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Many times in the history of the Church, Mary took advantage of the power of adoption Jesus conferred on her at the foot of the Cross. At the turn of the 12th and 13th century, she took under protection of a group of men “who had passed through many trials.” And dwelled with them in the Valley of Wadi not far from Akka, in the shadow of the world renowned mountain of Carmel. She sealed that covenant in the vision of Saint Simon Stock, conferring a profound meaning on the fragment of his habit which has served him as his apron, for simplicity is the language of a Mother. News of this sign of covenant” quickly spread around the world. The scapular today is the characteristic sign of all who place their trust in Mary. It reminds us of her presence and support. It motivates us to love a worthy life, free of dishonesty and greed. It is not a magic charm or talisman, since it carries no power in itself – it reminds us of Him who has loves us and “made His tent” among us and who made His mother the dispenser of His gifts.
The history of the scapular as a sign of Mary and its connection with devotion to her derives from the Act of Entrusting the Carmelite Order to the person of Mary. The beginnings of the Carmelite Order, which arose in Palestine at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries as a result of the persecution by the Muslims was forced to flee to Europe, were very difficult times indeed. The Order was not well known in its new setting and was in a real danger of being wiped out completely. In such situation, the saintly Prior General of the Order, Simon Stock, mobilized his fellow brothers and undertook many efforts to entrust them to Mary.
The devotion of the holy scapular, initially practiced in Carmelite communities spread very quickly on a universal scale through the whole Church, among lay people and religious, kings and their subjects, rich and poor, simple and educated. The spread of devotion to Mary in the sign of the scapular became part of the Order’s Mission, thanks to which the Order not only persevered in that period of uncertainty, but likewise – in the person of the three Discalced Carmelite Doctors of the Church: Saint Teresa of Jesus, Saint John of the Cross and Saint Therese of the Child Jesus – brought forth beautiful fruits in the mystical experience of God Himself.
The scapular which worn in our own day as part of the habit of many religious orders, congregations, societies or institutes derives from exterior or outer sleeveless garment falling from the shoulders which monks used as their habit during manual labor thus a work apron. The scapular covered the back and the other part, the front chest area of the body, thus worn over the shoulder.
The brown scapular which we now wear is a replica or a miniature form or reduced form of the religious habit of the Carmelites both Calced or Ancient Observance and Discalced or Teresian. It consists of two pieces of brown wool usually the smallest is two inches in length and width connected by ribbon, string, cord or chain. The color of the ribbon, cord or chain does not matter. The scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is placed over the head so that one part or piece or segment of the material hanging on the wearer’s chest, and the other hanging on or his back.. It is normally worn under one’s clothes but not pinned to undergarments. The Latin scapulae means shoulders. Images sewn or printed on the cloth are not necessary.
Brown like the cross and the soil of the earth, we wear the brown scapular, since we is called to carry the Cross of Our Lord, Jesus Christ and to imitate the humility of the Blessed Virgin. The daily cross that as disciples of Christ we carry on our shoulders. The gentle yoke of Christ: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.” Matthew 11: 29-30. The scapular symbolizes the yoke that Jesus invites us to carry but Mary helps us to take. Whoever wears the scapular must identify themselves as Catholic without fear of the rejections and difficulty
By wearing the scapular we indicate that we place ourselves under the special protection and maternal care of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We can tell to what army or nation a soldier belongs by the uniform he wears; so we could consider the scapular as the particular uniform of those who desire to serve the Blessed Virgin Mary in some special manner. When we wear the scapular it is our sign of our consecration to Mary and affiliation with the Carmelite Order. Analogously, the brown scapular implies that Mary clothes a Christian with the garment of her attitudes and devotion to Christ in order to protect his or her soul from the filth of evil.
The love and maternal protection of Mary: the symbol is a small piece of cloth or cloak. We see how Mary when Jesus was born wrapped Him in a cloak. A mother tries to shelter her children. To wrap us up in her mantle is a very maternal sign of protection and care. A sign that she wraps us up in her maternal love. She makes us hers. She covers us from the disgrace of our spiritual nakedness.
We read in the Bible:
We take with us a sign that distinguishes us as her chosen children. To belong to Mary is to recognize her maternal mission over us and to allow ourselves to be guided, taught and molded, by her and in her heart. This way we can help in the growth of the Kingdom of her Son.
In the year 1950 Pope Pius XIII wrote about the scapular: “It may be your symbol of consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which we particularly need in these dangerous times.” In the words of the Pope we see that devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel is devotion to the Immaculate Heart.
The sign of the cross is the chief sacramental used in the church beside which we have holy water, blessed candles, ashes, palms, crucifixes and Images of our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints. Along with the rosary beads and the miraculous medal, the scapular is one of the chief Marian sacramental.
We call the scapular a sacramental, that is to say a sacred sign (such as a blessing) or object (like the rosary or holy water) given us by the Church. A sacramental is one of many items set apart or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to inspire and increase devotion and holiness, thus help us to obtain more graces and through these movements of the heart, to remit venial sin. The scapular, being a sacramental, does not communicate grace to us as do the sacraments, but does aid in making us more receptive to God’s love and a sincere contrition of our sins if we receive it with devotion. It is not the sacramental itself that gives grace, but the devotion, the love of God, or sorrow for sins that inspires.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 1670 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."
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.”
Carmelite scholar Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD summarizes the Catholic Church's official position about the Brown Scapular thus:
With regard to the scapular as a conventional and sacred sign, the Church has intervened at various times in history to clarify its meaning, defend it, and confirm the privileges.
From these Church documents there emerges with sufficient clarity the nature and meaning of the Carmelite scapular.
This is the Church's officially established connection between the sign and that which is signified by the sign.