Along with the rosary, the scapular, is one of the oldest and most popular forms of devotion to the Most Holy Virgin. It is considered to be one of the so-called sacramentals or “sacramentalia.” In many of her apparitions (to St. Dominic, to the Servant of God Ursula Benincasa, and to the Fatima children) the Blessed Mother has pointed to the scapular as a means of sanctification and salvation. The Church, too, often recommends its use.
The Church’s Approval
The Marian sacramentals or sacramentalia are deeply valued by the Church. The Second Vatican Council says:
The sacred synod teaches this Catholic doctrine advisedly and at the same time admonishes all the sons of the Church that the cult, especially the liturgical cult, of the Blessed Virgin, be generously fostered, and that the practices and exercises of devotion towards her, recommended by the teaching authority of the Church in the course of centuries, be highly esteemed, and that those decrees, which were given in the early days regarding the cult images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the saints, be religiously observed. (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No.# 67)
Pope Paul VI, further elaborating on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, talked about the great significance of the scapular. In March of 1965, he said:
May the faithful have great reverence for the exercises and pious practices associated with the devotion to the Most Holy Virgin Mary, which in the course of centuries were approved by the Church. … The rosary to Mary and the scapular are among the recommended exercises. … The scapular is a practice which, due to its simplicity, is suitable for everyone and which has spread widely among the faithful Christians to their spiritual benefit.
On March 25, 2000, Pope John Paul II wrote:
“There are two truths drawn out from the symbol that the scapular constitutes. One—the continuous protection of the Most Holy Virgin, not only along life’s journey, but also at the moment of passing through to the fullness of eternal glory. The other—the knowledge that devotion towards Her cannot be limited to prayers and acts of respect in her honor in particular circumstances, but it must constitute a “HABIT,” that is, a permanent guiding rule of one’s Christian behavior, interwoven with prayer and an interior life, by means of frequent reception of the Sacraments and the actual performance of spiritual and corporal works of mercy. In this way the scapular becomes the sign of a “bond” and of a reciprocal intimate spiritual relationship between Mary and the faithful. Indeed, it interprets in a concrete way the entrustment that, on the cross, Jesus made to John, and in him, to all of us, of his Mother, and the commitment of the beloved apostle and of us, to Her, appointed to be our spiritual Mother.”
The scapular is directly linked to the contemporary Marian spirituality promoted by Blessed John Paul II. As such, it is focused on devotion, trust, and dedication to the Mother of God. It was Pope Pius XII who pointed to this element when on the 700th anniversary of the existence of the scapular he addressed a letter to the Carmelite Fathers in which he wrote: “Dedication is the contemporary form of Marian devotion. … Your scapular is a sign of dedication to Mary.”
This statement clearly shows why the Blue Scapular is still significant in today’s culture: the people who wear it declare solemnly that they do not want to dedicate their lives to the passing matters of this world, but — like Mary — to God alone, and want to live immaculately — without sin.
The act of oblation recited by the people receiving the Blue Scapular speaks clearly about surrendering oneself to the “bondage of love”. It is no wonder that the Blue Scapular is a sign of the Blessed Mother’s special recognition for us as her children. The first and most important conclusion flowing from all of the above is that people who wear the scapular are embraced by the Blessed Mother with a special love because of their devotion to God and to her. Thus, the scapular makes us uniquely her own.
The Biblical Foundations
As we look for the biblical foundations of the Blue Scapular, we might point to the theology behind wearing a special garment, present both in the Old and the New Testaments.
The Holy Scriptures — the primary source of our faith — allow us to see for ourselves how deeply the Blue Scapular theology is rooted in the Bible.
Speaking on the subject, we should recall the words of the prophet Isaiah first: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord,in my God is the joy of my soul; for He has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels” (61:10).
This passage clearly shows that a true vestment and adornment of the people of God is the divine life taking place within them. On the other hand, all instances of our unfaithfulness, defined in theology as sin, strip those vestments off of us, leaving us naked. This state of nakedness, symbolically expressing the distance that we put between ourselves and God, was noted by the prophet Ezekiel in regards to the Chosen People: “So I spread the corner of my cloak over you to cover your nakedness” (16:8). Sin has demeaned our human dignity and marred our image before God. Thus, we see the consequence of our disobedience to God. In this light, words from the Book of Baruch take on a special meaning: “Wrapped in the cloak of justice from God, bear on your head the mitre that displays the glory of the eternal name. For God will show all the earth your splendor” (5:2-3).
This excerpt shows God as the source of true worth, as we glorify His name and He clothes us in “splendor.” This idea was further developed by St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians: “…you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s new way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (4:22-24). Finally, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus in the parable of the wedding banquet speaks of a man who is cast out of the celebration because he is not wearing a wedding garment (see 22:1-14).
The above-mentioned quotes show us that terms describing human garments or adornments are used by the Scriptures to express certain spiritual realities. This unity of purpose and meaning represents a special “biblical symbolism.” According to it, and in accounting for the entirety of Divine Revelation, we can venture to say that anyone who accepts Christ and lives by His teachings puts on the vestment of salvation.
