What the Catholic Church Teaches

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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Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa! (Part 2)

Part 1 can be found here.

Denial is a powerful thing. When you think about it, it’s the beginning of so many evils. No one ever sets out to be wicked, to do evil things in the sight of God. When we lie, when we spread malicious gossip, when we pass judgement on those around us, we deny the dignity of our fellow children of God. When we drag the sins of others out into the light of day, we also reveal the leprous fruit of our own hearts. And yet we still consider ourselves spotless, or at worst “basically a good person” but then go about pocketing a handful of pens at work, telling a “white lie,” passing on malicious gossip, judging the ones we love the most, or a thousand other stains we spill on our souls without thinking twice. We get by because we tell ourselves a different story, and we believe it.

Some things do happen by merely by chance, without being predestined. Randomly selecting an encyclical and getting Misericordia Dei: The Mercy of God was not one of those things. It was, without a doubt, an example of God throwing something in my path. For the past 6 years, I never once denied my need to go to Confession. I denied my ability to go and denied what exactly I needed to confess. I didn’t want to go digging around in my past. I thought if I just ignored those sins and avoided committing them again, it was just as good as confessing.

It wasn’t.

Confess all the sins!

After realizing that I would have to go in and confess everything, including everything I had left out in my previous Confession, and everything I had done since, I seriously started to reconsider. I paused in my Confession preparation and started browsing Catholic websites for a loophole, some verbiage I could use to refer to the sin without revealing what it was. What I found was what should have been obvious: I was just going to have to do it.

Through my browsing, I also found encouragement. Unfortunately, in my anxiety, I did not keep track of the sites I visited, but I wish I could recommend them. Some of the advice I received was that priests have heard everything, and they know we’ve sinned. They know the nature of our humanity, the darkness that we live in, and give in to. When we come to Confession, full of sorrow, and admitting the fullness of our sins, they don’t think ill of us–they think we’ve been brave to confess! With this reassurance, I went back to preparing my list, and praying that once I was done, I would be given the grace to look Father Ed in the eye afterwards.

Despite the large size of our parish, I’m sure Father Ed recognizes me from Mass and knows that I haven’t been to Confession. This is good news, because it means that he’ll understand me bringing a printed guide. No matter what, I wasn’t going to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. And I wasn’t going to forget any “major” sins and have to go through this again.

The Rite of Reconciliation

I left work a little earlier than originally expected and arrived at the church just before 3:30. It was very dark–I don’t think any of the overhead lights were on; the only light was coming from the sacristy and the choir loft. There was music coming from the choir loft, and I thought for a moment that perhaps Clint, our organist, was playing. I realized quickly that it was a radio playing classical music. I sure would have liked to hear Clint playing right then, though–it would have been deliciously soothing!

There was a young man sitting in the very back pew. The Confessional is at the back of the church, on the right side, and he was essentially sitting right by the door. I took the pew in front of him and knelt down. I have no idea what I prayed. When I had finished, another man walked in and sat on the left side of the church. I didn’t think anyone was in the Confessional yet, but it was very dark, so I wasn’t sure. After I was done praying, I started going over my list again, and of course, had to add a few things to it.

A third man walked in and sat a few pews in front of me, for a total of 4 people waiting for Confession. Not a very long line, and there was only one person in front of me. It was a few minutes after 3:30 when a short, Indian man walked out from the sacristy, wearing a cassock. I suddenly remembered: Father Ed went to Rome! This must be the Priest who’s taking his place for the week!

I immediately said a prayer of thanksgiving. Knowing I would likely never see this man again made it so much easier. The Priest went into the Confessional, and the first young man followed. I pulled my rosary out of my pocket and kissed the crucifix. I was already starting to get weepy. Almost time.

When my time came, I sat down in the Confessional, face to face, and immediately started to cry. You see, I didn’t want to confess some of these sins because it was embarrassing  but there were others, so many others that I kept in my heart and refused to confess. I lived in denial for so long, always telling myself that what I did couldn’t be helped based. I listened to what society says is right and wrong because I couldn’t bear to admit my sins. Other sins I made other excuses for, but it was all denial.

I’ve spent my whole life building a wall of sin to shut God out and at the same time, desperately trying to see Him through the cracks. But every moment of misery, every bit of pain and suffering I endured, it wasn’t a trial God put me through, a test I had to pass, a challenge to try my faith, it was all my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault!

I could barely see my list, my eyes were so full of tears. Father acknowledged each sin with a brief “uh-huh” and before I knew it, I was at the end. As he began to speak to me of God’s constant forgiveness, I bowed my head in shame. But when I received Absolution, it was all gone, and it was over.

I had to own up to what I did. I could make any excuse I want, but I always had a choice. I suffered, and others suffered because of what I’ve done. Once I received Absolution, it was official. Those horrible, unmentionable things I did in my past are gone. I’ve brought my sins out into the light where they no longer have any claim on me. I’m free.

At Mass on Sunday, I approached the alter with renewed confidence. I received the Eucharist with renewed blessings. Like a child afraid of the doctor, I denied my sickness until the infection was allowed to spread unabated. No more, no more. Now I’ve had the infection cut out, with pain and tears. I’m stronger now, and coming back to good health.

Categories: Chasing After God, What the Catholic Church Teaches | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa!

I’ve had a lot of good posts floating around in my head. They tend to stay up there, floating around, each the very pinnacle of greatness and bloggy perfection. Beautiful flowers they are, each of them, sweet smelling and delicate. It’s a pity they wilt the very instant I sit down to type them out.

I’d like to type one of them out for you, but instead, I’m going to write about a topic I very much did not ever plan to write about. Let’s talk about Confession.

Hey! Where are you going? Get back over here!

I must confess…

How did I even get on this topic? Certainly not of my own doing. When we converted to Catholicism back in 2007, we had to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation at some point during Lent. I went the last day it was available. I walked in, rattled off my “major” sins, as I had been told to do, read the prayer from the sheet, and got out of there!

Let’s talk about “major” sins for a moment here. How do we define “major” sins? Um, how about if we just name the ones we’re okay with naming? That sounds good! I mean, there is a line in there where we say we are sorry for all the sins of our past life, so that works, right? I mean, there’s no point in rattling off every single one. Just a brief overview of the ones we’re comfortable with should be more than sufficient.

Let’s just say that based on what I determined to not be worth mentioning…dear Pope Benedict VI might make a public statement denying that the Catholic Church has any association with me. I left out some big stuff. Really big. Without going into detail, I had a few wild and crazy wilderness years before I met my darling husband. Years I wish more than anything I could take back. To top it off, I didn’t go back to Confession. About 3 years ago, I started listening to daily Mass on EWTN and I kept hearing over and over again about the importance of Confession. I bought a few guidebooks and started planning to go. I mean, it would be pretty easy, right? I just had to go over the sins since I went to confession before. But as I kept studying up for my perfect Confession, I realized I needed to confess those old sins, too. What’s more, I realized I wanted to.

It’s just really super hard to get to Confession.

I mean, I don’t remember what the schedule was like at our church in Tulsa, but here in Norman, Confession is heard Saturday from 3:30-4:30. I work until 7:30 most weekends. Sure, I could make it down to the church and back on my lunch break, but….what if there’s a long line? Am I going to have time to eat? I really need to rest on my break, you know. On the Saturdays that I’m off, I’m usually off because I have somewhere to go, someplace to be. This once a week thing is really inconvenient for me. Yeah, I can make an appointment, but Father Ed is so busy, I don’t want to make him go out of his way for me just so I can tell him what a lousy human being I am.

I can keep going if you like. I have a whole bag of excuses over here.

But I suppose none of them are really very good.

So, I’ve spent the last 3 years filling my bag with excuses and carrying on, ever so sad that I just can’t manage to get into Confession.

