The Scapular Devotion

Updated: May 29, 2020



Christian P. Ceroke, O. Carm



The most highly developed of Marian Scapular devotions is that of the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Since the seventeenth century, the Brown Scapular has been a universal Catholic devotion, considered to be, together with the rosary, a customary form of Marian devotional practice. The popularity of the Scapular devotion was due to the sixteenth and seventeenth century popes, who promulgated the so-called Sabbatine Privilege and who approved the Confraternity of the Scapular for every diocese throughout the Catholic world. The growth and development of the Scapular devotion reached its culmination in 1726 in the extension to the universal Church of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel for July 16.(1)


The wearing of the Scapular fosters a true devotion to Mary that is based on her supernatural mission in the redemption of mankind. Two Marian doctrines are proposed in the devotion of the Brown Scapular: Mary's Spiritual Maternity and her Mediation of Grace. The Scapular teaches a practical confidence in the intercession of the Blessed Virgin to obtain for its wearer the grace of final perseverance, or a happy death. The two general conditions to obtain this benefit are that one must honor Mary by wearing the Scapular faithfully until death and endeavor sincerely to lead a Christian life. This reliance on Mary's intercession for the gift of final perseverance derives historically from the belief that the Blessed Virgin promised in an apparition to St. Simon Stock, Prior General of the Carmelites (1247?-1265), that all who die wearing the Scapular will not suffer the eternal flames of hell. This tradition has become known as the "Scapular promise."


The devotion also teaches that the aid of Mary may be confidently expected in purgatory by all those who have faithfully worn the Scapular and have fulfilled two other conditions: the practice of chastity according to one's state of life and the daily recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.(2) This privilege of the Scapular devotion has been thought to stem from an apparition of Mary to Pope John XXII, who then promulgated this spiritual benefit to the faithful in 1322. According to the copies of the Bull of promulgation attributed to John XXII, the devotee of the Scapular would be released from purgatory on the Saturday after death. Because of the allusion to Saturday, the document of John XXII has been called the "Sabbatine Bull" and its Marian privilege the "Sabbatine Privilege."


The Origin of the Scapular Devotion


Historically, the devotion of the Scapular among the Catholic laity originated from the tradition of the Marian apparition and promise of the Scapular to St. Simon Stock.(3) From about 1400, Carmelite authors allude to the wearing of the Scapular by the laity in reliance on the Virgin's promise of eternal salvation. Carmelite authors of the fifteenth century begin to record a devotional view of the Scapular, insinuating its heavenly origin. According to Grossi (ca. 1411), Mary <gave> the Scapular to St. Simon Stock. According to Bradley (ca. 1450), in bestowing the Scapular Mary changed the Carmelite habit.(4) Still later authors added new motives for the wearing of the Scapular by the laity. Calciuri (1461) alluded to miracles that had been worked through the Scapular; and Leersius (1483) added that the Scapular had been worn by saints.(5) This tradition of the fifteenth century, which began to develop the devotional value of the Scapular and of its promise, culminated in 1479 in a work by Arnold Bostius, a Belgian Carmelite of Ghent. His manuscript work, De patronatu et patrocinio B. V. M., formulated the solid basis of Marian doctrine on which the Scapular devotion was founded. Bostius explained how the Scapular promise of eternal salvation was a concrete illustration of the doctrine of Mary as Mediatrix of all Graces. The reception of the Scapular as the pledge of Mary's promise of eternal salvation placed the obligation upon the members of the Confraternity to imitate Mary in her practice of virtue. Bostius' work was popularized by John Paleonydor, a Flemish Carmelite, in a book entitled Fasciculus Tripartitus. Published in 1495, the book was frequently reprinted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the end of the fifteenth century, the theological structure of the Scapular devotion had been essentially outlined: its doctrinal foundation was the cult of Mary as Mediatrix of all Graces; its motive was the tradition of the apparition of Our Lady to St. Simon Stock with the promise of the Scapular.(6)


The Scapular Promise and Historical Criticism


The question of the historical authenticity of the Scapular promise was raised in the seventeenth century when the modern concept of scientific history was first developed.(7) It cannot be said that the historical value of the tradition has been decided with finality. Recent historical investigations into Carmelite medieval history have provided information on the tradition of the Scapular promise that was not in the possession of scholars of past decades.(8)


The Carmelites of the fourteenth century preserved the tradition of the Scapular promise as part of the cult within the Order to St. Simon Stock. The narrative of the apparition and of the promise of the Scapular was incorporated in the Carmelite Catalogue of Saints, or Sanctoral, composed for the Order.(9) The account in its earliest known form reads as follows:


The ninth (saint) was St. Simon of England, the sixth General of the Order. He continually besought the most glorious Mother of God to defend with a privilege the Order of Carmelites, which enjoys the special title of the Virgin. He prayed devoutly:


Flower of Carmel Vine Blossom-laden. Splendor of heaven, Child-bearing maiden, None equals thee! O Mother benign, Who no man didst know, On all Carmel's children Thy favors bestow Star of the Sea.(10)


The Blessed Virgin appeared to him with a multitude of angels, holding in her blessed hands the Scapular of the Order. She said, "This will be for you and for all Carmelites the privilege, that he who dies in this will not suffer eternal fire," that is, he who dies in this will be saved.(11)


There is no doubt that the origin of the Scapular devotion among the laity is traceable to this fourteenth century narrative.(12) Its composition has been dated about the mid- fourteenth century(13) Of greater significance, however, than the date of the narrative, is its location in the Carmelite Sanctoral, where it forms the complete hagiographical notice on St. Simon Stock. If this story of the Marian apparition and promise were not found in the earliest hagiographical notice on St. Simon Stock, but only in documents of later origin, this fact would cast grave suspicion on the authentic origin of the tradition.The appearance in the fourteenth century narrative of the poem, the Flos Carmeli, reveals the existence of a cult of the apparition at this time within the Order.(14) A Marian devotion induced by the Scapular promise existed within the Carmelite Order before it arose among the laity.(15) The story of the apparition of Mary and the promise of the Scapular was a fully formed tradition within the Order by the mid-fourteenth century, one hundred years after the death of St. Simon Stock. The tradition was not originally motivated by the spread of the Scapular devotion among the laity. Nor was the tradition utilized by the medieval Carmelites to claim a unique Marian privilege.(16) The absence of these motives behind the tradition tells in favor of its authenticity.


In the past, scholars have urged three difficulties against the historicity of the Scapular promise: (1) absence of documentary evidence for the tradition from the thirteenth century(17)); (2) silence of Carmelite authors of the fourteenth century concerning the promise(18); (3) confusion in the tradition between the Carmelite habit and the Carmelite Scapular as the garment supposedly designated by Mary.(19) These objections no longer constitute serious difficulties against the authenticity of the Scapular tradition. Documentary evidence cannot be expected from the thirteenth century since the Carmelite Order did not begin to produce an extensive literature until the middle of the fourteenth century.(20) The appearance of the written tradition of the Scapular promise coincides with the blossoming of literary activity within the Order.(21) In the face of modern research into the history of Carmelite literary activity in the fourteenth century, the argument from silence against the tradition of the scapular promise loses point. The account of the Marian apparition to St. Simon Stock is a constant written tradition as far back as literary activity reveals itself to be an important factor in the life of the Order. Finally, the conclusion of some historians that the apparition was originally associated by the Carmelites with their habit in general rather than with the Scapular in particular is certainly mistaken. There is an unbroken line of evidence, beginning with the Chapter of Montpellier in 1287 that the terms habit and Scapular were used interchangeably by the medieval Carmelites.(22) When the word habit is employed in Carmelite authors in connection with the Marian promise to St. Simon Stock, the term means simply "Scapular."


The sole reason for rejecting the historical authenticity of the Scapular promise is the absence of thirteenth century documentation revealing Carmelite knowledge and acceptance of the story of the apparition. The absence of such evidence leaves open the possibility that the Scapular tradition developed as a legend in the thirteenth or early fourteenth century. While the possibility of a legendary origin for the tradition of the Scapular promise must be admitted, its legendary origin cannot be affirmed.(23) Beginning with the documentary evidence in the fourteenth century, the essential details of the tradition remain invariable: (1) the apparition of Mary, (2) to St. Simon Stock, (3) with the Scapular, (4) stating the words of eternal life for all who die clothed in this garment.


The Sabbatine Privilege: Origin and Historical Critique


The Sabbatine Bull occupied a place of key importance in the spread of the Scapular devotion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Throughout this period the popes repeatedly promulgated the Sabbatine Privilege in allusion to the Bull of 1322 attributed to Pope John XXII: Clement VII (1530); Paul III (1534; 1549); Pius IV (1561); Pius V (1566); Gregory XIII (1577); Urban VIII (1628); Clement X (1673; 1674; 1675); Innocent XI (1678; 1679; 1682; 1684).(24) Since according to the Sabbatine Privilege the souls of the faithful departed would benefit in purgatory from the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, the Church found it useful to stress the privilege in order to teach the legitimacy of the doctrine of indulgences and of Marian devotion.(25)


The tradition of the Sabbatine Bull seems to have been first spread in the fifteenth century. The Bull was known to the Carmelites Calciuri in 1461 and Leersius in 1483. It was referred to by the Carmelite General Chapter of 1517. Historically, however, the tradition of the Sabbatine Bull is clearly vulnerable. No evidence of the Bull appears in the registers of John XXII. Although it is recognized that the absence of a papal document from the medieval registers is not a conclusive argument against its authenticity, no positive historical evidence from other sources supports the papal origin of the Bull. Its literary character is entirely too odd to recommend it as the work of John XXII. For these reasons, historians have rejected the authenticity of the Sabbatine Bull.(26) The apparent spuriousness of the Bull naturally casts serious doubt on its tradition that the Sabbatine Privilege originated in a Marian apparition to Pope John XXII. Three theories have been proposed to explain the origin of the tradition of the apparition and the Bull. According to one view the tradition would have originated in an oral declaration by John XXII.(27) This theory accounts for the spurious character of the Bull and for its peculiar style. The explanation is too conjectural to win credence. A second theory would derive the Sabbatine Bull from an original authentic document from John XXII which became corrupt in the course of time.(28) But no evidence has been produced from existing copies of the Bull to show a gradual corruption of its text. A third theory considers the Bull to be an interpretation, based on theological grounds, of the Marian promise to St. Simon Stock.29 Since Mary's Mediation of Grace, of which her promise of eternal salvation is a reflection, embraces the final goal of the Christian life, which is union with God, it is logical to conclude that her maternal assistance makes itself felt in purgatory.(30) This third theory, that the Sabbatine Privilege is a more developed understanding of the significance of the Marian promise to St. Simon Stock, is the most plausible explanation of the origin of the Sabbatine Bull. The copies of the Bull indicate a close relationship between the promise to St. Simon Stock and the Sabbatine Privilege. The Bull states, "One who perseveres in holy obedience, poverty and chastity—or who will enter the Holy Order—will be saved." Then follows the declaration of the Sabbatine Privilege concerning release from purgatory for "others" who wear the holy "habit" of the Order. It would seem, then, that the Sabbatine Privilege arose historically in a fuller understanding of the Marian promise to St. Simon Stock.


The Decision of the Holy Office on the Sabbatine Privilege