The meaning of the Brown Scapular

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Our Lady of Mt. Carmel statue from Chile (photo in public domain). Her central, flowered garment is her scapular.

Today is the feast of Our Lady Of Mt. Carmel. I’m taking this opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about the Brown Scapular, often called Our Lady’s Habit.

Traditional religious habits include a scapular–a garment worn over the shoulder blades, similar to a long poncho. If you’ve ever seen The Sound of Music, the nuns fold their arms or hands under the front of their scapular.

Legend says that Our Lady appeared to St. Simon Stock, a 13th Century Carmelite friar. She told him that whoever wore the brown scapular of the Carmelites would be saved from Hell. Of course, the scapular she spoke of was the Carmelite habit. Later, smaller versions of the habit were made for people who wanted to be associated with the order.

A later legend claimed that a medieval pope had a vision in which Mary promised that those who wore the scapular would be released from Purgatory on the Saturday after their death. This legend was rejected as false by the Church centuries ago. We don’t know how much about St. Simon Stock is historically accurate. Today, neither the Church nor the Carmelite order teach that Mary made promises to those who wear the scapular. However, the Church does allow individuals who wear it and are truly devoted to Mary to believe she will rescue them from Purgatory on that first Saturday.

The Brown Scapular is not magic

I’ve known people who were not practicing their faith, yet they wore the Brown Scapular. Maybe some of them had a devotion to Mary of sorts. I don’t know. The scapular is not “fire insurance.” It can’t save an unrepentant soul.

Not even the sacraments are efficacious for someone who rejects their essence. Absolution requires contrition. You can’t baptize a person against his will.

The Brown Scapular is a sacramental. It does not give grace in itself. The grace comes from the devotion with which it is worn.

It is a sign that you practice Carmelite spirituality

Wearing the Brown Scapular shows that at some level you are associated with the Carmelite order. You may be a lay or secular Carmelite, a member of the Confraternity of the Brown Scapular, or simply someone who practices Carmelite spirituality.

A Catechesis on the Brown Scapular, written by the two main branches of the Carmelites in 2000, identifies several ways to practice Carmelite spirituality:

  • frequent participation in the Mass and reception of Holy Communion;
  • frequent reading of and meditation on the Word of God in Sacred Scripture;
  • the regular praying of at least part of the Liturgy of the Hours;
  • imitation of and devotion to Mary, the woman of faith who hears the Word of God and puts it into practice;
  • the practice of the virtues, notably charity, chastity (according to one’s state of life), and obedience to the will of God.

Children and the Brown Scapular

Children used to be enrolled routinely in the Confraternity of the Brown Scapular at their First Communion. Today, the Carmelites discourage this. The reasons for their doing so are already stated above: the scapular is a symbol, does not give grace or save souls in and of itself, and should be accompanied with the practice of Carmelite spirituality.

Confirmation seems to me a much more fitting time to suggest your children begin wearing the scapular. They should not be pressured into it, nor enrolled en masse as a class, for instance. They should study Carmelite spirituality and embrace it first.

You will find lots of misinformation on the Brown Scapular on the internet–sometimes even from Catholic sites you trust. If you question what I have written here, please read the entire Catechesis I linked to.

I don’t mean to discourage you from wearing the scapular, but I don’t want you to place hope in promises that the Virgin Mary never actually made.  If you have been wearing the scapular without practicing Carmelite spirituality, now is your chance to begin. I will try to help you through this blog. You could start by reading my little e-book on the subject, if you haven’t already.

Connie Rossini


13 Responses

  1. Cristina

    Thanks for this, Connie. As someone truly interested in Carmelite Spirituality and (hopefully) beginning on a journey to become a Secular Carmelite (soon) this straight-forward post is perfect! Good stuff! Happy Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel to you!

  2. melanie jean juneau

    don’t want to burden you but you have recived the Influential Blog Award ( my rendition) at

  3. Reclaiming the Sacred

    That is a helpful post for many out there who do not understand the scapular. I have tried to get my mom to wear hers for years, with no success. She complains of it, and then takes it off. I do not understand that. Sure, it is a little hassle sometimes with some clothing, but so what? It is a beautiful sign of devotion to Mary, and her protection for us.

    God bless you!

    • Connie Rossini

      That must be frustrating. Maybe you should change your focus with her a bit and just encourage her in some of the other practices of Carmelite spirituality that may be more appealing to her. blessings to you too.

  4. Lorena Hollalnd

    Do you think maybe your delivery might be a little harsh for some?

    • Connie Rossini

      If it is, I certainly didn’t mean it to be. I didn’t say, for example, “You should never give a young child the scapular.” Instead, I said the Carmelites “discourage” this practice, and gave the alternative that I would choose myself. I was also careful not to judge the measure of devotion of people who wear the scapular but do not appear to have interest in following God. I know this post is a bit more controversial than most that I write. But it doesn’t do any good to tell people something that is not true–in this case, that the Brown Scapular could save the souls of their loved ones–especially when eternal matters are in question. We cannot get into heaven without loving God and our neighbor, no matter what signs of devotion we wear. If you do the former, the scapular is an addition that could endear you especially to Mary’s heart. If you don’t, you should not count on it to save you.

  5. Lorena Holland

    I truly believe in God’s true love for us…our ways are not His ways and I believe he can even make a crooked path straight…Let us always trust in His mercy and love. God’s Blessings to you!

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