DARIEN, Ill. — Carmelites see the 750th anniversary of the brown scapular as an opportunity to educate Catholics on what the devotion to the scapular is all about.

The scapular is not a magic charm of protection, an automatic guarantee of salvation or an excuse for not living a Christian life, according to Carmelite Father Robert Colaresi, director of the Carmelite Spiritual Center in Darien.

The center, in the Joliet Diocese, hosted the national congress on the Carmelite brown scapular this summer.

During the two-day congress, attended by more than 300 Carmelite priests, nuns and lay associates, speakers gave historic background on the scapular and also explained the significance of the devotion today.

Father David Blanchard, a faculty member of the Washington Theological Union, said the brown scapular originally was a monastic apron for several orders, including the Dominicans. The long, narrow outer cloak served a practical purpose, as it was part of the habit that religious wore and the brown color was associated with the Carmelite order in particular.

Over time, lay people joining confraternities connected with the Carmelites also received the scapular. As its popularity grew, its size shrank.

Today the scapular is small and bears two images, each about the size of a postage stamp sewn onto brown fabric and connected with brown ribbons. One picture is of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the other is of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or of St. Simon.

Carmelite Father Patrick McMahon, provincial delegate to lay Carmelites, pointed out that the actual date that the brown scapular devotion began is not really known, but that it stemmed from a vision documented in the 1400s that reportedly had taken place in the 1200s.

According to tradition, Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock, a Carmelite, in 1251 and gave him the scapular, an apron-like brown piece of fabric that fit over the head, telling him that whoever wore the scapular would be saved from the fires of hell.

Father McMahon said one problem with that story is that it is not mentioned “anywhere in any record for 150 years.”

“This gives us good evidence to say that there is no historical evidence of the vision of the Blessed Mother to Simon Stock,” he told the Catholic Explorer, Joliet's diocesan newspaper.

There also is the story that John XXII issued a bull that granted the “Sabbatine Privilege” to those wearing the scapular when they died, meaning that Mary would protect anyone who wore the brown scapular in death, especially on Saturdays — a day of honor for Mary.

But the Holy See always has insisted the “Sabbatine Bull” was a forgery, according to Discalced Carmelite Father Sam Anthony Morello, who researched the scapular while serving on his order's general council from 1986–91 in Rome.

Fathers Morello and McMahon have been working for the last five years on a new catechesis on the brown scapular for bishops and priests in America.

“Many people were beginning to realize that if we clung to pious legend, instead of sound theology, there would be no future for any devotion to the scapular,” Father McMahon told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview in Chicago after the congress on the brown scapular.

The new catechesis he has been working on states that the scapular is “essentially a habit,” linking those who wear it with the Carmelite order.

Father McMahon noted that scapular devotion has been refocused in the last 20 years. The scapular might not be as popular as it was in the 1950s and '60s, but today it signifies more of a link with the Carmelite order and is often worn by members of the lay order of Carmelites.

“It is not just something people wear,” he said, “but it inspires them to identify with the Carmelites in following Christ in the company of his mother.”

He said the Carmelites themselves have been more conscious of making sure people don't see the scapular just as a badge, and are finding ways to make people feel linked to the Carmelite family.

The priest said the tangible aspect of the scapular is significant today.

“Human beings, by nature, are sacramental,” he added. “We are a people that depend on signs and symbols.”

Contributing to this story was Carol Zimmermann in Washington.