For many centuries, one of the sacramentals in the tradition of the Church has been the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The word “scapular” comes from a form of clothing traditionally worn over the shoulders as an apron. As such, it was part of the religious habit of monks, nuns and friars. The Scapular consists of two pieces of rectangular brown cloth with one segment hanging on the wearer’s chest, and the other hanging on his/her back. These pieces are joined by two straps or strings which overlap each shoulder – hence the word “scapular” (shoulder blade). The Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (simply called scapular) which many Catholics wear is the small size of the full-length scapular worn by Carmelite friars and nuns. It is made up of two rectangular pieces of brown cloth, which are linked together by two cords so that it can be worn around the neck and falling, one to the front and one to the back. According to a centuries-old Carmelite tradition (documented at least from the end of the 14th century), the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock, the Father General of the Carmelite Order at Cambridge, England on Sunday 16th July, 1251, holding in Her hand the Scapular of the Carmelite Order. She gave the Scapular to him and said: “Receive this habit of your Order; this shall be to you and to all Carmelites, a privilege that anyone who dies wearing this habit (scapular) shall not suffer eternal fire, and if wearing it they die, they shall be saved”. This pious tradition has been supported by Church authority and popes through the ages, says Monsignor Leonard D. Pivonka, JCD (SOUL Magazine, July – August 2001, p. 7).
The 750th Anniversary of the Scapular Vision was celebrated by Carmelites all over the world in 2001. Catholic theologians and authorities like St. Robert Bellarmine and Pope Benedict XIV explain the promise to mean that those who wear the Scapular devoutly in our Lady’s honour will through Her intercession receive the grace to die well: they will receive from Her, at the hour of death, either the grace of perseverance in the state of grace or the grace of final contrition, as no one who dies in the state of mortal sin can go to heaven. Blessed Claude de la Colombriere, the renowned Jesuit and spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary, said, “Because all the forms of our love for the Blessed Virgin and all its various modes of expression cannot be equally pleasing to her, and therefore do not assist us in the same degree to reach heaven, I say, without a moment’s hesitation, that this Scapular is the most favoured of all. He also adds: “No devotion has been confirmed by more numerous authentic miracles than this Scapular”, and “No other devotion renders our salvation so certain”. Let us not conclude, however, that the Scapular is endowed with some kind of supernatural power, which will save us no matter what we do or how much we sin. We might apply here what St. Alphonsus says about devotion to Mary in general: “When we declare that it is impossible for a servant of Mary to be lost, we do not mean those who by their own devotion to Mary think themselves warranted to sin freely. We state that these reckless people, because of their presumption, deserve to be treated with rigour and not with kindness. We speak here to the servants of Mary who, to the fidelity with which they honour and invoke Her join the desire to amend their lives. I hold it morally impossible that these be lost”. As stated in the official statement on the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel issued by the Carmelite Order, both of the Ancient Observance (O. Carm.) and the Discalced Carmelites (O.C.D.), “The Brown Scapular is not: (a) a magical charm to protect you; (b) an automatic guarantee of salvation; (c) an excuse for not living up to the demands of the Christian life”. Saints and Pontiffs warn us of the foolhardiness of deliberately living in sin because of Mary’s Scapular Promise. Pope Pius XI warned all the faithful that “Although it is very true that the Blessed Virgin loves all who love Her, nevertheless those who wish to have the Blessed Mother as a helper at the hour of death must in life merit such a signal favour by abstaining from sin and labouring in Her honour”.
To lead a sinful life while trusting in the Scapular Promise, says John Haffert, is to commit a sin, the horror of which borders on sacrilege; its punishment will not only be eternal but far worse than if one had led a sinful life without making the mother of God an excuse for crucifying Her son. It is clear from the words of St. Alphonsus and the Popes that a certain measure of fidelity is required on the part of those who wish to gain the special love and protection of Our Lady. What is the spiritual significance of the Brown Scapular? The Scapular is a sign of our consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. By wearing the Scapular we pledge our whole life to Mary – we totally surrender to Her all that we are and all that we have. The Scapular is a constant reminder that we belong to Her at all times and in all places. The Brown has a centuries – old spiritual meaning approved by the Church.
• It is a symbol of Mary’s motherly love for us. Mary always takes the initiative. The Scapular links us with the contemplative and prophetic spirituality of Carmel.
• It stands for a commitment to follow Jesus as Mary did. She is the perfect model of all the disciples of Christ. This commitment finds its origin in baptism by which we become children of God.
• It leads us into the family of Carmel, a community of religious men and women, which has existed in the Church for over eight centuries. It calls on us to live out the ideal of this religious family…an intimate friendship with God in prayer.
• It reminds us of the examples of the saints of Carmel, with whom we establish a close bond as brothers and sisters to one another and in Christ.
• It is an expression of our belief that we will meet God in eternal life, aided by the intercession and prayer of Mary.
Through the Scapular, the Blessed Virgin teaches us:
• To be open to God, and to His will, shown to us in the events of our lives.
• To listen to the Word of God in the Bible and in life, to believe in it and to put into practice its demands.
• To pray at all times, as a way of discovering the presence of God in all that is happening around us.
• To be involved with people and attentive to their needs.
