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich in her visions recorded this event, adding that when the soldier pierced the heart of our Lord, blood and water covered his face and body. She wrote, “Grace and salvation at once entered his soul. He leaped from his horse, threw himself upon his knees, struck his breast, and confessed loudly before all his firm belief in the divinity of Jesus.” Moreover, he was miraculously cured of failing eyesight. According to the visions, Mary, St. John, the holy women, and the soldier gathered up the blood and water in flasks, and soaked-up the remainder with linen cloths.
Sister Anne Catherine identified the Roman soldier as “Cassius.” She noted, “Cassius was baptized by the name Longinus; and was ordained deacon, and preached the faith. He always kept some of the blood of Christ– it dried up, but was found in his coffin in Italy. He was buried in a town at no great distance from the locality where St. Clare passed her life. There is a lake with an island upon it near this town, and the body of Longinus must have been taken there” (cf. Chapter 48, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.). The locality mentioned is Mantua, and tradition holds that St. Longinus suffered martyrdom here.
Blessed James of Voragine (d. 1298) in his Golden Legend which contains a collection of stories about the saints, although some more of popular piety than historical fact, tells another version of St. Longinus’ martyrdom. In Caesarea of Cappadocia (modern day Turkey), he was arrested for being a Christian. He was famous for his preaching and converting many to Christianity. When he refused to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, the Roman governor ordered Longinus’ teeth knocked-out and his tongue cut off, but miraculously he could still speak in defense of the faith. He even smashed the statues of the pagan idols. The governor then ordered the beheading of Longinus. Seeing his courage and goodness, the governor repented.
St. Longinus’ feast day is March 15. Interestingly, the relic of St. Longinus’ lance is preserved at St. Peter’s in Rome, having been presented to Pope Innocent VIII in 1492 by the Turkish Sultan Bajazet; some of the sacred relics had fallen into the hands of the Moslems when they conquered Jerusalem and Constantinople.
Although some mystery surrounds both St. Dismas and St. Longinus, the importance is the role they play in the gospel. Both saints attest to the love of our Lord and give us hope of salvation.