The Holy Scriptures teach that meeting God required putting on a special garment. The garment was to be clean, without stain, and washed (see: Ex. 19:10-14; Lev. 14:9; Num. 19:7), holy (see: 1 Chr. 16:29; Ps. 96:9), and solemn (see: Ezra 3:10). In the book of Revelation, a reference is made to people who “have not soiled their garments” (see: Rev. 3:4), to those “wearing white robes” (see: Rev. 3:5; 6:11; 7:13), and those wearing robes that have been “washed in the blood of the Lamb” (see: Rev. 7:14).
The scapular is a reference to this “new” garment. Those who wear it express their desire for holiness, for remaining in union with God, and for making their entire lives a liturgy to the glory of the Lord.
The Mystical Meaning
The scapular has a profound mystical meaning as a reference to the protective mantle of the Madonna, the external garment which Mary places over people turning to her in need. The oldest version of the 3rd century prayer, Under Your Protection, contains the words: “Under the mantle of your mercy… .” This truth is depicted in many images of the Blessed Mother coming from the same period in which the scapular originated. In the mystical interpretation, it is possible to believe that the scapular is a piece of Mary’s garment, received from her hands and guaranteeing her constant protection to those who wear it. Hence, the recommendation that those who wear the scapular should often recite the prayer Under Your Protection.
The Spirituality of the Order of the Immaculate Conception
As mentioned above, wearing the scapular signifies participation in the spirituality and privileges of the religious Order with which the scapular is associated. It is, therefore, worth knowing what kind of spirituality the Servant of God Ursula chose for the contemplative nuns of the Immaculate Conception that she founded. Their rule required, among other things, abstinence from meat in their lifetime (exception was made in time of sickness), and fasting on all vigils of Marian feasts, which was particularly strict before the solemnities of the Immaculate Conception and Corpus Christi. In addition to fasts mandated by the Church, the rule required fasting every Saturday and during the last two days of carnival. Also, on every Friday, a five-hour adoration before the Blessed Sacrament was to be held. The rule allowed every nun admitted to the profession of perpetual vows to spend one day beforehand in conversation with her nearest family. However, she could never see them again afterwards. The rule forbade communication with anyone from the outside. (The food was delivered to the convent by means of a turnstile).
As we remember, the Infant Jesus in Ursula’s vision extended His blessing both to the nuns and to laypeople who wear the Blue Scapular, have a special devotion to the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, and observe chastity according to their vocation. Although lay people are not bonded by the strictness of eremitic life, they should realize that wearing the scapular without living in their state of life (married, religious, single) the way that Mary desires would not be worthy. They ought to choose leading such a life in which the Blessed Mother can be truly present. They are called to be “holy and unblemished before God,” as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians (1:4).
To those who piously wear the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception, the Lord Jesus promised special gifts and assistance in life.
Naturally, it does not mean that the scapular should be used routinely. The scapular is a sign of a certain attitude and disposition of the heart. This disposition gives us hope for obtaining the means necessary for our salvation, since wearing the scapular endows one with many graces promised by the Blessed Mother and granted by the Church. The faithful who wear the Blue Scapular express their desire to become like the Mary Immaculate, which means to avoiding all sin and living in union with God. Those who want to wear the scapular worthily desire to be holy! Therefore, it is not surprising that St. Louis Grignion de Monfort believed that wearing the scapular was one of the most important forms of Marian piety.
One may wonder if the scapular has not lost its significance since it began to be worn under the clothing rather than externally and can even now take the form of a medal.
Let us recall here the theology of Gothic cathedrals. Many of them are decorated with magnificent sculptures placed high under their vaulted ceilings or even on their roofs where only God could see them. The Gothic cathedral is considered to be a masterpiece of sacred art since this work was not for people but for God Himself. Such is the case, too, with today’s scapular: God, not the people, sees it and rejoices in it. Wearing the scapular under the clothing is a practice in the spirit of Jesus’ order: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt. 6:6). The scapular hidden under the clothes is no longer a sign for the people, but a sign for God, for the Blessed Mother, and for those who wear it.
Let us also note the erroneous and dangerous understanding of the scapular that may be found in people of “small faith.” By regarding the scapular as a talisman that guarantees salvation and promises graces regardless of the way of life one leads, one risks falling into superstition and susceptiblity to magic. “There is no other thing in Christianity more worthy of condemnation than this satanic impertinence,” affirmed St. Louis de Montfort.
In 1750, St. Alphonsus Maria Ligouri in The Glories of Mary stated that in honor of the great leaders of the world, their followers adopt their garb. Mary Immaculate is also happy that her devotees wear her scapular as a sign of devotion and belonging to the family of the Divine Mother. Saint Alphonsus also said that he shows his devotion by wearing Our Lady’s Scapular.
The Role of the Scapular
The role of the scapular in the history of the world is similar to that of the rosary. It is intended as a sign of conversion, unity with God, and daily striving for holiness. As St. Dominic prophesied in the 13th century to Br. Angelus: “One day, through the rosary and the scapular, the Most Holy Virgin Mary will rescue the world.”