Well, recently, I’ve started reading encyclicals. I’ll pick one at random, read it, and revel in it. I love them so very much. To hear our beloved Popes, speaking frankly, bluntly and lovingly on Church teachings is such a wonderful gift. And thanks to the handy dandy internet, I can read any of them, whenever I want. Lovely, lovely, lovely. A few days ago, I randomly picked Pope John Paul II’s Misericordia Dei: The Mercy of God. Guess what it’s about?

The Mercy of God

The importance of making a good Confession cannot be overstated. Canon law 960 states:

“Individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, are reconciled with God and the Church; only physical or moral impossibility excuses from such confession, in which case reconciliation can be obtained in other ways”

Blessed Pope John Paul II goes on to state that all sins must be confessed, not just the “major” ones, citing Canon 988:

 Since “the faithful are obliged to confess, according to kind and number, all grave sins committed after Baptism of which they are conscious after careful examination and which have not yet been directly remitted by the Church’s power of the keys, nor acknowledged in individual confession”, any practice which restricts confession to a generic accusation of sin or of only one or two sins judged to be more important is to be reproved. Indeed, in view of the fact that all the faithful are called to holiness, it is recommended that they confess venial sins also.

This blessed Sacrament is so essential that Bl. Pope John Paul II goes into great detail about the administration of it. The proper facilities must be available, reasonable requests for appointments must never be turned down, the priest should be visible so that the faithful immediately know where to go, and a “fixed grille” must be present to accommodate those who desire it. He even goes on to suggest that, when possible, Confessions be heard before and during every Mass.

Ready or not!

Upon finishing the encyclical, I wanted more than ever to make Confession, and to receive Absolution. In fact, I felt like I should do it before receiving Communion again. I double checked the parish website early in the week, and sure enough, Confession is going down Saturday from 3:30-4:30, and I was scheduled to work until 5:30. Too bad. Once again, my schedule is just working against me. I kept thinking about it throughout the week, wondering if I could take an incredibly late lunch….no, no, it wouldn’t work out.

When I arrived at work on Saturday, my manager advised me that we were overstaffed and I could leave at 3:30.

I reached for my bag of excuses. It was still full, let me tell ya, but none of them fit!

This is what I wanted, wasn’t it? I sat down with my Laudate app and started preparing my confession. I was feeling pretty good about it until, out of nowhere, the truth came calling.

There’s no scheduling conflict, there’s no time crunch, no nothing. I haven’t made it to Confession because I don’t want to go to Confession and I’m not going to! There is no way on this earth I am walking in there and telling another human being I did all of these things!!!!! I can’t bear to think of these sins, how can I speak of them? Can’t I just leave them in the past?

So, I have a few choices. I can go in there and confess a good portion of my sins, get it over with and just keep to the straight and narrow so I don’t have to humiliate myself in such a way ever again. Or, I can go in, make another “general” Confession and make a mockery of the Holy Sacrament, which would only further blemish my soul and put a greater distance between myself and the God I’ve pledged to chase after.

Or I can just never go to Confession again and reassure myself with the old, “Lots of Catholics don’t go to Confession.”

It sounds like such a no brainer, but that’s how shame works.

You can read the conclusion to my Confession saga here.

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Why Bother With Confession?

Why is it important to make a good Confession, formally, to a Priest? Why should we have to tell anyone how we’ve sinned? Well, there’s accountability, for one thing:

When you make your confession to a priest, you acknowledge that you have sinned not only against God, but against every single other Christian because by your sin, you have lessened the universal witness of every single Christian. You have given the non-believer the excuse that “All Christians are hypocrites.” When you go to Confession you acknowledge that you have caused every Christian to suffer by your sins.  —Dr. Taylor Marshall, Canterbury Tales

The book of James speaks of Confession in general terms:

“Confess therefore your sins one to another: and pray one for another, that you may be saved. For the continual prayer of a just man availeth much.”  –James 5:16

As for Absolution, when Jesus ordained His apostles, He instructed them to forgive sins on His behalf:

” He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” –John 20:21-23

“As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.” Right there. Jesus sends the Apostles out as His representatives on earth. Not to skip to another topic entirely, but it also comes down to who a Priest is, an ambassador. When I confess my sins to the Priest, he is standing in on behalf of Jesus Christ, and when he gives me Absolution, he is doing so on behalf of Jesus Christ.

