The Scapular: Is it a Discipline or a Free Pass?

6707474031_8cea44a5a8Get Your Free Ticket to Heaven!

I’ve been intrigued by the Brown Scapular for years, and the other day, my sister-in-law (who is also a convert) and I were discussing them. Scott bought me one for Christmas (it’s just beautiful; it has a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe on it) but after reading about being blessed and accepted into an order, I was confused and set it aside for later. After my discussion with my sister-in-law, I decided it was time to do my research, because something has kept the tradition alive all these years, and I have a hard time believing it’s because it’s a free ticket to Heaven.

The Scapular goes back to the Carmelites, who got their start as hermits on Mount Carmel. By the time St. Simon Stock was Father General of the order, they were friars who worked among the people and lived lives of contemplative prayer. As far as the origin of the Brown Scapular, that, my friend, is a matter of some considerable controversy.

Simon Says….or Does He?

According to legend, Simon Stock was praying for aid for his order when he had a vision of Mary, who gave him a Brown Scapular saying,

Receive, My beloved son, this habit of thy order: this shall be to thee and to all Carmelites a privilege, that whosoever dies clothed in this shall never suffer eternal fire …. It shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger, and a pledge of peace.

Now, when I say Brown Scapular, I don’t mean two little squares of wool joined by a bit of string. We’re talking about a full habit! In Medieval times, a religious habit was an essential part of your identity if you were part of an order, and removal of your habit was the same as abandoning your order and your vows altogether. Wearing the brown habit was an outward expression of a commitment to the life of the Carmelites, a commitment to observing the rules of the order. It’s no surprise then, that many orders believed that their habits were holy, and even sacred. So, Simon Stock’s vision of Mary, handing him a Brown Scapular/habit and telling him it would offer special graces to the wearer wasn’t unusual at all.

Except that it most likely never happened.

In preparation for the 750th anniversary of the scapular, a Catechesis of the Brown Scapular was prepared with the oversight of the North American Carmelite order. The history and myths of the scapular are separated pretty clearly. The Church does not recognize the vision of St. Simon Stock as a historical event because there’s no reason to believe it ever happened. No one ever heard of the vision until a century and a half afterward–there’s no record of Simon Stock ever claiming it happened!

However, if you’re interested in the Brown Scapular, it’s not because you heard about an apparition. You’re probably far more interested in the Sabbatine Privilege. If you go looking for more information on it, you’re bound to find an atheist mocking it. I was delighted to find that little gem, by the way. Every little bit of vitriol brings joy to my heart. I especially like the bit where she says she’ll be an atheist all her life. It was only a year later that she came home to the Catholic Church.

Back to the Sabbatine Privilege. What I’ve been told in the past is that if you are wearing the Scapular when you die, you will immediately go to Heaven. It’s a “free ticket.”

Maybe it’s my Protestant upbringing, but….I just….just no.

Upon further research, that’s not what the Sabbatine Privilege says at all. No, the Sabbatine Privilege states that if you are wearing the Brown Scapular and you should perish, you will be released from purgatory the Saturday following your death.

Despite the absolute implausibility of the Brown Scapular’s promises, I still felt inexplicably drawn to it, so I knew in my soul that there was something else to it.

Whom Do You Trust?

I trust John Paul II! Explaining why would be like explaining why I drink water when I’m thirsty. It turns out John Paul gave a speech to the Carmelite community back in 2001 in which he addressed the particular graces of the Brown Scapular.

The sign of the Scapular points to an effective synthesis of Marian spirituality, which nourishes the devotion of believers and makes them sensitive to the Virgin Mother’s loving presence in their lives. The Scapular is essentially a “habit”. Those who receive it 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. Those who wear the Scapular are thus brought into the land of Carmel, so that they may “eat its fruits and its good things,” and experience the loving and motherly presence of Mary in their daily commitment to be clothed in Jesus Christ and to manifest him in their life for the good of the Church and the whole of humanity.

Therefore two truths are evoked by the sign of the Scapular: on the one hand, the constant protection of the Blessed Virgin, not only on life’s journey, but also at the moment of passing into the fullness of eternal glory; on the other, the awareness that devotion to her cannot be limited to prayers and tributes in her honour on certain occasions, but must become a “habit”, that is, a permanent orientation of one’s own Christian conduct, woven of prayer and interior life, through frequent reception of the sacraments and the concrete practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. In this way the Scapular becomes a sign of the “covenant” and reciprocal communion between Mary and the faithful: indeed, it concretely translates the gift of his Mother, which Jesus gave on the Cross to John and, through him, to all of us, and the entrustment of the beloved Apostle and of us to her, who became our spiritual Mother.

–Bl Pope John Paul II, 2001 Message to the Carmelite Community

Bam! Do I even need to expand on that? Could I?

Forbidden by the Holy See

Now, truth be told, no one was waiting around until 2001 to find out whether or not the Sabbatine Privilege was dogma.

As a matter of fact, in the year 1613 the Holy See determined that the decree establishing the “Sabbatine Privilege” was unfounded and the Church admonished the Carmelite Order not to preach this doctrine. Unfortunately, the Order did not always comply with this directive of the Holy See.

At the time the Carmelites were instructed to stop mentioning the “Sabbatine Privilege” the Holy See acknowledged that the faithful may devoutly believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary by her continuous intercession, merciful prayers, merits, and special protection will assist the souls of deceased brothers and sisters and members of the confraternity, especially on Saturday, the day which the church dedicates to the Blessed Virgin.

Consistent with the Catholic tradition, such favors associated with the wearing of the Brown Scapular would be meaningless without the wearers living and dying in the state of grace, observing chastity according to their state in life, and living a life of prayer and penitence. The promises traditionally tied to the scapular offer us what the Second Vatican Council says about the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary: “By her maternal love, Mary cares for the brothers and sisters of her Son, who still make their earthly journey surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led to their happy fatherland.”

–Catehesis on the Brown Scapular

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about what the Brown Scapular is for!

A Sign of Our Identity34447257

The Brown Scapular is a habit, the dress of the Carmelite order. By wearing the Brown Scapular, I identify myself as part of that order, and commit myself to charity, contemplative prayer, and chastity (according to my state of life). I join my prayers, my challenges, my spiritual journey to that of the Carmelites. The Brown Scapular is a sacramental, like holy water. It is a tool for bestowing blessings and grace but it does not give grace in itself. It is one of the most abused sacramentals in the Church, and its true meaning has been mostly lost. It is truly beautiful to join ourselves as laypeople to the devotion and sacrifice of our Carmelite brothers and sisters and truly commit ourselves to a way of life that is absolutely separate from the world. Yet it’s been reduced to the status of a rabbit’s foot.

This Lent, I’d like to challenge you. Get a Brown Scapular (get it free here!), have it blessed, and put it on. Take a minute or two each day to devote yourself to the principles of the Carmelite order. Then, tell someone; tell one person what the Brown Scapular really is, so that its true meaning isn’t lost forever.

Some of the basic principles of the Carmelite order:

  • 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 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 of life), and obedience to the will of God.

I think this is a wonderful list to take with us into Lent!

Now, I’ve certainly left a lot out, but there’s so much myth and so much truth around the Brown Scapular, there’s no way I could ever get it all in. A little research yields much fruit in this case, and I  am excited about sharing this wonderful gift!


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Categories: Chasing After God, What the Catholic Church Teaches | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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