There’s a frequently republished photo of a young Karol Wojtyla as a factory worker. He’s posing alongside a co-worker in what was probably a very brief break. The future Successor of St. Peter is wearing a big smile and a very visible brown scapular.

Later, as Pope John Paul II, he recalled how he wore his scapular from about age 10. When in May 1981 he was shot, he insisted doctors not remove it. Carmelite Father Mariano Cera told Inside the Vatican magazine: “Just before the Holy Father was operated on, he told the doctors ‘Don’t take off the scapular.’ And the surgeons left it on.” 

From these and other anecdotes, it seems safe to draw a conclusion: When it came to the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, John Paul never left home without it. July 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, would be a good time to begin wearing the scapular again — or to continue wearing it but with new appreciation.

The late Holy Father set an important example for us to follow all the days of our lives. For, in some places, Catholic folks seem to be forgetting that this powerful sacramental enriches our devotional life.

And then there are the wondrous promises attached to it.

“Take this scapular; it shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger and a pledge of peace,” the Blessed Mother promised St. Simon Stock in Aylesford, England, on July 16, 1251. “Whosoever dies wearing this scapular,” she added, “shall not suffer eternal fire.”

According to tradition, Mary herself picked this garment for us — so to wear the scapular is to be clothed in the “habit” of Mary. She reminded us of its importance in two major apparitions. She chose July 16 to make her final appearance at Lourdes (St. Bernadette always wore her scapular) and, for part of her last apparition at Fatima, Mary appeared as Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Former Carmelite Prior General Father John Malley finds that devotion to the scapular has diminished in the United States since Vatican II. But, scanning the 40 countries with a Carmelite presence, he sees the devotion growing. Enthusiasm is especially high in underdeveloped areas in Asia, Africa, Central America and India.

“The scapular is such a symbol to the people of Mary’s guidance and protection,” says Father Malley. “It’s something so [tangible] a child can put it on.”

Sign of Surrender

Children were enrolled in the brown scapular across the country not so long ago. The practice still goes on, if more sporadically. At St. Joseph’s parish and St. Louis Church in Parks, La., kids are enrolled after their first holy Communion in May. Father Bryce Sibley, the pastor, points out that the enrollment fosters both Eucharistic and Marian devotion.

Carmelite Father David Dillon, pastor of St. Matthew Church in Glendale Heights, Ill., also continues the tradition as he enrolls children in the parish’s church and school during seventh or eighth grade.

“It’s a sign we are committing ourselves to our Catholic faith,” he says. He’s seen devotion grow to our Blessed Mother in those who commit themselves to wearing the scapular, “and the scapular becomes a sign of that devotion.” The youngsters reflect on how the Mother of God is a role model for us, teaching us to be open to God’s will in our lives as she was.

The whole custom of wearing a brown scapular brings us closer to Christ himself, say devotees, because Mary is the model to follow in living a life in allegiance to Jesus.

“When you enroll the children you’re presenting to them the message of Mary’s fiat, her saying Yes to God,” says Rose Mary Lancellotti, delegate for lay Carmelites of the St. Elias Province in Middletown, N.Y. “When you enroll children they feel a part of the Church’s call to be good and listen to God’s word. As a parent, you’re telling them they also have Mary as a parent telling them to live a good life.”

The same goes for adults. “The scapular is a sacred sign,” she continues. “Wearing it reminds me to behave more Christianly.”

Paul and Rebecca Wheery of Steubenville, Ohio, enrolled in the brown scapular as college students. Now as their children make their first holy Communion — the six range from 12 years to 6 months — they, too, are clothed with the scapular.

Two years ago, 12-year-old Elizabeth refused to remove it while swimming. When the lifeguard asked why she was wearing a “cloth necklace,” she took the opportunity to witness Mary’s key role in her vibrant young life.

There are two simple guidelines to keep in mind, the aficionados agree. First, folks shouldn’t think of the scapular as a free pass to heaven, one that guarantees a spot no matter how one lives. And wearing the scapular obligates you to show your commitment to follow Jesus through Mary, who will help you love her Son — Our Lord — all the more.

John Paul II said as much in a Letter to the Carmelites on the 750th anniversary of the scapular. He cited two truths the devotional brings out: “the continuous protection of the Blessed Virgin, not only along the pathways of this life, but also at the moment of passing into the fullness of eternal glory” and “the awareness that devotion toward Our Lady cannot be limited to the occasional prayer in her honor, but must become a ‘habit,’ that is a permanent way of Christian living, made up of prayer and the interior life, frequent recourse to the sacraments and the concrete exercise of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.”

I feel the scapular is … a reassurance that our mother and father are there for us,” says Father Malley.

“It’s the day-in-day-out, constant realization that we’re loved, that Mary really does watch over us and care for us.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.