The Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. AdobeStock

Christian Discipleship and the Brown Scapular

How the Church’s pious traditions can help believers live faithfully in a secular age

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We live in a secular age. As believers, we are bombarded with messages and influences that tell us that God is not real, or — if real — that he is of no consequence to life. As such, we need as much help as we can get to persevere in faith and thrive in the grace of God.

The task of a pastor and a parish community, therefore, is to create a culture that is fiercely grounded on the reality of God and the way of life entrusted to us by Jesus Christ. The parish is to be a place where the horizontal dimension of life — holy fellowship, virtuous living and service to the poor and sick — and the vertical dimension of life — the sacraments, prayer and the study of the Scriptures and sacred doctrine — merge into a challenging but invigorating manifestation of God’s presence among us. Such a way of life is a tangible sign to us of God’s presence and power.

The way of the Lord Jesus is the way of discipleship. It is the real, living answer to the claims of secularism. The way of the Lord gives us a culture of faith. It is sustained and given life by the sacred liturgy and is enriched by a vast array of pious traditions that surround our daily lives as believers. Preeminent among the pious traditions of the Church is the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. (More on that a little later.)

Christian Discipleship

During the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, a reporter once asked him which of the papal titles was the dearest to him. Such titles are abundant, such as Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of St. Peter, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City and many others. In addition, there are the titles of direct addresses, such as Your Holiness or Holy Father.

In response, John Paul II responded that his favored title was the one that bore the greatest weight. For John Paul II, the most cherished of all his titles was “Christian.” It is the foundation of everything else, and the one that gives meaning to all else. It announces: I am baptized into Jesus Christ. I am anointed. I am “a small Christ.”

Through baptism, we Christians are sacramentally assimilated to Jesus. We must enter into this mystery of humble self-abasement and repentance if we are to live the way of the Lord.

The title Christian, therefore, is both our greatest boast of God’s grace and our most pressing challenge. In baptism, we were made children of God and members of Christ’s own body. We were made Christians, and throughout our lives, we have to work and suffer to live up to this upward calling.

The early believers of the Faith did not feel worthy of the title Christian, since it implied we were “a small Christ.” The early disciples were simply identified as “followers of the Way.” The expression indicated that believers understood their call to live and continue the Way of the Lord Jesus.

Over time, however, unbelievers who witnessed the love and selfless service of our forefathers and foremothers began to call them Christians. And so, it was those outside of the Faith who began to call us Christians, since they saw something of the Lord in the followers of the Way (cf. Acts 11:26). The title eventually stuck and we now call ourselves Christian. We should never forget, however, the meaning and demands that come with such a name and the humility of our forebears in approaching such a name.

Baptism is an eternal weight of glory. By baptism, we became members of Christ’s own body. It is how we can dare to now call ourselves Christians. We now live, move and have our being in Jesus Christ. As such, we draw close to him, allow his grace to transform us, seek to faithfully follow his way, to continue his work, to love as he loved, and to share eternal glory with him in eternity (cf. Acts 17:28; 1 Cor 12:31; 13:11-13).

As Pope St. John Paul II indicated, we carry the name of Christian on our shoulders and in our hearts. It is our most esteemed and pressing title. It is who we are. And we are summoned every day to fulfill and live up to the glorious name of Christian.

The Way of the Lord

Secularism lies to us and tells us that we can live perfectly good lives without God; or that if we want God, he is merely a cherished heirloom or psychological consolation who should have no bearing on our daily lives. The Christian response to such a secularist claim is the Way of the Lord. The Way is the clear indication that God is real and that we need him if we are to have full and abundant lives.

Of the many aspects of the Christian way of life, the preeminent action of believers is the worship of the living and true God.

The Lord was a man of worship. He showed us how to worship the Father, and he entrusted his Eucharistic sacrifice to us. The Eucharistic sacrifice is the summit and source of everything we do. Nothing compares, or even comes close, to the holy Mass. The entire Way flows from the Eucharistic sacrifice.

The Christian way of life, and the paramount importance of the holy Mass, was emphasized and stressed throughout the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II highlighted the sacred liturgy and called on pastors to teach the faithful how to consciously and actively participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice. Such involvement was to happen through extensive catechesis and a deepening of the spiritual life.

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, explained it this way: “Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects” (No. 11).

By actively and consciously participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice, the entire Way of the Lord is given a context and template. The sacrifice exemplifies everything else that we seek to do as disciples of the Lord.

Within the Way of the Lord, we have certain pious traditions. The pious traditions extend or point us to the Eucharistic sacrifice. They are tangible reminders to us of our baptismal consecration to Jesus Christ.

