A scapular is a piece of cloth, worn by both religious and laity, that is placed over the shoulders and has a variety of symbolism.
One of the most popular devotions in the Catholic Church is the Brown Scapular, a small piece of cloth worn over the shoulders in honor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.
However, the Brown Scapular is not the only type of scapular, as many religious wear a scapular that is much larger than what most lay people are familiar with.
What is a scapular?
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains how, “The scapular (from Latin, scapula, shoulder) forms a part, and now the most important part, of the habit of the monastic orders. It is usually worn over the habit or soutane … It consists essentially of a piece of cloth about the width of the breast from one shoulder to the other (i.e. about 14 to 18 inches), and of such a length that it reaches not quite to the feet in front and behind.”
This larger type of scapular is worn by many religious orders, such as the Carmelites, Dominicans, Benedictines and some Franciscans.
It may have originally been an apron used for work that was placed over the top of a religious habit.
Over time there grew a need for nighttime scapulars, which were worn in place of the larger scapular. These small square pieces of cloth, suspended from ribbons to hang front and back, would eventually be adapted by the laity and are now widely worn underneath clothing.
Symbolism of the scapular
The scapular itself “was often called simplycrux (cross) on account of its shape, and symbolism introduced accordingly. It was thus natural to term the scapular jugum Christi (the yoke of Christ); it was also called scutum (shield), as it was laid over the head.”
St. John Paul II also expanded on its symbolism connected to Our Lady in a message he gave to the Carmelite Order.
Therefore two truths are evoked by the sign of the Scapular: on the one hand, the constant protection of the Blessed Virgin, not only on life’s journey, but also at the moment of passing into the fullness of eternal glory; on the other, the awareness that devotion to her cannot be limited to prayers and tributes in her honour on certain occasions, but must become a “habit,” that is, a permanent orientation of one’s own Christian conduct, woven of prayer and interior life.
As it can be seen, the scapular has a long history in the Catholic Church and has a much broader use than the small scapulars that many lay people wear on a daily basis.