What is a Scapular - Origins of the Scapular

The scapular, which most people associate with two little bits of wool, is a sacramental based on a key element of the monastic habit. In its original sense, a real scapular is a piece of cloth around shoulder width that is worn over the shoulders and falls not quite to the wearer's feet. It is the most essential garment for monastic orders and has been adopted by non-monastic religious institutions for both men and women. In the past, the scapular included bands on the arm that connected the front and back panels of fabric, forming a cross on the wearer's body; this design of scapular is still worn occasionally today. As a result, the scapular was also known as a crux, which means "cross."

The scapular is intended to represent an apron, emphasizing the wearer's readiness and willingness to serve. The scapular is a symbolic garment, not only a utilitarian apron, as stated in St. Benedict's Rule, where it is to be worn "for work." Benedict employs a non-specific word for work here, rather than the word for manual labor or work that he uses elsewhere in the Rule, or the words particular to 'God's work,' which he uses elsewhere to include prayer. As a result, "scapulare propter opera" ("scapular for work") is thought to refer to a scapular that should be worn at all times, whether for prayer or manual labor.

In the Middle Ages, it was normal for the lay faithful to unite with religious orders as a tertiary. Some would not wear the complete habit since they had not taken full vows. Others who swore private vows would wear nearly the entire habit. Non-monastics, or those who do not take full vows, would be given a "reduced scapular" to wear. This was made of two pieces of wool, each about 2 inches by 3 inches in size, bound together by a band or string and worn over the shoulder, one rectangle in front and one in rear. Although still larger than the devotional scapular worn by many Catholics, the shape and tiny size of this scapular are similar to those worn by many lay Catholics. Tertiary members of the Franciscan, Carmelite, and Dominican orders still wear them.

The Brown Scapular is the most well-known and most certainly the first form of the devotional scapular. It may also be referred to simply as "the scapular," when all other scapulae are identified by its complete name or by some distinctive feature. Similarly, "The Feast of the Scapular" alludes 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 a sign of salvation, a shield against danger, and a pledge of peace and the covenant." According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Our Lady's exact words first appeared in writing in 1642, in a document that stated these words were dictated by Simon to his secretary and confessor. Although historical documents cannot support the exact details or wording, the content is considered reliable. That is to say, even if we cannot place the exact words, it is credible that Our Lady assured St. Simon Stock in a supernatural manner of her special protection over his entire 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.

Visit MDS’ collection of Scapulars here.