Question Box: The history and purpose of the scapular


Q. What is a scapular? Are there different types? Are they no longer popular?

A. Great question and a fitting follow up to last week’s column regarding indulgences, as we will see. First, what is a scapular? In Catholic popular piety, a scapular is a small, woolen, rectangular cloth worn front and back over the shoulders (usually under the shirt) and connected by a string. It is basically a miniature version of what some religious brothers and sisters might wear as part of their religious habit.

Fr. Hennen

The monastic practice of wearing of a scapular is mentioned as early as the 7th century in the Rule of St. Benedict. Likely an outer garment or apron worn for serving, it gradually took on more of a spiritual significance and became incorporated in the common dress of different religious orders.

There are many different types and colors of scapulars, based on different religious orders’ habits and particular devotions. For example, there is a white scapular with a blue and red cross in honor of the Trinity (a miniature version of the habit of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity), a blue scapular in honor of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a red scapular in honor of the Passion of Christ, a black scapular in honor of the Seven Sorrows of Mary. The most popular scapular is the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, associated with the Carmelites. There is even a five-fold scapular that bundles all of these.


With the development of third orders and various confraternities associated with different religious orders, it became popular for the laity to wear a smaller version of the religious habit as a sign of their commitment to live out something of the charism and spirituality of that particular order. That is the first and original purpose of the scapular. It is a reminder to the wearer of their commitment to a certain set of ideals, devotions or practices.

It is in the category of what we call “sacramentals” in the Church, things like holy water, blessed salt, rosary beads, crucifixes, medals, icons and other holy items, meant to remind us of God’s love, the saints and the mysteries of our faith. I often describes sacramentals as “hooks” on which to hang our prayers.

As with many pious practices, the granting of an indulgence eventually became attached to the wearing of the brown scapular in particular. A medieval tradition of an appearance of Mary to St. Simon Stock says that she said to him: “Whoever dies clothed in this habit shall not suffer the fires of hell.” To be clear, the scapular is not a “magic item” or a “get out of hell or purgatory free pass.” All of the same conditions for any indulgenced act would apply, namely, being free of serious sin (in a “state of grace”) and being detached from sin.

I was invested in the brown scapular in college and have worn one ever since. Often throughout the day, I will feel it and try to remember that I have given myself to Our Lady in a special way, knowing that she only ever wants to draw me closer to her Son, Jesus.

Scapulars wear out or break over time. I don’t know how many scapulars I have been through. Like any sacramental, the scapular should be blessed by a priest or deacon. Any priest may invest a person in the brown scapular and there is a ritual for this in the “Book of Blessings.” While perhaps not as popular as in earlier times, this is still a worthy and time-honored devotional practice.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *