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. As will be noted below, the third condition may be commuted. 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. The historical documentation pertaining to the apparition of Our Lady to St.Simon Stock has been collected and evaluated by Bartholomew F. M. Xiberta,O.Carm., De Visione Sancti Sitnonis Stock (Romae, 1950). 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. The implication of fifteenth-century authors that the Scapular came directly from Mary as a new piece of the Carmelite habit is an elaboration of the fourteenth-century narrative of the apparition. The fourteenth-century account, which simply states that Mary appeared holding the Scapular, will be provided below.
The Scapular Promise and Historical Criticism
The Carmelites of the fourteenth century preserved the tradition of the Scapular promise as part of the cult within the Order St. Simon Stock. The narrative of the apparition and of the promise of the Scapular was incorporated in the Carmelite Catalogue Saints, or Sanctoral, composed for the Order.
The account in earliest known form reads as follows:
The ninth (saint) was St. Simon of England, the sixth Genera the Order. He continually besought the most glorious Mother of God to defend with a privilege the Order of Carmelites, which enjoys special title of the Virgin. He prayed devoutly:
Flower of Carmel Vine Blossom-laden.
Splendor of heaven,
None equals thee!
O Mother benign,
Who no man didst know,
On all Carmel’s children
Thy favors bestow
Star of the Sea.
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 dies in this will not suffer eternal fire,” that is, he who dies in this will be saved.
The Interpretation of the Scapular Promise
The first affirmation of theologians concerning the Scapular promise of eternal salvation deals with the necessity of ruling out formalism in the practice of the devotion. Formalism is the physical wearing of the Scapular without sincere intent to serve God. The theological reason for ruling out formalism is that exterior acts of religion must be a reflection of one’s interior mind and will if they are not to be hypocritical. The Scapular is merely a symbol having in itself no intrinsic power of grace. As a symbol it possesses a twofold import, one in relation to the Blessed Virgin, one in relation to its wearer. As a sign of consecration to Mary, the Scapular is a reminder of the spiritual prerogatives enjoyed by her in the economy of the redemption, and it is a pledge that her role be activated in favor of the wearer of the Scapular. In relation to its wearer, the Scapular is a sign that one has resolved to dedicate himself to the service of Christ and Mary according to his station in life. The Scapular symbolizes both the recognition of the spiritual maternity of Mary and an acceptance of the spiritual duties that Christians, as children of Mary, are obligated to undertake in the service of God. For the layman who becomes a member of the Scapular Confraternity the spiritual duties are summed up in the observance of the Ten Commandments, daily prayer, attendance at Mass on days of obligation, the reception of the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist, and the faithful performance of the duties of one’s state.
The Scapular devotion does not provide an escape from the ordinary duties of Christianity, but is rather an incentive to undertake them with fervor and exactitude in the knowledge that one thus prepares himself to arrive at the final goal of the Christian life, union with God in eternity. In order to insist that the Scapular is meaningless without interior devotion, the Church has inserted the word fie, “piously,” into the words of the promise concerning those who die in the Scapular.
The interpretation of the promise to St. Simon Stock, “He who dies in this will not suffer eternal fire,” must be based on sound principles of theology. The words themselves simply express the object of Mary’s promise, eternal salvation, and the pledge of her assistance, the material sign of the Scapular to be worn continually. To ascertain the meaning of the promise, one must have recourse to two principles for the interpretation of private revelation, (1) All private revelation must be understood in the light of the truths of salvation divinely revealed by Jesus Christ and His Apostles. These truths are proposed by the Church, the divinely appointed teacher. (2) Private revelations concerning the Blessed Virgin must be understood in the light of the spiritual values inherent in true devotion to Mary. These values have been revealed by God and are taught by the Church. Only when these two principles are utilized do we arrive at a correct estimate of the promise of the Scapular.
The practice of the Christian life, however perfectly it may be accomplished, cannot merit in justice the grace of final perseverance. The grace of final perseverance is a gift of God by which we die united to Him in supernatural friendship. All theologians teach it as certain that a good life does not entitle us, in justice, to obtain this grace from God. To live in the supernatural friendship of God is His gift, and so it is His gift also to die in this friendship. The moment of the death of all men, whether in the pursuit of good or of evil, lies in the hands of God.
Those who are faithful to the divine commands, truly repentant for their sins, and who avail themselves of the means of grace established by Christ may remain, not absolutely certain. According to the well-known definition of the Council of Trent (D.B. 805), absolute and infallible certainty of one’s eternal salvation is not possible without a personal divine revelation. Theologians, however, admit certain “signs” that one will be saved, among which is special devotion to the Blessed Virgin. but confident of their salvation. This confidence derives from the virtue of Christian hope, by which we rely on the promises of God that He wills the salvation of all men and gives them the means to attain it.
It is precisely in connection with the grace of final perseverance that the Church recommends the devotion of the Scapular. Mary has promised that the grace of final perseverance will be granted through her intercession to all those who, by means of the Scapular, dedicate themselves to her and wear it until death out of devotion to her and to the teachings of Christ.
The particular value of the Scapular devotion consists in the special help of Mary, so that the grace of final perseverance, or of a “happy death,” may be obtained through her intercession. This interpretation of the Scapular promise is but an affirmation of the spiritual value of Marian devotion: one who practices true devotion to Mary cannot lose his soul for eternity. This proposition of the power of Mary’s intercession has been expressed in papal teaching. It is the consciousness of the Church on the value of true Marian devotion. The same awareness is expressed in the Ave Maria, wherein the gift of final perseverance is requested: “Holy Mary . . . pray for us now and at the hour of our death.” Reliance on Mary’s intercession, put into these words of momentary prayer, becomes (in the symbol of the Scapular) a continual prayer that spans the moments of a lifetime, to the supreme moment of death.
The necessity of interior devotion does not prevent the sinner from benefiting from the Scapular promise. This point was forcefully stated by Pius XII: “. . . How many souls even in circumstances which, humanly speaking, were beyond hope, have owed their final conversion and their eternal salvation to the scapular which they were wearing! How many more, thanks to it, have experienced the motherly protection of Mary in dangers to body and soul. . .” The pope’s allusion to the miraculous tradition of the Scapular is based on fact, admitted by all authorities on the devotion.
The Scapular Devotion in Modern Life
The popes in modern times have been solicitous in their encouragement of the Scapular devotion. St. Pius X permitted the substitution of a Scapular Medal for the cloth Scapular in recognition of the changed circumstances of life, precisely to encourage the dedication to Mary signified by the Scapular. For any reason, even simple convenience, the faithful invested in any Scapular except that of the Third Orders, may substitute a Scapular Medal which need only be carried on the person. The Medal was not intended as a new form of the Scapular devotion, but only as an aid to its continual practice. Catholics should be instructed to make free and wise use of both Scapular and Medal according to their judgment and circumstances.
The permission for the Medal reflects the mind of the Church that the Scapular itself is only the exterior sign of an interior devotion. The Scapular Medal entitles the wearer to all the benefits of the Scapular devotion, including the promise of eternal salvation and the Sabbatine Privilege. Objection on theological grounds that the Scapular Medal does not entitle the wearer to the benefit of the promise of eternal salvation is unfounded.
In 1890 Leo XIII had begun to grant the faculty to confessors to commute the condition of abstinence into other good works for the gaining of the Sabbatine Privilege. In order to gain the privilege one must (1) wear the Scapular or the Scapular Medal; (2) observe chastity according to one’s state in life; (3) recite daily the Little Office of Our Lady, or if one does not know how to recite it, abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The commutation of the third condition, due to practical difficulties in the circumstances of modern life, has become a common practice. The confessor is free to choose any suitable good work as the daily substitute (i.e. the Rosary). The commutation of Carmelite confessors is usually to seven Paters, Aves, and Glorias.
Other Marian Scapulars
From time to time in the history of the Church Scapular devotions have arisen to foster love of Mary and to encourage the practice of particular virtues. The Black Scapular of the Seven Dolors originated from the habit of the Servite Fathers. The inspiration for the habit of the Order and for its devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows is attributed to an apparition of Mary to its founders. Pope Martin V approved a rule for the Third Order secular in 1424. The Blue Scapular of the Immaculate Conception, which the Church has favored with an extraordinary number of indulgences, originated in an apparition of Mary to the Ven. Ursula Benincasa in 1617. Great graces were promised by Mary to those who would honor her Immaculate Conception by wearing the Blue Scapular. The condition was expressed that they live chastely according to their state in life.
Other Marian Scapulars are of more recent origin: the white Scapular of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, approved by Pius IX in 1877; the white Scapular of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, approved by the Congregation of Rites in 1900; the white Scapular of Our Lady of Good Counsel, approved in 1893 by Leo XIII for the purpose of invoking Mary’s guidance upon its wearer; the white Scapular of Our Lady of Ransom bearing the cross of Aragon, which originated in the thirteenth century in connection with the Fathers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Redemption of Captives; the black Scapular of Our Lady Help of the Sick, the badge of the Confraternity founded by St. Camillus de Lellis for the aid of the sick, approved in 1860 by Pius IX. The Green “Scapular” of the Immaculate Conception, approved by Pius IX in 1870, is a cloth badge rather than a Scapular, since it consists of a single panel.
Recent Popes and the Scapular
Pius XI and Pius XII have urged those wearing the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel to be especially attentive in their personal lives to the requirements of true Marian devotion. Pius XI wrote, “. . . 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 in [the hour of] death, must in life merit such signal favor by abstaining from sin and laboring in her honor.” Pius XII stressed the spiritual importance of the Scapular devotion:
We are not here concerned with a light or passing matter, but with the obtaining of eternal life itself which is the substance of the promise of the most Blessed Virgin which has been handed down to us. We are concerned, namely, with that which is of supreme importance to all and with the manner of achieving it safely. . . But not for this reason may they who wear the Scapular think that they can gain eternal salvation while remaining slothful and negligent of spirit, for the Apostle warns us: “In fear and trembling shall you work out your salvation” (Phil. 2:i2).
This letter marks a change in the manner of explaining the Sabbatine Privilege. It does not refer to the release from purgatory in the older terminology, ”especially on Saturday,” but in the words “as soon as possible.” The traditional description in terms of “Saturday” alluded to the liturgical practice of dedicating this day to Mary.
Pius XII likewise emphasized the value of the Scapular devotion For society itself:
There is no one who is not aware how greatly a love for the Blessed Virgin Mother of God contributes to the enlivening of the Catholic faith and to the raising of the moral standard. These effects are especially secured by means of those devotions which more than others are seen to enlighten the mind with celestial doctrine and to excite souls to the practice of the Christian life. In the first rank of the most favored of these devotions, that of the holy Carmelite Scapular must be placed – a devotion which, adapted to the minds of all by its very simplicity, has become so universally widespread among the faithful and has produced so many and such salutary fruits.
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.
The feast spread rapidly in the seventeenth century. The retention of the feast preserves the memory of the liturgical intent of thanksgiving for which the feast was originally instituted, as Benedict XIV observed: “Since through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin God worked numerous miracles in favor of those who practiced this devotion, it must be conceded that the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was not instituted without serious judgment, and celebrated in the universal Church with proper Office and Mass.”
Only the degree, not the fact, of sin in man is debatable. To affirm that the Scapular devotion is not of value to sinners, including those humanly judged to be the worst of them, would be to say that God fails to hear their prayers. The teaching of Christ is that God hears the prayers of the sinner (Lk. 18:9-14). The question of the Scapular and sinners is falsely posed when it is asked how the Scapular promise can save the worst of them. The question can only be whether or not the sinner who wears the Scapular out of devotion makes those interior acts in response to divine grace that are necessary to his salvation. The answer to this question is known only to God, who alone may scan the secrets of the heart of man.