~ St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori
In the context of Catholic Tradition, the scapular is sometimes incorporated into the habits of many Religious Congregations and Monastic Orders, both ancient and new. Not only does it serve a practical purpose for its wearer, but the scapular is also a visible sign of a consecrated soul’s servitude to the Lord and his/her willingness to actively serve God and neighbor. Depending on the Congregation/Order, scapulars come in various colors – black, blue, brown, red, etc. - and may even be decorated with symbols (eg. crosses, hearts, monograms, etc.) representing the charism of their respective religious institutions. Below is an example of a scapular worn by a religious Congregation/Order as a part of its official habit…
A group of nuns dressed in grey habits with blue scapulars.
In past centuries, a few of the older and more established Religious Orders such as the Carmelites, the Franciscans, and the Dominicans created modified “Rules” (similar to bylaws, in secular term) for lay-persons who lived in the world, but wanted to participate and share more directly in the spiritual life of a particular Congregation/Order. As part of their membership into these lay-orders, they sometimes wore habits that were modified, which could be a full garment (robe) or sometimes a smaller version of the religious group’s scapular. Hence, the familiar Brown Scapular often seen today is basically a Carmelite religious habit that has been drastically reduced in size for a layperson to wear discreetly and for practical reasons in a secular world.
that anyone dying in this habit shall be saved.”
~ Words of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Being especially devoted to the Madonna, I’ve heard my fair share of other Marian devotees, who in their enthusiasm for Our Lady, speak about the Brown Scapular in glowing terms that make it seem almost magical; charm-like pieces of fabric that “save” people from falling into Hell… and it's a big pet peeve for me when I hear it described as such because it takes the sacramental outside the realm of healthy devotion and puts it into the same category as superstition.
I hope that after reading all of the above, it’s clear the Brown Scapular is simply a religious habit. I often tell people they can liken it to a uniform and what the particular uniform is meant to represent. A good example would be a Police Officer's uniform, which was purposely designed to convey to its wearer and to the general public - by it’s fit, color, and badge - a visible sign of authority, civil service, law, and order; the vocation of a law enforcement worker (I have cop-friends).
In the same manner, a person who wears the Brown Scapular (or any other religious habit) should also convey by his/her manner of living and conduct the special Marian consecration/charism that the habit signifies. Thus, the power of the Brown Scapular lies in the grace the flows from living the consecration and NOT the garment, which of itself, can do nothing for the wearer if there is no measure of faith involved.
Why wear the Brown Scapular today?
Especially now in our current times, when there is open hostility towards the Church and Christianity, it wouldn’t be outrageous to say that there’s a moral and spiritual war being waged against the followers of Jesus Christ. The Scapular may now serve as a [military] uniform for all God’s children with the Word of God and the Holy Rosary as our weapons of defense. I would encourage everyone to wear the Brown Scapular - as a sign of whose side of the battle you're on - and to live the consecration that it entails. If we do so diligently, we witness to God and profess our willingness to be led by Our Lady to Jesus; consequently, we have our Blessed Mother’s promise to look forward to - we shall be saved.
~ Pope Pius XII