The early church confessed openly to each other in the congregation, according to the Didache. This was the first means of confession.

In the congregation thou shalt confess thy transgressions, and thou shalt not betake thyself to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. –Didache 4:14

They did this every week, on the Lord’s day.

“On the Lord’s Day of the Lord come together, break bread and hold Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions that your offering may be pure;” –Didache 14:1

Over time, it evolved into the practice we know today, where Confession is heard only by a Priest, which, really makes far more sense than telling the whole of the congregation. Especially since Jesus gave authority to forgive sins to His Apostles, not all mankind, so only the Apostles could give Absolution.

There are, of course, far deeper and more personal reasons to make a good Confession. More on that very soon.

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The Eucharist: The Real Presence of Christ


Who was it that told me the story? I think it was Father Bruce Neili. Saint Juliana of Liège was gazing at the moon one night, and it gave her such an intense longing for the Eucharist. That night led her, of course, to petition for the institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi.

A longing for the Eucharist? Convert is not impressed. Convert is willing to concede that the Eucharist is the Real Presence. Sort of. Mostly. But to long for it? Why? It doesn’t taste very good. Wanting to go to Mass seemed perfectly reasonable, but to long specifically to take Communion seemed a little unbelievable.

That was 3 or 4 years ago. Since then, what’s changed?

When I’m sick, just as soon as I feel the tightness in the back of my throat and the sniffle in my nose, I want a bowl of hot soup. I long for it, because I know it will make me feel better. Lately, I’ve had that same longing every week. I want to receive Communion, and I long for it, like…like I long for hot soup when my body is sick. As the days go by, my soul starts to feel sickly until I long for nourishment. After receiving communion, I return to my pew feeling lighter, relieved, and so very grateful.

6 years ago, I was a bit put off when I was first introduced to the image of the pelican as a symbol of Communion. The thought of the bird striking its breast to feed its own blood to its young was macabre. At some point, it became a comfort. To think of Christ, nourishing us with His own Body and Blood. Giving strength to us by giving Himself to us.

There really aren’t words to describe the emotions involved in receiving communion. The act of kneeling and bringing to mind my sins, placing my trust in God to forgive me once more, asking for the strength to do what He asks of me, and finally receiving the Blessed Sacrament. It’s overwhelming, and emotional and so very fulfilling. More and more often, I find myself kneeling back at my pew after communion, just overflowing with such gratitude and appreciation for this gift.

Again, what changed? How did I go from “Totally not the Real Presence” to “I guess you might be right” to “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold Him who takes away the sins of the world!”

I suppose conversion doesn’t end at confirmation, and I don’t think it ever will end. I’ll probably continue to turn slowly toward God for the rest of my life. It was hard to become a Catholic, I mean, seriously, mind-numbingly hard. I was raised my whole life to believe that these people were horribly and unforgivably wrong; that they believed a bunch of ridiculous, ritualistic mumbo-jumbo. I heard and believed every ugly thing I ever heard about the Catholic Church. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be joining the church, I would have laughed in your face.

It all came down to a tiny seed that somehow planted itself inside me. It started as a curiosity, an appreciation for the beauty, but it turned into something else the moment I went to my first Mass. It became a pull, a tug, and a constant reassurance that if I just followed along, it would all make sense. “Seeing is believing? No! Believe and I’ll show you!” the voice in my heart whispered. I had to let go of the idea that everything had to pass my test of authenticity; I had to submit myself to the authority of the Magisterium.

Isn’t that the nature of faith? Sometimes it’s a leap into the unknown, but more often, I think it’s just following, learning to submit, and receiving graces every step of the way.

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