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“Our Lady of Mount Carmel″ is a title of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her role as patroness of the Carmelite Order, and the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (also known as the Brown Scapular), is the habit of that Order. In its small form, it is widely popular within the Catholic Church as a sacramental and has probably served as the prototype of all the other devotional scapulars. The liturgical feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, July 16, is popularly associated with devotion to the Scapular.
According to the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship, the Brown Scapular is "an external sign of the filial relationship established between the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother and Queen of Mount Carmel, and the faithful who entrust themselves totally to her protection, who have recourse to her maternal intercession, who are mindful of the primacy of the spiritual life and the need for prayer."
In its origin as a practical garment, a scapular was a type of work apron, frequently used by monks, consisting of large pieces of cloth front and back joined over the shoulders with strips of cloth. It forms part of the habit of some religious orders including the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, the Carmelites. 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 order of friars they adopted a new habit that included a brown belted tunic, brown scapular, a hood called a capuche, and white mantle.
According to traditional accounts, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at Cambridge to St. Simon Stock, who was Prior General of the Carmelite Order in the middle of the 13th century. The earliest reference to this tradition, dating from the late 14th century, states that "St. Simon was an Englishman, a man of great holiness and devotion, who always in his prayers asked the Virgin to favor his Order with some singular privilege. The Virgin 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.'"
In the Middle Ages, a habit was a very essential part of the identity of members of religious orders. To remove one's habit was tantamount to leaving the Order. The Carmelite Constitution of 1369 stipulates automatic excommunication for Carmelites who say Mass without a scapular, while the Constitutions of 1324 and 1294 consider it a serious fault to sleep without the scapular.
According to Hugh Clarke, O.Carm, "The origins of the Scapular devotion are to be found in the desires of lay people during the Middle ages to be closely associated with the Carmelite Order and its spirituality." It was customary for laypeople who belonged to confraternities, sodalities, or third orders affiliated with the religious orders to wear some sign of membership, frequently some part derived from the religious habit such as a cord, cloak or scapular. During part of their history, the lay affiliates of the Carmelites wore the white mantle which the friars wore, or even the full habit. The small brown scapular and Mary's promise of salvation for the wearer, began to be promoted to the laity in the form we are familiar with today by Giovanni Battista Rossi, prior general of the Carmelites from 1564-1578.
The Carmelite scapular is said to have been very widespread in European countries at the end of the 16th century. In 1600, the Carmelite Egidio Leoindelicato da Sciacca published a book called "Giardino Carmelitano" which includes the formulas of blessing for the Fratelli and Sorelle della Compagnia della Madonna del Carmine (laypeople who received the complete habit of the order) and the formula for the blessing of the scapular for the Devoti della Compagnia Carmelitana. This is the earliest apparent form of blessing for the small scapular. It is also noteworthy that the formula for the sisters contains no reference to the scapular, while in that for the brothers there is a special blessing for the scapular.
With modern scholarship shedding light on the first centuries of the Carmelite Order, very great difficulty has arisen for the historicity of Our Lady's scapular vision to St. Simon Stock. The first mention of the vision appears in the late 14th century, almost 150 years after the date in 1251 when it is sometimes stated to have occurred, and is not noted in the earliest accounts of St. Simon Stock's life and miracles. The history of the Carmelite habit and legislation and discussion relating to it within the Order during that time span, do not mention nor seem to imply a tradition about the Blessed Virgin giving the Scapular to the Carmelites, nor do the notable Carmelite writers of the 14th century, such as John Baconthorpe, mention the scapular. History even records an instance in 1375 when an English Carmelite named Nicholas Hornby engaged in a public debate with a Dominican friar in which Hornby ridiculed Dominican claims to have received their habit from the Blessed Virgin—this was a claim common to several different orders in the Middle Ages. Hornby showed no sign of being aware of any similar claim that had been made by a fellow English Carmelite in the preceding century.