When we are enrolled in the Scapular we become affiliated to the Order of Carmel. We participate in the spiritual treasure of Masses, prayers and good works of the Order. Enrolment in the Scapular makes us members of the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a big family of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the world. When we belong to the Confraternity, we have thousands and thousands of brothers and sisters in Carmel praying for us always; and when we are dead and forgotten by our nearest and dearest, they will continue to intercede for us until we reach the gate of heaven and the arms of our Blessed Mother. Like other sacramentals that Catholics use and wear, the Scapular is both an expression of faith in Jesus and love for His mother as well as a means of obtaining graces from the Lord.
Mary is always present in a special way to those who wear the Scapular, protecting, guiding and helping them as their mother. According to the Rite for the blessing of and enrolment in the Scapular of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, approved by the Holy See in 1996, any priest or deacon has the faculties for blessing the scapular. The Scapular must be worn constantly (day and night). It can be worn underneath one’s clothing. The blessing and conferral of the Scapular are attached to the wearer for life. After having received the initial blessed Scapular, subsequent Scapulars, which are used, do not need to be blessed nor conferred again. Pope St. Pius X allowed people in very warm countries to substitute a scapular medal (a medal which has on one side, the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and on the other side, the image of Mary) for the cloth Scapular.
He added, however, that it was his wish that whenever possible the cloth scapular be worn. Many saints, Popes and theologians have strongly declared their acceptance of the Scapular Devotion. Among them are St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Peter Claver, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. John Vianney, St. John Bosco, Popes Gregory X, Sixtus IV, Leo XI, Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Benedict XIV, Pius XI, Pius XII, Paul VI and John Paul II. Pope Sixtus IV granted to members of the Scapular Confraternity all the privileges, indulgences, graces and favours which are granted to the Cord of Saint Francis, to the Rosary of Our Blessed Lady, or to any confraternity whatsoever, “so that they do enjoy them as much as if they were really members of these sodalities, by reason of their communication in privileges with the Order of the Carmelites”. Practicing Catholics who are enrolled in the Brown Scapular may gain Plenary Indulgences on the usual conditions on the following feasts: St. Simon Stock (May 16th), Our Lady of Mount Carmel (July 16th), St. Elijah, Prophet (July 20th), St. Theresa of the Child Jesus (October 1st but October 3rd in Nigeria), St. Teresa of Avila (October 15th), all Carmelite Saints (November 14th) and St. John of the Cross (December 14th). Pope Paul VI, during Vatican Council II, sent a message to the International Marian Congress in explanation of paragraph 67 of Lumen Gentium: “You will make known our will and our exhortations which we base on the Dogmatic Constitution of the Ecumenical Council Vatican II, which is in complete conformity with our thought and indeed upon which our thought is based – “That one ever hold in great esteem the practices and exercises of the devotion to the Most Blessed Virgin which have been recommended for centuries by the Magisterium of the Church” (#67). And among them we judge well to recall the Marian Rosary and the religious use of the Scapular of Mount Carmel … a form of piety which is adapted by its simplicity to the spirit indeed of everyone, and is most largely widespread among the faithful for an increase of spiritual fruit”. Pope John Paul II in his letter to the Superiors General of the Carmelite Order during his pontificate (Fathers Joseph Chalmers and Camilo Maccise) on the occasion of the Carmelite Marian Year, dated 25th March 2001, says that “The Scapular represents a synthesis of Marian Spirituality. It nourishes the devotion of believers, making them sensitive to the loving presence of the Virgin Mother in their lives”.
One of the truths which the sign of the Scapular brings out, according to the Pope, is “the continuous protection of the Blessed Virgin, not only along the pathway of the life, but also at the moment of passing into the fullness of eternal glory. “For a very long time”, says the Pope, “I too have worn the Carmelite Scapular”. Our Lady has given us a powerful gift of Her Scapular. The Church has recommended its use and the Saints have worn and promulgated this sacramental. Let us gratefully receive Her gift and wear it as a constant reminder of our total giving of self to Her and Her Divine Son, for, as St. Barnard has said, Following her, thou strayest not; Invoking her, thou despairest not; Thinking of her, thou wanderest not; Upheld by her, thou failest not, Shielded by her, thou fallest not; Guided by her, thou growest not weary, Favoured by Her, thou reachest the goal. At Fatima, the Blessed Virgin Mary at her last apparition on 13th October, 1917 first appeared dressed in white and holding the Rosary, while St. Joseph holding the Infant Jesus, stood by her side. Second, Our Lady dressed in blue while Our Lord appeared at her side. Third, and finally, Our Blessed Mother dressed in the brown cloth of Carmel, holding the Brown Scapular, while Our Lord raised His hands and blessed the crowd in the Cova da Iria.
After the apparitions, Sr. Lucia explained to those who interrogated her that Our Lady wants everyone to wear the Scapular and that each of her sons and daughters should “wear it devoutly and perseveringly”. Our Lady also appeared holding the Rosary to indicate that everyone should also pray it for the salvation of the world. Sr. Lucia says that the Rosary and the Scapular are inseparable while Pope Paul VI says that the devotion of the Brown Scapular and the Holy Rosary are the two most recommended devotions by the magisterium of the Church. They are the two spiritual weapons we need to fight the world, the flesh and the devil.
• Prof. Michael Ogunu is the President and Coordinator of the World Apostolate of Fatima in Africa