Our Lady of Mount Carmel: St. Simon and the brown scapular

October 29, 2013

Our Lady of Mount Carmel is a familiar Marian title to many Catholics, but the story behind this medieval apparition and the devotion it inspired in the wearing of the brown scapular less so. 

That’s mainly because the Virgin Mary bore this title before tradition holds she appeared on July 16, 1251 to the English saint Simon Stock, who was an early prior general of the Order of the Brothers of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, more commonly known as the Carmelites. 

The story of the apparition of Mary to St. Simon Stock is attested to by “venerable tradition” and liturgical practice, rather than verified by the robust historical documentation and direct witness accounts that support more modern apparitions like those at Lourdes and Fatima, for instance. 

While the historicity of the apparition has been questioned for centuries, devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel and trust in the promises of the brown scapular revealed to St. Simon Stock are blessed by the Church and held dear by believers everywhere. 

On the 750th anniversary of the bestowal of the scapular on St. Simon Stock in 2001, Pope John Paul II said the brown scapular symbolized the truth of “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.” He also said he had worn his own scapular of Carmel for a long time.

Though the story is widely accepted, St. Simon Stock never wrote about his vision of the Blessed Mother, nor did any of his direct contemporaries write of his having spoken of it. 

The first reference comes from the late 14th century, according to Father Eamon R. Carroll, O.Carm., the late Mariologist and faculty member of the International Marian Research Institute of the University of Dayton.

“St. Simon was an Englishman, a man of great holiness and devotion, who always in his prayers asked the Virgin to favor his Order with some singular privilege. The Virgin appeared to him holding the scapular in her hand saying, ‘This is for you and yours a privilege; the one who dies in it will be saved,’” Carroll wrote.

The full length scapular is part of the Carmelite habit and is thought to have originated as a kind of apron. It is said that during his vision the Blessed Mother grabbed hold of the saint’s garment, indicating that anyone faithfully living the Carmelite rule would receive her special aid at their death. 

On the official website of the Carmelite order, Father Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm, says that whatever the origin of the scapular, its symbolism became an important sign of consecration to Mary, Mother of Carmel. At the end of the 15th century, lay people began wearing a small version of the brown scapular. It became enormously popular in Spain and Portugal. Scapular societies were formed across Europe and missionaries use it as a catechetical tool, he said.

Attached to the brown scapular is the so-called Sabbatine privilege, which was allegedly revealed to Pope John XXII in a vision and which he allegedly promulgated in a papal bull called Sacratissimo uti culmine. 

In the vision, the Virgin promised to release from Purgatory on Saturday, the day the Church dedicates to the Blessed Virgin, the members of the Carmelite order and its confraternities if they met certain conditions.

While Church determined that the bull was not authentic, it has affirmed for centuries the “conditions” for the Sabbatine privilege, which remain valid for true devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, according to Carroll. Some say the privilege of early release from purgatory is an elaboration of the vision received by St. Simon Stock. The conditions for Mary’s special assistance during the transition to eternal life are prayer (principally the rosary or the Little Office of the Virgin Mary), penance (often abstinence on Wednesday and Saturday as well as Friday), and chastity according to one’s state of life.

Carroll writes that the Sabbatine privilege is a reminder that Mary will keep her promises, that she will stand by her children when God calls them at their final hour, and her love will accompany them past death. “Thanks to the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel we pray with special confidence, ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,’” Carroll wrote.