In the early Middle Ages the Christian civilization was preserved by the heroic lives and activities of groups of men inspired with a high ideal. They were men who devoted themselves to religion, who took vows not to marry, and who lived together, worked together, and prayed together. They preserved the learning of the ages in spite of the barbarian invasion. They also taught the wealthy and aristocratic gentry that honest labor is a God-given privilege and duty. They cleared the forests of Europe, drained the swamps, planted fields, and taught improved agricultural methods. They were far in advance of their time.
Blending education with personal labor, the monks became known by the clothes they wore. At work the large monk threw over his head a large apron which covered him front and back. This apron was called a "scapular," since it fell over his shoulder. The Latin word for shoulder is "scapula."
Today, hundreds of years later, there is a form of this garment still worn by many Catholics, although it has changed in size, color and shape. In this new form it is no longer worn by monks alone but can be used by any Catholic. It is, however, still called a scapular an it still symbolizes a mans devotion to God.
There is a great variety in scapulars worn by Catholics today. The most common are the little rectangles of woolen cloth about twice the size of a postage stamp. Two of these are connected by a double cord and worn about the neck, one resting on the breast, the other on the back. Of course, they are worn inconspicuously underneath ones ordinary clothing. Their color, decoration and other details depend upon the particular devotion involved.
Evolution of the Scapular
The monks and their monasteries, strongholds of Christian civilization, inspired many with the desire to live such a religious life, or if that were impossible, at least to imitate that form of life. Thus it happened that there came to be attached to the great monastic groups hundreds of lay people who wished to carry out as many of their religious practices as possible. These organizations were called "Third Orders." Many of them wore the same uniform as the monks themselves.
But times change and so did the Third Orders. The monks garb became impractical and outmoded for people living in the world. Many of them adopted a much smaller scapular such as the monks wore while sleeping. In time, these were further abbreviated and even though they are now called "large scapulars," they are not much bigger than those worn by Catholics today.
Later still, other religious organizations of lay people were founded and called "Confraternities." These were less closely joined to the religious orders of monks than the Third Orders. Members of these Confraternities obliged themselves to say special prayers and to wear the scapular. The Catholic Church in approving such societies granted special spiritual benefits to the good works which the members performed.
Kinds of Scapulars
From the very beginning of the Christian Church, devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, has been popular. When the news went abroad that the Mother of God had appeared in a vision and made promises of special assistance both now and at the hour of death, Christian peoples lost no time in fulfilling the conditions laid down for obtaining special help. These conditions were in the main prayers and the wearing of the scapular.
While the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is the most ancient and best know, one of quite recent origin is the popular Red Scapular of the Passion. It dates back to 1846 when Christ appeared in a vision to a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, (a religious community of women).
The form that this scapular was to take was rather minutely described. It was to be made entirely of red wool to remind us of the Passion of our Lord. On one side of the scapular there was to be an image of Christ crucified, and on the other, a picture of the hearts of Jesus and Mary surmounted by a cross, with another inscription. No confraternity was associated with this scapular, but it was required that the faithful should receive this blessed scapular from an authorized priest and wear it constantly. Its purpose was to encourage mediation on the Sacred Passion of Christ.
There are many more scapulars, each one of which I intended to honor a particular mystery in the life of Christ or His Blessed Mother. A Catholic can belong to as many such confraternities and wear as many scapulars as he wishes. A convenient form of the five most popular scapulars can be obtained and worn inconspicuously.
Once again, to meet the needs of modern dress, the Church decreed that a single medal could be worn in place of all these scapulars. The medal should have an image of the Sacred Heart on one side and any of the numerous representations of the Blessed Virgin on the other. The scapular medal can be worn on a chain about the neck or in any other convenient way.
Why Wear Them?
The scapulars, as other sacramentals, are prayers in action by the Catholic Church. The cloth and metal are nothing; it is the official blessing of the church which joins them with the prayers of the Kingdom of God on earth. The Catholic Church by the power given to her by Christ declares that the wearing of these scapulars with good dispositions will aid in the forgiveness of the punishment due to sin and bring down Gods blessing upon the wearer.
Anything more would be mere superstition, anything less would be a denial of the mission of the Catholic Church to guide men to Heaven by all good means, material and spiritual, which can direct their thoughts, words, and actions.