By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY
The brown scapular originated in England, in the 13th century, during the time of the Crusades. St. Simon Stock went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where he met a group of hermits on Mount Carmel. These claimed to be the successors of Elijah and his followers, and Simon returned with them to England when the situation became too dangerous in Palestine because of the Saracens.
He was eventually elected superior general of the Carmelites, but he faced many problems and withdrew to his monastic room or “cell” — either at Cambridge or Aylesford by this time — in order to pray to Mary; it was then, on July 16, 1251, that he had his famous vision of her bringing the brown scapular to him with the following words, which are preserved in a 14th-century narrative: “This will be for you and for all Carmelites the privilege, that he who dies in this will not suffer eternal fire.”
The brown scapular usually worn today is a smaller version of the scapular worn by Carmelite friars and nuns. This is a garment worn over the shoulders (scapula) by members of religious communities, and which hangs down to the front and back. It began as a sort of apron to protect the habit from getting dirty during work, but gradually attained a spiritual significance, as a sign of dedication to God.
The scapular promise is based on the two elements of Mary’s spiritual maternity and her mediation of grace, that is, that she is the spiritual mother of all mankind, as well as the “channel” by which all grace comes to us from God. This promise implies that Mary will intercede to ensure that the wearer of the scapular obtains the grace of final perseverance, that is of dying in a state of grace, and this privilege has now been extended to all Catholics who are enrolled in the scapular.
To be enrolled in the scapular confraternity and wear the scapular entitles one to a special relationship with Carmelite saints such as Thérèse of Lisieux, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila, among others. It also entitles one to a share in the prayers and good works of all Carmelite nuns and friars alive today.
By the mid-14th century the wearing of the scapular had spread to the laity, and gradually over the centuries it has gained in popularity, particularly following the promotion of the “Sabbatine Privilege” by various Popes. This is an idea which grew out of a deepened understanding of the promise originally made to St. Simon, and involves the idea that Mary will intervene to help those who have worn the scapular before death and now find themselves in Purgatory, particularly on a Saturday, the day traditionally dedicated to her.
According to a papal bull of John XXII, our Lady appeared to him and said of those who wear the brown scapular, that: “I, the Mother of Grace, shall descend on the Saturday after their death and whomsoever I shall find in Purgatory I shall free so that I may lead them to the holy mountain of life everlasting.”
Certain conditions are attached to this promise: Firstly, that the individual should continuously wear the brown scapular, and that they should observe chastity according to their state in life, whether married or single. The other condition which most usually applies today is that they should, with the permission of a priest, say five decades of the rosary daily. (Previously it had been necessary to say the Little Office of Our Lady or abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays.)
In the main, it is probable that the Sabbatine Privilege arose as a consequence of a deeper understanding of the promise made by the Blessed Virgin to St. Simon Stock, and, according to a decree of Pope Paul V, issued in 1613, the spiritual authority of the Popes of the preceding century in promoting the Sabbatine Privilege, had effectively guaranteed its efficacy for the faithful.
So all that is needed to benefit from all these privileges is to obtain a scapular, have it blessed by any priest, and then be enrolled in the scapular confraternity. There are prayers for the blessing of the scapular, and for enrollment.
When the scapular breaks, is worn out, or is lost, you can simply get a new one. You don’t have to be enrolled again.
Over the centuries, the scapular has been enriched with many indulgences and privileges by numerous Popes, including Sixtus IV, Gregory X, Clement VII, Clement X, Leo XI, Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII. Popes Clement VII and Clement X decreed that all who wear the scapular participate in a special manner not only in the fruits of the spiritual works of the Carmelites, but also in all the good done throughout the entire Church.
By the 17th century the brown scapular was well known among Catholics, due in great part to the Popes of the 16th and 17th centuries, who had promulgated the Sabbatine Privilege and approved the confraternity of the scapular for all dioceses, thus allowing any Catholic to benefit from wearing the scapular as a way of honoring our Lady.
However, after Vatican II, the brown scapular came under attack at the hands of progressives, who claimed that St. Simon Stock had never existed, and thus that the scapular itself was an imaginary devotion. But more recent and very thorough research has shown that it is incontestable that St. Simon did actually exist, and that the traditions surrounding the scapular promise are historically reliable. His feast day, which had been removed from the Church calendar, was restored in 1979.
The brown scapular is one of the most highly indulgenced and privileged sacramentals of the Church, as well as one of the most ancient. But more than that, it is a sign of consecration to the Blessed Virgin and a powerful aid to salvation which she herself has recommended in a special way for our times.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a sacramental is “a sacred sign which bears resemblance to the sacraments, and by means of which spiritual effects are signified and obtained through the prayers of the Church” (CCC, n. 1667). In the case of the scapular, the sacred sign is the scapular itself and the spiritual effect is the protection of one’s soul through the prayers of Mary, as she promised in the vision to St. Simon Stock.
Sacramentals, such as holy pictures or icons, statues, medals, holy water, blessed palms, and indeed the scapular, are means which dispose us to receive the chief effect of the sacraments themselves, that is, a closer union with Jesus. The Miraculous Medal, which was given by our Lady to St. Catherine Labouré at the Rue due Bac convent in Paris, in 1830, is another important sacramental, a channel to the grace mediated by Mary.
The next article will look at some miraculous events associated with the brown scapular, what various Popes have said about it, and how it was promoted by Our Lady at Fatima.
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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian apparitions, and maintains a related web site at www.theotokos.org.uk.)