Being Catholic in the 1950s and 60s (5): The Brown Scapular

October 19, 2015 at 12:30 am | Posted in Catholic Church, Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Memoir | 4 Comments
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When I was writing about Catholic rituals (like Confession, Holy Communion, the Holy Rosary and the Children of Mary), there was another religious sacramental that I overlooked. The Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, the earliest of several scapulars, is a very old devotion to Mary. It is said to have been instituted by the Blessed Virgin herself in 1251 when she appeared to St. Simon Stock, a Carmelite monk.

Our Lady said to St Simon:

“Take this Scapular. It shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger and a pledge of peace. Whosoever dies wearing this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire”.

She also said to him, “Wear it devoutly and perseveringly. It is my garment. To be clothed in it means you are continually thinking of me, and I in turn, am always thinking of you and helping you to secure eternal life.”

Mary appearing to St Simon

Mary appearing to St Simon

This has become known as the “Scapular Promise.” There was also an additional promise, given later to Pope John XXII by the Blessed Virgin Mary:

“I, the Mother of Grace, shall descend on the Saturday after their death and whomsoever I shall find in purgatory I shall free so that I may lead them to the holy mountain of life everlasting.”

This is the “Sabbatine Privilege” of the brown scapular, named for the Jewish Sabbath. This saves the wearer from an extended stay in purgatory. There are certain conditions to be met.

  1. to obtain the graces and promises, one must be chaste according to their state of life (whether married or single);
  2. an action must be performed that shows the wearer’s devotion to Our Lady, such as praying the Rosary, reciting the Little Office of Blessed Virgin, or something else the priest may give at the time of investment.

Scapulars were once given only to the monks the Carmelite order. However, in the sixteenth century, the Carmelites began distributing Brown Scapulars to the laity. There is a requirement for its proper investiture during a simple ceremony in which a priest enrolls the wearer in the Confraternity of the Scapular. Once invested, the person wears the scapular as a visible sign of their devotion to Mary.

Holy card: Our Lady with Jesus, offering the scapular

Holy card: Our Lady with Jesus, offering the scapular

All of my family were enrolled in the Confraternity of the Scapular at some stage in our childhood. I don’t remember just when, though it would definitely have been when we attended St Paul’s Primary School. I certainly remember wearing mine then. Mum’d had hers since she was young I think. I don’t know if Dad actually had one. He became Catholic in 1941, when he converted so he could marry Mum.

A scapular, before and during the early Christian era, was simply an apron that protected one’s clothes from dirt. The religious scapular, from when it was first instituted in the thirteenth century, would also have been rather like an apron. I suppose the name has continued on since then. There have been some changes though since then.

When we were young, it consisted of two small pieces of brown woollen cloth with pictures sewn on. These pieces were attached to each other by brown cord, making a kind of necklace. The scapular went over the head, around the neck and (usually) under your clothing. One piece of fabric went to the back, the other to the front.

The brown scapular

The brown scapular

We weren’t supposed to take the scapular off – after all, we might just happen to die when it was sitting on the bed when we were in the bathtub, or in a bag when we went swimming. If we did die without it, we might go to Hell – or at least spend a long time in Purgatory. Although we believed in the efficacy of the scapular as we’d been taught, we kids didn’t like wearing it. It was ugly, it chafed, it looked silly (to us), and often poked out of our shirt or dress. In summer, when we wore light clothing, it was a real source of embarrassment when that happened among non-Catholics.

Man wearing the scapular

Man wearing the scapular

Devotion to the Virgin Mary in the form of wearing the scapular still exists in the Catholic Church, as does this traditional scapular. However there is now also a scapular medal, which may be worn as well as or, I’ve heard, even instead of the old cloth one. A medal, like a piece of jewellery, would certainly look better and be more comfortable. You can even get them in sterling silver!

Sterling silver scapular medals; worn as the cloth ones are.

Sterling silver scapular medals; worn as the cloth ones are.

I have no idea when I stopped wearing my brown scapular – probably after I went to a public high school. I don’t know where it went either, and I haven’t even thought about it for many years – about five decades at least, I’d say.

An interesting source of information on the brown scapular can be found here.

http://www.stpeterslist.com/9345/7-things-you-should-know-about-the-brown-scapular-of-our-lady-of-mt-carmel/

(c) Linda Visman

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4 Comments »

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  1. I think your childhood verdict upon the scapular was probably right, although I always figured one week in Purgatory was all I would be prepared to stand. Permit an old atheist like me some curiosity concerning these weird conventions and customs, and some bemusement at the way the church always manages to turn them into a minor marketing exercise – that is, the product gets smaller and less valuable, and the price gets higher.
    Well, this was a new one for me – I’d never heard of the brown scapular before. Any symbolism to be drawn from its resemblance to a collar, I wonder?

    • Interesting point about the collar, Frederick, though it was apparently more of a protective device, like the original scapular of 2,000 years ago, more of an apron protecting one from the stains of the world. 🙂
      I always enjoy your comments.

  2. Loved the story!


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