One of the Catholic practices often criticized by non-Catholics and misunderstood even by many of the faithful is the wearing of the Brown Scapular. At first glance it might seem that this practice is presumptuous, and perhaps to some non-Catholics, even superstitious. So, especially for the sake of those who are not familiar with this sacramental, and to refresh the memories of those who are, I will speak briefly today about the origin, purpose and privileges of the Brown Scapular.
First of all, what is the origin of the Brown Scapular? In 1251 Simon Stock was the superior general of the Carmelites. This religious order had been undergoing persecution, and he had been praying for some time to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Patroness of the order, for help and protection. In answer to his prayer, Our Lady appeared to him on July 16, 1251, holding in her hand a garment called a scapular, a word which comes from the Latin word scapula, for shoulder. To Simon Stock, who is now a canonized saint, the Blessed Virgin said: “Take, beloved son, this scapular of thy Order as a badge of my confraternity, and for thee and for all Carmelites, a sign of grace. Whoever dies in this garment will not suffer everlasting fire. It is a sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant.”
The garment Our Lady gave St. Simon Stock was the size that the members of our religious congregation wear as part of our habit, reaching from the shoulders down nearly to the feet. The Catholic Church has since reduced the size of the scapular, as most of you know, to a very small size so that everyone can easily wear it over their shoulders under their clothing. But, as this promise was made only to the members of St. Simon Stock’s order, how can we, who are not Carmelites, receive the fulfillment of this promise? We can have a priest enroll us in the Confraternity of the Brown Scapular. This is done in a short ceremony in which any baptized Catholic who wishes to wear the Brown Scapular can become associated with the Carmelite Order, and thereby qualify to receive the fulfillment of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s promise.
As I mentioned already, this promise — namely, that whoever dies wearing this garment will not suffer eternal fire — may sound rather presumptuous. It may even seem to contradict what Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven shall enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Does the scapular promise mean that we can do our own will rather than God’s will? that we can live a sinful and worldly life and trust that we will go to heaven when we die because we wear the Brown Scapular? No, not at all.
First of all, if a Catholic chooses to wear the Brown Scapular, day in and day out, it should be an outward sign of his or her trust in the Blessed Virgin Mary. Such a one should be confident that Our Lady will use her powerful intercession with her Divine Son Jesus to obtain for him special graces to live a good Catholic life and remain in the state of grace. In fact, Pope Pius XII said that wearing the Brown Scapular should be an outward sign of one’s consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary, indicating that the one wearing the Scapular has a childlike dependence upon the Blessed Virgin as a model of virtue and as an intercessor, trusting that she will obtain special graces for him to live a virtuous life and especially to avoid mortal sin.
Secondly, this promise means that at the hour of death, if we are wearing the Brown Scapular, our Blessed Mother will intercede with God to obtain the graces we need to remain in the state of grace in God’s friendship so that we can save our souls. Or, if we have the misfortune of being in the state of sin, she will intercede for us that we might receive the Holy Ghost and sanctifying grace back into our soul before we die. Perhaps she will obtain for us the grace to make a perfect act of contrition, or she may obtain from God’s Providence an arrangement such that a priest will come to hear our confession and perhaps even administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction before we die.
A critical or skeptical person might say, “Well, that sounds fine in theory, but what proof is there that it actually works that way in practice?” Actually, there are many stories that have been recorded and approved by the Church as worthy of belief that verify the truth of this promise. I will tell you about a few of these cases.
Back in the 1950’s in Ashtabula, Ohio (not far from my parish in Akron), a Catholic wearing the Brown Scapular was run over by a train and was cut in two. Yet somehow this man did not die right away, and a priest who was summoned came and heard his confession. The man then died. Apparently this happened because the man, who was wearing the Brown Scapular, needed to be absolved that he might save his soul according to Our Lady’s promise.
There is also a story of a young lady who made it a practice to wear the Brown Scapular, but began living a life of sin. Eventually she despaired of God’s mercy, and decided to kill herself. She threw herself into a river, hoping to drown. God in His Providence, however, because she was still wearing the Brown Scapular, arranged for a fisherman to see her. The man came quickly and tried to help her, but in her despair she refused his help. In the struggle she tore off the scapular and, throwing it away from herself, she then drowned.
In France, a fallen-away Catholic, an officer in the armed forces, had lived a sinful life and lay dying in a hospital. When he became unconscious, one of the attendants placed a Brown Scapular on him. When he regained consciousness and found the scapular around his neck, he cried out, “Why have you put fire on me? It’s burning me! Take it away! Take it away!” At that point he tore it off and soon died. These last two stories from the book Purgatory by Fr. Shouppe show us that if someone wearing the Brown Scapular at the hour of death is not repentant of mortal sin and not willing to cooperate with grace to be truly sorry for mortal sin, God, through the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, will make sure that somehow the scapular is removed before that person dies.
Many Catholics, even among those who wear the Brown Scapular, are not aware of the second part of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s promise, namely that the scapular will be “a safeguard in danger.” Apparently the dangers referred to are not only those of a spiritual nature, but temporal or physical as well. Again, let us look at a few examples that illustrate this.
In the 1950’s in Germany a fire broke out in a residential neighborhood. One house after another caught on fire, to the point that within five hours 22 homes had burned to the ground. Only one remained untouched. Why? Because when the fire was approaching a member of that household took a Brown Scapular and fastened it to the front door of the house. The fire literally went around this house. People were amazed to see this one house standing untouched while 22 others around it were reduced to smoking rubble.
In 1845 an English ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean was on the point of being sunk by a hurricane. A young Irishman on board, upon seeing the danger the ship was in, took off his Brown Scapular and threw it into the huge waves. Immediately the wind ceased and the waves became calm. Another wave washed the Brown Scapular back onto the deck. A Protestant minister and his wife who were present asked the young man what it was that he threw into the ocean. This was the beginning of their conversion to the Catholic Faith.
There is another account of a priest who was offering Mass when a maniac with a gun came into the church and shot at him. The priest continued offering Mass, and everyone assumed the man had missed. After Mass, when the priest took off his vestments, he found the bullet embedded in his Brown Scapular. Finally, in the area of spiritual dangers, a holy Frenchman named Francis Ypes — in fact he is called Venerable by the Church — one day dropped his scapular. The devil appeared to him howling, saying “Take it off! Take off the habit which snatches so many souls from us!” The devil then admitted that there were three things he feared: the Holy Name of Jesus, the Holy Name of Mary, and the Brown Scapular.
I hope that this information and these examples will motivate you to wear the Brown Scapular if you do not already do so. And if you do wear it, I hope that it will motivate you to wear it with greater trust and confidence and dependence upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, your spiritual Mother. If you faithfully wear the Brown Scapular throughout life and at the hour of death, you will understand more clearly why we address the Blessed Virgin in the Salve Regina with these words: “Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy! Hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope! Turn then thine eyes of mercy towards us, and after this our exile show unto us the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.