From work clothes to prayer clothes

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | July 15, 2016

Brown scapular is the most famous of many scapulars

Summer is a time to garden, but some people work in the garden of the Lord year-round. And they even have work clothes.

July 16 is the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patroness of the Carmelite order. The Carmelites trace their origin to hermits living on the slopes of Mount Carmel in the Holy Land in the late 12th century. (The name “Carmel” comes from a Hebrew word karmel meaning “garden” or “fertile field.”)

July 16 feast is also known as “the Scapular Feast” for many Catholics, because of the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or “the brown scapular.”

According to tradition, Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock, a Carmelite prior living near Cambridge, England, in 1251. He was praying for his struggling order. The Blessed Mother gave him the first brown scapular and promised special privileges to the Carmelites and all others who wore it faithfully.

Other colors

The brown scapular is perhaps the most famous, and one of the oldest, of “the small scapulars.” These are worn by lay people with a special attachment to a particular order associated with that scapular. The brown scapular is for the Carmelites — whose habit is brown. (This scapular can also be black.) There is a black scapular (also dating to the 13th century), associated with the Servite Order and called the Our Lady of Sorrows Scapular. A white scapular, of the Trinitarians, dates to the late 12th century. There is the blue scapular of the Theatines, a green scapular (Paulists) and a “red scapular of the Passion” of the Lazarites.

Scapulars take their name from the Latin word for shoulder blade — scapulae — and trace their roots to medieval work clothes. Sometime before the 13th century, Benedictine monks began wearing a large piece of cloth, with an opening for their heads, as a type of work apron to protect their habits. Because this cloth rested on their shoulders, it became known as a scapular. Given its shape, the scapular was sometimes called a cross or the yoke of Christ.

Over time, the scapular became a distinctive part of the habits of many orders. Around the late 13th century, third orders — associated with particular religious communities — began to form; the Dominicans and Benedictines were the earliest. Third order (tertiary) members, whether lay or religious, followed a modified version of the rule that governed a particular order. These “tertiaries” were vested with the scapular of the order, though not the full habit.

Some time later, lay people formed confraternities, linked to particular religious orders. Each lay person received a small scapular as a badge of belonging to these confraternities.


Since scapulars derive from religious communities, they remind their wearers of their fellowship to that order and its particular mission. A person must be vested with a scapular in order to wear it. Investiture is permanent. Then, even if a scapular wears out, it can be replaced and its blessing immediately transfers to the new scapular.

Because this investure includes a blessing — done by a priest — scapulars become sacramentals. Sacramentals are blessed objects that predispose us to receive the graces of a specific sacrament. Their blessing comes through the intercessory power of the church and all its members.

This intercessory power of the church — along with the prayers of Mary — is strongly linked to the brown scapular. Tradition says the Blessed Mother promised St. Simon her protection against the fires of hell, as well as her prayers for final perseverance to anyone who wears the brown scapular.

About a century later, Pope John XXII (d. 1334) had a vision in which Mary promised further assistance to those who do the following:

  • Wear the brown scapular at all times (except for short times, such as for bathing). Wearing it is a visible sign of one’s pledge to live in communion with God’s plan;
  • Strive to live chastely according to one’s station of life (single/married);
  • Each day say the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, or abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, or offer another substituted practice approved by a priest with faculties in that religious order. (Most often, this involves five decades of the rosary each day. This substitution requires the permission of a priest.)

Mary’s promise is called “the Sabbatine Privilege” because she also told the pope that, on Saturdays (a day traditionally consecrated to Mary), she would aid all those who had died in the previous week and who had practiced the above actions. (“Sabbatine” comes from the word “Sabbath.”)

The brown scapular made another appearance in church history in 1917. It was during the last reported vision of the Blessed Mother at Fatima, Portugal, on Oct 13, that one of the visionaries — Sr. Lucia de Santos — said Mary had appeared to her in a Carmelite habit and holding the brown scapular.

Now there is always a danger that some people might mistake Mary’s promise of assistance as a sort of magical protection against hell. This is never the case with the scapular, or any sacramental. Eternal life is a gift from God; nothing we do can earn it. It is God’s grace and Christ’s saving actions that bring us eternal life. But using a sacramental serves to remind us of God’s gift of salvation.

Prayer life

Wearing a scapular links us with the work and prayer life of a religious community. Prayer always disposes us to receive God’s grace and keeps us focused on the work of spreading the Gospel.

Finally, since many scapulars have Marian ties, they are linked to Mary’s intercession for us. The church has always taught that Mary holds a special place in the work of salvation, a place linked to the Paschal Mystery of her son. And, as the mother of the church, it has always been Mary’s special work and privilege to offer her care to all the children of God.

Our special work is to follow Christ and to work in his garden on earth so as to be granted the grace of eternal life in heaven.


On Aug. 15, 2016, the feast of the Assumption, Bishop David Ricken will hold an enrollment in the brown scapular at 1 p.m. in the Apparition Chapel of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion.

Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Immaculate Heart of Mary Ministries at; “The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary”; “Modern Catholic Dictionary”; “Dictionary of Mary”; “Dictionary of Catholic Devotions”; “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism”;;;

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