Pious Traditions

In the Church’s spiritual treasury, there are numberless pious traditions. The vast majority of such traditions were formalized in different ages, but they can still be easily lived and applied to our own day.

The pious traditions are beloved expressions of faith, such as processions, scapulars, novenas, litanies, the Rosary, blessings, chaplets and religious medals. Among the pious traditions, the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel has particular importance.

In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council acknowledged the importance of such pious traditions: “Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended. … Devotions proper to individual Churches also have a special dignity.” (No. 13).

Vatican II saw pious traditions as a help to nurturing and fueling the faith of believers.

Nevertheless, in many places, pious traditions were discarded, mocked and stripped from the life of parishes after the Second Vatican Council. The spiritual sensitivities of the faithful suffered violence as popular and cherished pious traditions were ridiculed. Parishes that once had rich and abundant devotional lives were ravaged as beloved pious customs were abruptly thrown out.

It must be stressed that Vatican II never directed or intended for pious traditions to disappear. The council’s instruction is clear — namely, pastors are to place the Church’s devotions within the grace of the sacred liturgy, show the connection between the liturgy and pious traditions, avoid misplacement of devotions over the sacred liturgy and seek to prevent any sense of superstition. This was the catechetical and spiritual work called for by Vatican II.

Vatican II, however, did give clear guidance for pious traditions: “But these devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them” (No. 13).

Pope Paul VI later visited this directive in his apostolic exhortation on the Rosary, Marialis Cultus: “In this context we wish to mention two attitudes which in pastoral practice could nullify the norm of the Second Vatican Council. In the first place there are certain persons concerned with the care of souls who scorn a priori, devotions of piety which, in their correct forms have been recommended by the magisterium, who leave them aside and in this way create a vacuum which they do not fill. They forget that the council has said that devotions of piety should harmonize with the liturgy, not be suppressed. Secondly there are those who, without wholesome liturgical and pastoral criteria, mix practices of piety and liturgical acts in hybrid celebrations. It sometimes happens that novenas or similar practices of piety are inserted into the very celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. This creates the danger that the Lord’s Memorial Rite, instead of being the culmination of the meeting of the Christian community, becomes the occasion, as it were, for devotional practices” (No. 31).

With the help of the Second Vatican Council, and understanding its encouragement of pious traditions, as well as their tempering if they conflict in any way with the sacred liturgy, we can look at one of the highest of pious traditions — namely, the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

The Brown Scapular

As we receive and nurture sanctifying grace in our souls, we are strengthened to follow the way of the Lord Jesus. St. Paul describes this as being “clothed” in Jesus Christ (cf. Gal 3:27). The figurative language is meant to express not only an external adherence to Jesus Christ, but an internal surrender to the workings of his grace in our lives.

The imagery is helpful as we reflect upon our baptism, our status as the children of God, our esteemed name of Christian, and the reliving of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ and the dwelling of his grace within us.

The imagery of being clothed in Jesus Christ and living according to his way of life is also helpful as we seek to understand the pious tradition of the scapular, since a scapular is a piece of clothing (or an abbreviated piece of clothing) that is worn as a sacramental on our bodies.


The Sabbatine Privilege

The Blessed Virgin of Mount Carmel has promised to save those who wear the scapular from the fires of hell; she will also shorten their stay in purgatory if they should pass from this world still owing some debt of punishment.

This promise is found in a bull of Pope John XXII. The Blessed Virgin appeared to him and, speaking of those who wear the Brown Scapular, said, “I, the Mother of Grace, shall descend on the Saturday after their death and whomsoever I shall find in purgatory I shall free so that I may lead them to the holy mountain of life everlasting.”

The Blessed Virgin assigned certain conditions which must be fulfilled:

1. Wear the Brown Scapular continuously.

2. Observe chastity according to one’s state in life (married/single).

3. Recite daily the little office of the Blessed Virgin or observe the fasts of the Church together with abstaining from meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays, or with permission of a priest say five decades of Our Lady’s Most Holy Rosary, or with permission of a priest substitute some other good work.


A scapular, taken from a Latin word meaning “shoulder,” consists of two pieces of cloth worn front and back over a person’s shoulders. When worn, the scapular can appear to be a small type of yoke, such as the yoke the Jesus calls his believers to take upon themselves as they follow him (cf. Mt 11:28-30).

Traditionally, the Brown Scapular has been seen as a sign of our baptismal consecration. It represents the garment we received at baptism, which itself symbolizes our new life in Jesus Christ.