Amidst confusing evidence, it has been suggested that some other Carmelite than Saint Simon Stock had a mystical vision, the story of which was later associated with him. A Dominican history compiled by Gerard of Frachet in 1259-1260 tells of the 1237 drowning death of a holy Dominican, Blessed Jordan of Saxony, off the coast of Acre, Israel (near Mount Carmel), and mentions "a certain brother of the Order of Carmel" who was tempted to abandon his vocation because God had permitted this to happen to so holy a man; Bl. Jordan was said to have appeared then to the brother in a vision, reassuring him that "all who serve the Lord Jesus Christ to the end will be saved." Gerard concludes: "the brother himself, and the prior of the same Order, brother Simon, a religious and truthful man, have related these things to our friars." This story which bears a notable similarity to the traditional story of the scapular vision and promise of salvation, with obvious differences, is one of very few known references to Saint Simon Stock written during his lifetime.
It has also been pointed out that in the Middle Ages, careful history of the kind we expect today was an exception to the rule, and it was very common to clothe spiritual and theological beliefs in the form of a story.
Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, writes that "from a scholar's historical point of view, we must admit that there is a lack of documentary evidence that would demonstrate irrefutably the truth or historicity of the apparition. At the same time, there exists no cogent reason for denouncing the apparition as false and definitively denying its truth." The Carmelite Order (O.Carm) states on their website that even if the apparition is not historical, "the scapular itself has remained for all Carmelites a sign of Mary's motherly protection and as a personal commitment to follow Jesus in the footsteps of his Mother, the perfect model of all his disciples."
The earliest form of the Scapular promise states simply that wearers of the brown scapular, the Carmelite habit, will be saved. In the first place this meant Carmelite religious who remained faithful to their vocation. Later the small Brown Scapular became popular with the laity as a sacramental.
The nature of the spiritual help associated with the Brown Scapular came to be described in greater detail and specificity. A traditional formulation of the Scapular Promise is "Take this Scapular. Whosoever dies wearing it shall not suffer eternal fire. It shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger and pledge of peace."
At times the scapular has been preached as an easy way to heaven, which has led to criticism of the devotion. Devotees of the Brown Scapular have sometimes been accused of straying into superstition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that sacramentals such as the Brown Scapular "do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church's prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it."
Believers in the traditional scapular promise sometimes argue that Mary's intercession either grants conversion, final perseverance, and/or last rites to the wearer, to secure the assurances of the Scapular Promise. Possibly another argument is that the scapular is despised by faithless and godless souls, rejecting the Virgin's promise, and so they come nowhere near to wearing it. Another argument is that in cases of stubborn unrepentant sinners the scapular will somehow, miraculously or not, be taken off the wearer, this was suggested by Saint Claude de la Colombière.
The 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia states that a list of indulgences, privileges, and indults of the Scapular Confraternity of Mount Carmel was approved on July 4, 1908, by the Congregation of Indulgences.
A central belief about the Brown Scapular is its signification of the wearer's consecration to Mary. In 1951, Venerable Pope Pius XII wrote in an Apostolic letter to the Carmelites on the 700th anniversary of the vision of St. Simon Stock, that he hoped the Scapular would "be to them a sign of their consecration to the most sacred heart of the Immaculate Virgin."
One of the beliefs most influential in popularizing the brown scapular devotion was a promise known as the Sabbatine privilege. It was associated with an apocryphal Papal Bull allegedly written in 1322 by Pope John XXII. It states that Pope John XXII had a vision of Our Lady granting that through her special intercession, Mary will come down to personally deliver the souls of Carmelites and Confraternity members out of Purgatory on the first Saturday after their death ("Sabbatine" means Saturday), as long as they fulfill certain conditions including wearing the brown scapular. The Vatican has denied the validity of this document since 1613, but didn't forbade the Carmelites "to preach that the Christian people may piously believe in the help which the souls of brothers and members, who have departed this life in charity, have worn in life the scapular, have ever observed chastity, have recited the Little Hours [of the Blessed Virgin], or, if they cannot read, have observed the fast days of the Church, and have abstained from flesh meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays (except when Christmas falls on such days), may derive after death — especially on Saturdays, the day consecrated by the Church to the Blessed Virgin — through the unceasing intercession of Mary, her pious petitions, her merits, and her special protection." These elements are reflected in older versions of the requirements of enrollment in the Confraternity of the Brown Scapular.
