Many Catholics wear a scapular. In fact, those who wear it are rarely without it except perhaps when bathing.

It is as much a part of us as a wedding band, a symbol that signifies our love or commitment to another; in this case to the Blessed Mother and through her to our Lord Jesus Christ. There is a story that when Pope St. John Paul II was shot during the 1981 attempt on his life, he asked the attending doctors not to remove his scapular. Anyone who wears it can relate. But why are we so devoted to this small cloth necklace?

The word scapular is from the Latin scapula, meaning shoulder blade. It is a garment first designed by monks during the Middle Ages as protective covering to be worn over their clothing when they did manual labor, such as in the fields or outside. It is similar to a poncho, placed over the head, sleeveless, and covers the wearer’s front and back down to below the knees.

As scapular popularity grew among religious communities, laypeople also wanted to wear such garments as they sought to imitate the pious, holy ways of the monks. They were allowed to form groups in association with the religious order, follow certain rules of the order and identify their alliance by wearing that order’s scapular. Among the laity, the overall, lengthy scapular later gave way to a much smaller version such as we wear today. Made up of narrow (necklace-shaped) cloth, about 24 inches in length, it normally has small blocks of engraved wool material just larger than a postage stamp at each end and is meant to slip over the head and hang equally down your back and front. While the Church has approved 18 different scapulars for wear, the most popular is the brown scapular of the Carmelite Order, more formally known as the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The brown scapular signals the Carmelites spiritual devotion to the Virgin Mother.

The history of the brown scapular dates back to the 13th century, but Carmelite history goes back to the Old Testament, some nine centuries before Christ. Near the city of Haifa in Palestine is the mountain range known as Carmel, and part of that range is Mount Carmel, where the prophets Elijah and Elisha were known to visit. A place of pilgrimage, contemplation and prayer, Mount Carmel has long been regarded as holy ground. Once Emperor Constantine ended religious persecutions in the fourth century, Christians began to increasingly populate various areas of the Middle East. Monks found their way to Mount Carmel where they grouped together, pledging themselves to the Virgin Mother and her Son. Eventually, they built an oratory dedicated to Mary and, in about 1206, were given permission to establish the Order of Mount Carmel. Later in the 13th century a number of these monks migrated to England where a local pious man was attracted to and eventually joined the group. That man was St. Simon Stock (1165-1265) who would later become the sixth general of the Carmelite Order and from whom the brown scapular developed.

St. Simon Stock and His Vision

Legend holds that on July 16, 1251, the Blessed Mother appeared in a vision to Simon, gave him the brown scapular and said: “Receive most beloved son, the scapular of thy Order, a sign of my confraternity, a privilege both to thee and to all Carmelites, in which he that dieth shall not suffer eternal fire; behold the sign of salvation, a safeguard in danger, the covenant of peace and everlasting alliance.” (For information on this event read “A Short Treatise of the Antiquity, Institution, Excellency, Indulgences, Privileges, etc., of the Ancient Confraternity of Our Blessed Lady of Mount Carmel, Called the Scapular,” by R.J. Colgan, published in 1847.)

There are different versions of this legend, and some Church scholars have cast doubt on its authenticity. There is little doubt, however, as to the sincerity of Catholics who devotedly wear the brown scapular, which on one end has these words stitched on it: “Whosoever dies wearing this scapular will not suffer eternal fire.” On the other end: “Behold the Sign of Salvation.” The Church, for 800 years, has continued to appreciate and encourage the Carmelite’s efforts to bring believers closer to Jesus through the Mother of God. In the early 18th century, a feast day known as Our Lady of Mount Carmel was added to the Church’s universal liturgical calendar and is celebrated every July 16.

Wearing the Brown Scapular

The conditions under which a layperson may wear the brown scapular vary: an individual may join a formal association of the Carmelite order, such as a secular third order, or they may be ceremoniously enrolled in the order of the brown scapular without joining a formal group. Also, anyone may wear the brown scapular if it is blessed by a priest or deacon. Whether or not formally committed to the order, those who wear the scapular are considered part of the Carmelite order.

It is unthinkable that any member of the people of God would wear the scapular in a mindless or careless manner. Simply, the indiscriminate donning of the scapular without authentic devotion is like a soldier putting on a uniform but ignoring the code of conduct the uniform requires. There are purposeful, sincere commitments associated with the scapular, whether it is the brown scapular or any other.

When wearing the brown scapular we are expected to follow certain norms identified by the Carmelite order (using its Catechesis and Ritual manual) and as published by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which, among other commitments, obliges the brown scapular wearer to imitate the praying Virgin who kept the word of God in her heart (see Lk 2:19,51), setting aside some time to meet God in prayer, meditating on the mysteries of salvation, taking part in faith in the liturgy of the Church (attending Mass), especially the Eucharist, reciting every day some liturgical hour or some psalms or the Rosary. (See the doctrinal statement on the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Nov. 29, 1996.) Thus, by dedication to these guiding principles, the scapular becomes the expression of our devotion to Mary, as we, along with millions of other faithful souls, seek her favor with full knowledge and belief that she is the Gate of Heaven. Mary, who knew both great joy and excruciating sorrow in life, will pray and intercede on our behalf before our Lord Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who cures us; it is Jesus who saves us.

Not a Magic Charm

The scapular is not a lucky charm; it is not a rabbit’s foot, horseshoe or magic lamp. Rather it becomes a sign of our salvation if we draw close to the Mother of God, open our hearts to the special heavenly graces that she offers and give ourselves to her protection from earthly sin and temptation. “From the moment we receive it, Mary has never ceased to follow us with her maternal gaze, to safeguard within us the life of grace. Each time we are converted and return to God or rise again after falling into sin — be it great or small — each time we increase in grace, all, everything, is effected through Mary’s mediation. The scapular, the little habit, that Our Lady of Mount Carmel offers us, is only the external symbol of her unceasing, maternal care: the symbol but also the sign, the pledge of salvation.… The Blessed Virgin gives the assurance of the supreme grace of final perseverance to all who wear worthily her little habit.” (See “Divine Intimacy,” by Father P. Gabriele of St Mary Magdalene, O.C.D., English translation from seventh Italian edition, 1996, Tan Books.)

Devoutly wearing the brown scapular, wearing it next to our heart, prompts us to follow the commandments of God, to live a life of heroic virtue in the manner of the saints, and it is a constant reminder of our commitment to the virtues of the Blessed Mother.