When worn attentively, the scapular has the ability to remind us of our faith in Jesus Christ, our dedication to him and our decision to follow his way of life. When the struggles of faith, or the demands of discipleship, appear overwhelming, the scapular can be a small help in knowing God’s presence, providence and power among us. In a secular culture, such reminders are rare or obscured, and so any help along the way — even two small pieces of cloth — can be a consolation and encouragement to us.

The name of the scapular comes from the mountain range in the northern part of the Holy Land. The series of small mountains was known for its biblical prominence, especially in the infamous battle between the Prophet Elijah and the priests of Baal. In the encounter, God worked a strong miracle manifesting his majesty and strength.

Due to this biblical association, early Christian hermits were attracted to Mount Carmel to pray and seek the voice of God. In time, the eremitical group came to be called Carmelites. Eventually, they gave the Blessed Virgin Mary the title of the mount because of their prayers to her and her spiritual solidarity with them.

In time, the needs of the Church led the hermits to become mendicant friars, along with the Franciscans and Dominicans. With this expansion, the Brown Scapular grew in popularity, especially in its modified smaller form for believers who were not friars. In the course of time, the simple pieces of cloth came to be revered as one of the Church’s favored devotional practices.

When the scapular is worn with faith, it is meant to express and serve the interior faith of believers and their commitment to Jesus Christ. It is not jewelry or a good luck charm. It is not merely an heirloom of previous times.

The scapular is a symbol of faith, and no scapular, or medal or other devotional item, however blessed and favored by the Church, can make up for a lack of faith. The religious object itself has no power, other than what our faith and the working of God’s grace gives to it. But there must be faith and an openness to God’s work among us. Our pious traditions are a help, never a replacement, to our faith.

The Lord warns us not to do things so as to be seen, just as he also calls us to share our faith with others (cf. Mt 5:14-16; 6:1-18).

Admittedly, this calls us to a delicate balance, especially when it comes to the Church’s sacramentals and devotional practices amid a secular culture. When used with faith, the devotional practices of the Church — such as the Brown Scapular — can be a compelling sign to others, not only of our own dedication to God, but of the invitation God offers to all people to know and accept his love and mercy.

In an age of aggressive secularism, the Church’s devotionals are a welcomed gift. They are a harmonious part of the Way of the Lord Jesus. And, if used well, they can be an immense help to us to remain steadfast in faith and to give a ready and peaceful witness to the reality of God in our world today.

FATHER JEFFREY KIRBY is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Indian Land, South Carolina. He is the author of the recent book, “A Journey to Mount Carmel: A Nine-Day Preparation for Investiture in the Brown Scapular of Our Lady” (Sophia Institute Press, $17.95).


Additional Scapular Devotions

The White Scapular of the Most Blessed Trinity has a red and blue cross and is a sign of consecration to the Holy Trinity.

The Black Scapular of the Seven Sorrows of Mary denotes devotion to Our Lady’s sorrows. Those enrolled in the confraternity pray 15 minutes a day — one Hail Mary and a Hail Holy Queen — for the Servite order and the Church. They also do a work of mercy for suffering souls.

The Blue Scapular of the Immaculate Conception is traced to Venerable Ursula Benincasa and consists of blue wool cloth and a depiction of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady.

The Red Scapular of the Passion of Our Lord is worn on Fridays. It is made of red cloth and contains the words, “Holy Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, save us.” The opposite side has an image of the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary with the words, “Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, protect us.”

The Black Scapular of Help of the Sick has an image painted by Fra Angelico, a famous Dominican painter. It consists of a picture of Mary, and Sts. Joseph and Camillus, patrons of the sick. The reverse side has an image of a red cross.

The Blue and Black Scapular of St. Michael the Archangel is associated with the Confraternity of St. Michael the Archangel. It is shaped like a shield. One side depicts St. Michael killing a dragon with the words “Quis ut Deus,” meaning, “Who is like God.”

The Scapular of St. Benedict is worn by oblates of the Order of St. Benedict. The front usually depicts an image of St. Benedict.

The White Scapular of St. Joseph is spread by members of the Capuchin order. One side has the image of St. Joseph and Jesus with the words, “St. Joseph, patron of the Church, pray for us.” The other side has pictures of a dove, a cross and the keys of Peter with the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is his Guide.”

The White Scapular of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus has an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on one panel and an image of Mary, Mother of Mercy, on the other.

The White Scapular of St. Dominic has St. Dominic kneeling before the crucifix. The side has an image of Blessed Reginald of Orleans receiving the religious habit.

— Adapted from by Chloe Langr, Nov. 24 2017


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