A scapular was a form of working clothing worn by monks. It draped over both shoulders and hung down the front and back of the wearer. The name derives from the shoulder bone, or scapula. Over time the scapular took on symbolic meanings, such as the carrying of the cross of Christ. Among Carmelites the scapular grew to be seen as a symbol of their dedication to Mary, as an expression of trust in her motherly protection, and as a desire to be like her in her commitment to Christ and to others.
In the Middle Ages a part of the habit of some Religious Orders, a cord or scapular for example, was sometimes given to lay persons to express their association with that Order through membership in a lay group such as a confraternity or sodality. Among Carmelites a small version of the friars’ brown scapular was given as a sign of the lay person’s association with the Carmelites and their spirituality. Thus the Brown Scapular is essentially a “habit”, as John Paul II has said, of the Carmelite Order.
What about the appearances of Our Lady to St. Simon Stock and Pope John XXII? What about the “Sabbatine Privilege”?
Though contemporary historical documentation is now lacking, the Church has blessed the appearance of Mary to St. Simon Stock, an early Carmelite, in which she is said to have promised that anyone who remains faithful to the Carmelite vocation until death will be granted the grace of final perseverance. This grace, it must be reminded, does not come from the scapular or any other sacramental; all grace is obtained for us by the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord. The sacraments mediate this saving grace; sacramentals do not mediate grace but prepare us to receive grace and to cooperate with it. Favors associated with the wearing of the Brown Scapular would be meaningless without the wearer living and dying in a state of grace.
The “Sabbatine Privilege” is an alleged promise made by Our Lady to Pope John XXII in the fourteenth century in which she said that she would assist those wearing the Brown Scapular on the Saturday following their death. The Vatican has not upheld this apparition and teaching. In fact, in 1613 the Holy See determined that the purported decree establishing the Privilege was unfounded and the Church admonished the Carmelites not to promote this doctrine. The Church also said, however, that the faithful may devoutly believe that the Blessed Virgin will assist souls, especially on Saturdays, the day which the Church dedicates to the Blessed Virgin.
What is the meaning of the Brown Scapular today?
The Brown Scapular is a sign which has been approved by the Church for over seven centuries. The Church today approves the Carmelites’ understanding of the meaning of the Brown Scapular as a commitment to follow Jesus as did Mary, the perfect model of all disciples of Christ. Mary shows us: how to be open to God and his will; how to be guided by faith, hope, and love; how to be close to the needs of others; how to pray at all times; and how to discover God as present in all that happens around us. The scapular must not be seen as a charm to protect the wearer or as an automatic guarantee of salvation, and thus an excuse for not living the demands of the Christian life.
By wearing the Brown Scapular am I thereby associated with the Carmelite Order?
A person who wears the Brown Scapular and practices the spirituality of the Carmelite Order shares a greater or lesser degree of affiliation to the family of Carmel. As Pope John Paul II has said, “Those who receive [the scapular] are associated more or less closely with the Order of Carmel and dedicate themselves to the service of Our Lady for the good of the whole Church.” This association to the Order can be found in the following expressions:
-the religious men and women of the Order and their aggregated institutes;
-members of one of the Carmelite Secular (or “Third”) Orders;
-members of public associations and confraternities of Our Lady of Mount Carmel;
-those who have been invested in the scapular, practice the Order’s spirituality, and have been granted some association with the Order;
-those who wear the scapular out of devotion, practice the Order’s spirituality, but have no formal association to the Order.
Persons in any of these categories of affiliation to one of the Carmelite Orders share to some degree in the favors traditionally associated with the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
How do I practice the spirituality of the Carmelite Order?
It is difficult to reduce the Orders’ spirituality to a few sentences. One would be advised to look at the witness of the Carmelite saints, especially Our Lady of Mont Carmel, St. Elijah, St. Teresa of Jesus, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux. A few introductory principles of Carmelite spirituality, however, would be:
-frequent participation in the Mass and reception of Holy Communion;
-frequent reading of and meditation on the Word of God in Sacred Scripture;
-the regular praying of at least a part of the Liturgy of the Hours;
-imitation of and devotion to Mary, the woman of faith who hears the Word of God and puts it into practice;
-the practice of the virtues, notably: charity, chastity (according to one’s state in life), and obedience to the will of God.
How can I be enrolled in the Brown Scapular?
An individual may be enrolled by a priest or deacon according to the Rite for the Blessing of and Enrollment in the Scapular of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, approved by the Holy See in 1996. One who is officially “enrolled” makes committments to certain spiritual practices associated with the Carmelite Order and their name is registered with the Order. A person given authority to act in the name of the Order may receive people into the confraternity of the scapular.
Following enrollment, the Scapular may be replaced by a scapular medal, showing the Sacred Heart on one side and an image of Mary on the other. Once enrolled in the Brown Scapular, a new scapular (or medal) obtained in the future does not require an additional blessing or enrollment. Old and worn scapulars should be disposed of in a respectful manner as with other blessed objects, normally buried or burned.
Is it necessary to be enrolled in the Scapular Confraternity in order to share in the spiritual benefits attached to the scapular?
No, those without formal affiliation with the Order, but who wear the scapular out of devotion and practice the Order’s spirituality, still share in a spiritual affiliation to the Carmelite Order. This gives them the assurances of the favors pertinent to this sacramental. Since the Brown Scapular is a habit of the Carmelite Order, the Order does encourage wearers to make some level of committment to the spirituality of the Order.
What form does the lay scapular take?
Scapulars are found in many colors and sizes related to various Orders and devotions within the Church. The Brown Scapular of the Carmelites has traditionally been two pieces of plain dark brown cloth (square or rectangular, traditionally wool), connected over the shoulders by strips of cloth or ribbon. Though the Order notes a preference for plain brown cloth, Brown Scapulars are most commonly found with some decorative elements.
After one has been invested in the Brown Scapular the scapular medal may be substituted for the cloth scapular. When Pope Pius X instituted the use of the scapular medal it was not intended to replace the cloth scapular but as an option in situations in which the use of the cloth scapular was problematic (tropical conditions, for example). Nevertheless, the scapular medal enjoys all the privileges granted to the wearing of the scapular.
This pamphlet is primarily based on: The Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel: Catechesis and Ritual, prepared under the direction of the North American Provincials of the Carmelite Orders, 2000.
The Doctrinal Statement on the Scapular may be viewed at: