NOTICE: I am a practicing Catholic, active and in good-standing with my local diocese, who professes faith and loyalty to the Church. This ministry - my "little work" - is strictly a personal expression of that faith and loyalty, and not an officially recognized ministry in the Diocese of Honolulu.

~ Peter, Ministry Administrator

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Brown Scapular: A Sign of Consecrated Life

“Just as men take pride in having others wear their livery, so the most Holy Mary
is pleased when her servants wear her scapular as a mark that they have dedicated themselves
to her service, and are members of the Family of the Mother of God.”

~ St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori

Today, July 16th, Holy Mother Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a most beautiful and ancient title of the Blessed Virgin Mary... and together with it, we commemorate the Brown Scapular of Mount Carmel (or simply the “Brown Scapular”), which ranks among  the most popular sacramentals in the history of our Faith.   Yet, at the same time, it’s also one of the most easily misunderstood one, as well.  My hope is that all people who read this blog will gain a better comprehension of what it means to wear this special garment.  You see... the Brown Scapular is not just meant to be worn, but it really needs to be “lived” - a sign of our active and personal dedication to Jesus Christ, through Mary, his Holy Mother.

What exactly is a “Scapular”?
In order to understand the significance of the Brown Scapular, one must first understand what a scapular is - it’s basically an over-sized apron that was worn in ancient and medieval times by servants and by the working-class people.  It consisted of two large fabric panels that were meant to hang over the shoulder blades (the scapula) to cover the front and back of a person.  It was connected at both shoulders with cords or by straps of additional fabric and people wore them to protect their clothing while they worked in the fields or during other servile work, and to also protect themselves from the elements.

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.

The origin of the Brown Scapular
As already mentioned, there are many variations of the religious scapular, but the one that is arguably the richest in tradition and Church approbations is the Brown Scapular (right).  Although this post is specifically dedicated to this particular sacramental, I would encourage readers to also research the other devotional scapulars available to us, as many of them have very interesting histories and represent diverse spiritual charisms that may serve to inspire and deepen the faith of a particular person.  Other scapulars that may be of interest include the Blue Scapular of the Immaculate Conception (affiliated with the Theatine Congregation); the Black Scapular (affiliated with the Servite Order); the White Scapular (affiliated with the Trinitarian Order); and finally the Red or Green Scapulars, which were both the direct results of approved private revelations of Our Lord and the Blessed Mother to two different members of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.

The Blue Scapular of the Immaculate Conception, as revealed to Ven. Orsola Benincasa (d. 1618)
... and the Red Scapular of the Passion, as revealed by Jesus to Sr. Apolline Andriveau in 1846.

So going back to the Brown Scapular of Mount Carmel… this celebrated sacramental is a fundamental part of the Carmelite Order and its spirituality, which traces its roots back to the Biblical Prophet, Elijah, who lived on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land.  The prophet’s male disciples and followers organized themselves into a community of hermits who followed an austere, penitential manner of living as a way of advancing their spiritual union with God.  As centuries passed, and the dominance of the Saracens grew in Palestine, the hermits were eventually forced to leave Mount Carmel and spread outside of the Middle East to Europe where they developed a structured mode of religious life patterned after Western Monasticism.

In the mid-13th Century, intense persecution from several factions within and outside of the Church almost brought about the extinction of the Carmelites had not one of its exceptionally holy members implored God’s help in saving the Order.  The man was St. Simon Stock (d. 1265), who in 1247 was elected Prior General of the Carmelites (devotees of the Brown Scapular have a special place in their heart for this humble instrument of the Blessed Mother).  While in distress over the state of his Order he earnestly prayed to God, and in response, received a vision of Our Lady who carried a large brown scapular in her hands.  St. Simon's encounter with the Blessed Virgin was reportedly on July 16, 1251, and the following promise was communicated to him:

“This shall be the privilege for you and for all Carmelites,
that anyone dying in this habit shall be saved.”

~ Words of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

The Prior General immediately set about propagating the Brown Scapular among his brethren, and as evidenced up to the present day, his Order flourished.  News of the Scapular Promise reached beyond the Carmelite community to the Laity, who also wanted to share in the promise of Our Lady’s special assistance.  The Carmelites obliged their clients by passing on modified versions of their scapular.  Thus, the Brown Scapular spread outside the Order and the rest is history.

Devotion vs. Superstition
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?
Although many may view the Scapular Devotion as an outdated remnant from the past. Wearing the Scapular today, I personally feel, is more relevant than ever.  In fact, in her 6th and final apparition at Fatima, Portugal, on October 13, 1917, the Blessed Mother appeared to the child-seers in a separate vision as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, bearing both the Christ Child in one arm and in the other she held aloft the Brown Scapular.  Our Holy Mother was, without a doubt, trying to draw the world’s attention to the value of her sacramental.

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.

“Our Lady of Fatima requested that we consecrate ourselves to her Immaculate Heart.
The Scapular will be for all the sign of our consecration.”

~ Pope Pius XII

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