Today, the Carmelite Orders, while encouraging a belief in Mary's aid and prayerful assistance for their souls beyond death and commending devotion to Mary especially on Saturdays which are dedicated to her, explicitly state in their official catechetical materials that they do not promulgate the Sabbatine privilege, and are at one with official Church teaching on the matter. But the Church didn't condemn anyone who believe in the Sabatine privilege, which belongs in the field of private revelations.
The scapular must consist of two pieces of brown cloth with one segment hanging on the wearer's chest, and the other hanging on his/her back. These pieces are joined by two straps or strings which overlap each shoulder—hence the word "scapular" (shoulder blade). Images sewn onto the Brown Scapular are unnecessary. In the past the scapular was required to be 100% wool but this is no longer required; the habits of the Carmelite religious are also now typically made of other, less expensive and more durable materials. It is normally worn under the clothes but not pinned to undergarments.
Because wool deteriorates rapidly in tropical climates, since 1910 those properly invested into a confraternity may wear a properly blessed scapular medal with the depiction of Jesus with his Sacred Heart on one side and Mary on the obverse. However, Pope Saint Pius X expressed his preference for the cloth scapular. Pope Benedict XV has also proclaimed the Church's strong preference for cloth to be worn rather than the medal. This preference is because cloth is important to the sign value of the scapular as a garment, a habit.
Any Catholic priest may invest a baptised Catholic with the Brown Scapular. Lay people may not bless a Scapular. There is a form of the blessing and investiture in the Book of Blessings which will normally be found in any Catholic parish. The most recent Rite for the Blessing of and Enrollment in the Scapular, approved in 1996 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, is available in booklet form, the "Catechesis and Ritual for the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel", published in 2000 and distributed by ICS Publications. The rite can also be found on the website of the Carmelite Order.
The short form of the investiture is as follows:
According to a 1996 doctrinal statement approved by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, "Devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel is bound to the history and spiritual values of the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel and is expressed through the scapular. Thus, whoever receives the scapular becomes a member of the order and pledges him/herself to live according to its spirituality in accordance with the characteristics of his/her state in life."
Like the other mendicant orders such as the Franciscans, the Carmelites formed a "Third Order" for lay people (the "First Order" being the friars, the "Second Order" the nuns), either married or single, who wished to participate deeply in the spirituality and charism of the order, but remain in their secular state of life. Those belonging to the Ancient Observance (O.Carm) branch of the Carmelites are today known as Lay Carmelites, those belonging to the Discalced (OCD) branch of the Carmelites are known as Secular Carmelites, members of both branches belong to communities which meet together regularly for prayer and spiritual formation. The small Brown Scapular is the habit of these Carmelite laity, with a larger ceremonial Scapular normally worn outside the clothes at community meetings and official functions.
There is also a Confraternity of the Brown Scapular. According to the 1996 version of the rite of enrollment, "The scapular confraternity of Carmel is an association of the faithful who strive for the perfection of charity in the world in the spirit of the Carmelite Order, participate in the life of the Order and its spiritual benefits in an intimate communion of thought, ideals, and works together with Mary." In Europe in the past there was often a local Confraternity group which met for fellowship and spiritual formation. Today, at least in North America, those enrolled by a priest into the Confraternity of the Brown Scapular typically have no visible group to belong to, nor is any record kept anymore of people thus enrolled. Some Carmelites such as Fr. Redemptus Valabek, O.Carm, have lamented that there is no longer a central registry of names of people enrolled in the Confraternity, and called for a return to the practice and renewed awareness of the scapular's connection to the Carmelite community and its spirituality.
The current rite of enrolment in the Brown Scapular also permits for persons to be enroled in the scapular without joining a Confraternity or other group.
Carmelite scholar Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD summarizes the Catholic Church's official position about the Brown Scapular thus: