Origins – the Scapular as Part of the Monastic Habit
The scapular, the two small pieces of wool most people think of when they hear the word, is a sacramental based on an important piece of the monastic habit. A true scapular, in the original use of the word, is a piece of cloth, about shoulder width, that is worn over the shoulders and falls not quite to the wearer’s feet. It is the most important garment for those in monastic orders and has also been adopted by non-monastic religious orders for both male and female. In the past the scapular also had bands on the arm, connecting the front and back panel of fabric and thus forming a cross on the body of the wearer; this style of scapular is sometimes still used today. For this reason, the scapular was also simply called a crux, meaning‘cross.’
The scapular is meant to be symbolic of an apron, indicating the wearer’s readiness and willingness to serve. That the scapular is a symbolic and not merely a practical apron is based on the point in the St. Benedict’s Rule, where he says that it is to be worn “for work.”Benedict uses a non-specific word for work here, not the word for manual work or labor, which he uses elsewhere in the Rule, and not the words specific to ‘God’s work,’ which he used elsewhere to include prayer. So it is believed that “scapulare propter opera” (“scapular for work”) means a scapular to be worn always, whether while at prayer or while doing manual labor.
In the middle ages, it was common for the lay faithful to join religious orders in an affiliate sense, as a tertiary. Since some did not take full vows, they would not wear the full habit. Some others who took private vows would wear almost the full habit. The non-monastic, one not taking full vows, would be granted a “reduced scapular” to wear. This was two pieces of wool, about 2 inches by 3 inches each, held together by a band or cord and worn over the shoulder with one rectangle in front and one in back. Still larger than the devotional scapular worn by many Catholics, the shape and small size of this scapular is closest in appearance to what many lay Catholics wear. They are still often worn by tertiary members of the Franciscan, Carmelite, and Dominican orders.
Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Also called simply the Brown Scapular, this small scapular is the most well known and likely the earliest form of the devotional scapular. It may even be referred to merely as “the scapular,” where all other scapulae are referred to in the full name or by some distinguishing characteristic. Along the same line, the phrase “The Feast of the Scapular” refers to the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Pious tradition holds that the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Simon Stock on July 16, 1251 in England, with a scapular in her hand and said to him,“Take, beloved son this scapular of thy order as a badge of my confraternity and for thee and all Carmelites a special sign of grace; whoever dies in this garment, will not suffer everlasting fire. It is the sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant.” According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, these precise words of Our Lady only appeared in written form in 1642, in a document that said these words had been dictated by Simon to his secretary and confessor. Historical documents cannot support the exact details or words, but the content is held to be reliable. That is to say, it is credible that Our Lady assured St. Simon Stock in a supernatural manner of her special protection over his whole order and all who would wear the Carmelite habit, indirectly extending to all Christian faithful who should wear the scapular as a badge of devotion, even if we cannot place the exact words.
Conditions for Receiving the Graces of the Scapular
The promise and the following conditions are typically associated with a vision and Bull of Pope John XXII. The Bull that has been handed down since the 1400's was never mentioned for over 100 years after its supposed promulgation in 1322 and no record of such a document exists in the writings of Pope John XXII. It has been generally assumed that the extant text of the Bull is not an authentic document but the promises and conditions are valid and several popes have given the Carmelites permission to preach them.
Here are the conditions:
1) Wear the Brown Scapular continuously – this involves being enrolled in the Brown Scapular Confraternity.
2) Observe chastity according to one's state in life.
3) Recite daily the “Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.”
3a) Observe the required fast of the Church as well as abstaining for meat on Wednesday and Saturday
3b) Recite the Rosary daily
3c) With permission, substitute some other good work.
Obviously, the Scapular is not a get out of Hell or Purgatory Free Card.
Form of the Scapular
The scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel should be brown, though black is acceptable as well, and must be wool. To have an image of Our Lady presenting the Scapular to Simon Stock on the scapular itself is quite common, but the scapular may also be blank. It is also common to have an inscription of Our Lady’s promise on the scapular. It may also have other images on it. For example there are Brown Scapulae bearing images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Sacred Heart, St. Charbel, St. Bendict, and others.
Other Devotional Scapulae
Though the brown scapular is the most common, there are many more approved scapulae faithful Catholics may wear:
The Green Scapular – This scapular is also called the Scapular of the Immaculate Heart. It is not a true scapular in that it is one single woolen square, not two. However it is a sacramental and so it is a scapular in the devotional sense. It is the only scapular that does not need to be worn but can be carried; it can come on a green cord to be worn or may also come on a small green loop. This scapular may be given in faith to someone you want to be cured or converted. The giver of the scapular must continue to pray daily to the Immaculate Heart of Mary after giving the scapular.
The White Scapular – This is another scapular associated with the Immaculate Heart of Mary. However this scapular is white wool, and is associated with the Sons of the Immaculate Heart. The front depicts the image of the burning heart of Mary, out of which grows a lily, and is circled with a wreath of roses.
The Trinity Scapular – This is a small white scapular with a red and blue cross and is connected to the Confraternity of The Most Blessed Trinity and tertiaries of the Order. The Order's founder, St. John de Matha, had a vision during his first Mass of two Christian captives, one of whom held a staff with a red and blue cross on top. From this vision St. John knew he was destined to work among captives for their redemption. Tradition also holds that in 1198, an angel wearing a white garment with a blue and red cross appeared to Pope Innocent III, who subsequently approved the Order of the Trinitarians.
The Blue Scapular – This scapular is also known as the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception. It is associated with Venerable Ursula Benincasa, founder of the Theatines of the Immaculate Conception and was approved by Pope Clement X in 1671. It is now also associated with St. Bernadette and the miraculous apparitions at Lourdes because Our Lady said to the girl, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” There are plenary indulgences attached to this devotion with this scapular, under the ordinary conditions.
The Black Scapular – The scapular associated with the Servite Order and the Seven Sorrows of Mary. It is black wool and has an image of Our Lay of Sorrows on the front piece. This scapular must be worn constantly if one wishes to gain the indulgences of the confraternity. This scapular must be invested to one by a priest from the Servite Order.
The Five Fold Scapular – The Five Fold Scapular, also called a Five Way Scapular, is a Redemptorist Sacramental. It is a combination of five of the most popular scapulae: the Brown, Black, Blue, Trinity white and Red Passion scapulars.
The Scapular of St. Michael – This scapular traditionally is in the shape of a small shield (though it may also be a standard rectangle) and is made of blue and black woollen cloth. It is connected to the Archconfraternity of the Scapular of St. Michael and depicts St. Michael triumphing over Satan.
The Scapular Medal – in 1910 Pope Pius X approved the medallion form of the scapular. It bears an image of the Sacred Heart on one side, the Blessed mother on the other, and may be worn or carried in place of a cloth scapular, under certain special circumstances, by a person already invested with a scapular. These special circumstances would include situations where wearing a non-metal scapular would be impractical, say in the case of a swimmer or in doing work which could result in damage or destruction of a cloth scapular.
A scapular is different than other sacramentals when it comes to blessings. Typically you will ask a priest to bless objects like rosaries, statues, your car, your pets, etc. When you are invested in the scapular, you receive the blessing, not the scapular. Any time you need to replace the scapular you just get a new one. You don't need to get it blessed because you are the blessed “object”.
This article was adapted from the New Catholic Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Mary.