Ask Father Michael – Why so Many Scapulars?

Dear Father Michael:

As a member of the Blue Army I naturally wear the Brown Scapular, but a friend of mine showed me the scapular she wears as a Third Order Dominican, and it’s white. I’ve also seen a green scapular. Why are there so many different scapulars, and what do they mean? Sophia


Dear Sophia:

There have been many different scapulars throughout the history of the Church, and their origin is that of a monastic garment. It was originally a work apron that a monk wore to protect his habit from being soiled, but as time went on, came to have a spiritual significance all its own and became a permanent part of the habits of many different monastic communities. The Brown Scapular of which Our Lady spoke at Fatima is the one associated with the Brothers and Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mt. Carmel, known today as the Carmelites, but the scapular was not a part of their habit from the beginning. The first Carmelite hermits who lived on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land in the 12th century are thought to have worn a belted tunic and striped mantle typical of pilgrims. When the Carmelites moved to Europe in the mid-13th century and became a mendicant (“begging”) order of friars they adopted a new habit that included a brown belted tunic, brown scapular, a hood called a capuche, and white mantle, which is what their habit looks like today.

The special spiritual privileges attached to the Brown Scapular are often believed to originate from an appearance of the Mother of God to St. Simon Stock, who was Prior General of the Carmelite Order in the middle of the 13th century. However, there is no real record of this until the 14th century. This tradition states that St. Simon, an Englishman, had asked the Virgin to favor his Order with some singular privilege. The Virgin then appeared to him holding the Scapular in her hand saying, “This is for you and yours a privilege; the one who dies in it will be saved.”

Origin of the Third Order

Now, as a secular priest who does not belong to any religious order, I’m always sensitive to the misconception that many people have had over the centuries that, in order for a priest to be truly holy, he needs to belong to some sort of religious order, like the Carmelites or the Franciscans or the Dominicans or the Benedictines or the Jesuits; and, throughout its history, the Church herself has had to condemn several times the notion that crops up every hundred years or so that the secular priest, because he doesn’t live in a monastery according to some sort of monastic rule, is spiritually inferior.

That being said, it is a fact that throughout the history of the Church, many priests and lay people alike have found great spiritual help in associating themselves with the unique spiritual program of one religious order or another, which toward the end of the Middle Ages would give rise to what would eventually be known as the Third Orders. The First Order was the men who belonged to a monastic community; the Second Order was the women or nuns who belonged to it, and the Third Order consisted of lay people and secular priests who wanted to share, in their own way, in the spiritual life of that community. As a sign of their participation in that spirituality, those who joined these Third Orders were sometimes given a modified portion of that community’s monastic habit to wear underneath their secular clothing. In the case of the Carmelites, that part of the habit they gave people to wear was the Brown Scapular.

Originally one could not wear the Brown Scapular unless one had been accepted into the Third Order of Mt. Carmel by the superior of a Carmelite friary, but because of the special privileges attached to wearing the Brown Scapular according to the tradition of St. Simon Stock— particularly the promise of eternal salvation—the Carmelites were encouraged by the Church to relax their requirements, making the Brown Scapular available to everyone provided that they dedicated themselves to living the Catholic Faith to its fullest, with a special emphasis on love for the Mother of God. Today, any priest or deacon can invest someone in the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.

Prepares the Soul to Receive Grace

Our Blessed Mother focused on the Brown Scapular to the Three Children at Fatima because she understood that anyone who wore the Scapular in the spirit that it requires would be saved. It was not, however, because the Scapular was some sort of magic charm that had power of its own to impart grace, but because, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, the spiritual program attached to it prepares the soul to receive grace, particularly the Grace of the Sacraments and the Grace of a Holy Death.

Father Michael

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  1. i have a question regarding the Brown Scapular. I was told by an OCD Sister that once you received the scapular you were permitted to wear the scapular medal. Just the other day a gentleman told me that only applied if you lived in the tropics otherwise the blessings of wearing the scapular are only conferred if you wear the cloth scapular. Can you please provide clarification Thank You

    • Dear Joan:
      This is a confusing issue. In all cases, the cloth scapular is always preferred, but the medal is acceptable, if you are allergic to wool or are in the tropics or in war and the cloth is difficult. Sister Lucia said the wearing of the Brown Scapular (cloth) is part of the Fatima message as Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared at the October 13 apparition, holding a Brown Scapular. She said it is a sign of your consecration and devotion to her Immaculate Heart. We promote the wearing of the Brown Scapular as part of the requests and fulfillment of the Fatima devotion. However, the medal is acceptable.

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