Hey, Father! Explain the scapular and why I should wear one

I just received a scapular. What is a scapular, and why should I wear it? Do you really avoid hell by wearing one? Are there any prayers/devotions I must pray to wear it? Am I supposed to wear it all the time? Anything else I should know?

Deb in Springfield

Today, when people speak of a scapular, they are usually referring to the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (there are in fact many other scapulars, all of which have different histories and devotional purposes). Based on your question, I assume you are referring to the brown scapular.

A scapular was originally a wide band of cloth that hung over the shoulders (scapula is Latin for shoulder) and extended front and back to below knee-level. Many monks and friars of various religious communities still wear it today. Eventually, scapulars were adapted for use by the laity, at which point they were reduced to two small panels of cloth joined by strings and worn on the chest and back.

The brown scapular comes from the Carmelite habit. St. Simon Stock, who was the prior of the Carmelites and lived in England, reportedly had a vision of Our Lady in 1251. She appeared to him holding the scapular and said, “Whoever dies clothed in this habit shall not suffer the fires of hell.” These words are often printed on the miniature brown scapulars to this day. Because the brown scapular was originally part of the Carmelite religious habit, this promise meant that any Carmelite religious who persevered in his or her vocation would be assured of salvation. Later, in the 16th century, the Carmelites began offering the scapular to lay people who wanted to be affiliated with the Order. This allowed the scapular to become a popular devotion.

Today, many Catholics still wear the brown scapular as a sign of their devotion to Mary and an appeal to her intercession and spiritual protection, especially at the moment of death. Just as St. Simon Stock and the Carmelites entrusted their lives to Mary, we are also called to do so as her spiritual sons and daughters. Consider that every time we pray the Hail Mary we ask her to “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” The brown scapular allows one to wear this prayer as a kind of “badge” at all times.

As far as the promise of salvation is concerned, we should understand the brown scapular as an expression of one’s trust in God’s mercy and our Lady’s intercession, which offer us the grace of “final perseverance.” Final perseverance means remaining in a state of grace until the end of one’s life. This concept is based on the words of Jesus himself: “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22). Cooperating with God’s grace, we must freely choose to “endure to the end” in faith, hope, and love. Therefore, we should not see the brown scapular (or any other devotion or sacramental) as some kind of spiritual “get out of jail free card” or “eternal life insurance.” That would be presumptuous and superstitious. Salvation is not the result of a special technique or formula; it comes from a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. With this being said, the Church approves and recommends private devotions as noble and fruitful practices which help us to pray and foster our spiritual growth.

In terms of how to practice the brown scapular devotion, the first step is “investiture and enrollment.” In this simple ritual, a priest blesses the scapular and places it on the person, who becomes a member of the Confraternity of the Brown Scapular. This confraternity does not require one to attend meetings (or pay membership dues!). Rather it is a spiritual community of those who are united in invoking the intercession of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. There are various simple prayers that people recommend for those who wear the scapular, often in the form of a “morning offering,” but no specific prayers are required. Of course, the rosary, Angelus, and other Marian prayers are always highly recommended. Finally, those who wear the scapular generally do wear it all the time, often under the shirt (except perhaps when bathing or swimming to prevent it from falling apart). If you require a new scapular, you only need to have it blessed and do not need to be enrolled again in the Confraternity. 

I’ll conclude with some sage advice from St. Josemaría Escrivá, who said, “The Church has many devotions. Choose a few and be faithful to them.”

Father Christopher Trummer, S.T.L, is parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Springfield, associate delegate for Health Care Professionals, associate chaplain of the Springfield Chapter of the Catholic Physicians Guild/Catholic Medical Association and has a license in Sacred Theology in Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy.