What is a Scapular?
Many Christians, of all denominations, often wear crucifixes or crosses–some out of devotion to the Lord, some simply as jewelry or adornment.
Many Catholics also wear a Scapular, which is a sacramental pendant to show one’s consecration to God.
A Scapular has two small rectangular pieces of cloth, one in the front and one in the back, which are usually of a certain liturgical color–brown, white, green, purple, or red–and often feature pious images. The pendant is named after the scapula, or shoulder blades, over which it is draped. Catholics believe that special graces are attached to the wearing of the Scapular.
The Scapular can be traced back to Saint Simon Stock, who claimed to have received it from the Virgin Mary when she appeared to him in 1251, promising, “Whoever dies wearing this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.”
Is a Scapular a Ticket to Heaven?
This promise, which can cause the Scapular to be mistaken as a kind of “ticket to heaven,” must be considered in view of the Church’s overall teaching on salvation.
The Church teaches that “justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1992). In light of His Son’s death, God freely offers us the gift of salvation, though it remains up to us to accept the gift. Ordinarily, this involves repentance and Baptism (see the Acts of the Apostles, 2:38).
Having been cleansed of sin in Baptism (see, the First Epistle of Peter, 3:21), it is necessary for us to persevere in a state of holiness throughout our lifetime, for “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22). Admittedly, that’s not easy to do.
Our faith in God, furthermore, must be active through works of love, for we are “justified by works and not by faith alone” (see the Epistle of Saint James 2:24). Of course, our works have merit only if they are united to the supreme work of Christ’s death on the Cross. All graces we receive as followers of Christ flow from the Atonement. This is what the Lord meant when He said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
In his Letter to the Phillipians (2:12), Saint Paul advises us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The Scapular is an outward sign of one’s inner conversion to Christ; as well as a holy reminder to turn daily away from sin and toward God. To this end, there are real graces attached to the wearing of the Scapular, as Mary indicated, which will greatly assist us in our mission to persevere in holiness–graces earned for us by Jesus. In other words, wearing it around one’s neck is not enough. It needs to mean something, which means that the wearer’s recognition of it must induce him or her to act on behalf of God and others.
The idea of divine grace being received through a material object only makes sense when one understands the incarnational aspect of the Catholic faith.
Catholicism is patterned after the Incarnation, the coming of Christ to earth, in which the invisible God became visible (see Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 1:15). Because God took on human form His grace can now be conveyed to us through physical things. Consider the Gospel account of the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Christ’s garment (Mark 5:28), or the sick who were healed by touching handkerchiefs that had been pressed to the body of Paul (in the Acts of the Apostles 19:11 – 12). In these Biblical accounts, the grace of healing was transmitted to believers through tangible things, through cloth as a matter of fact.
It is important to remember that when Mary promised salvation to those who wear the Scapular she meant those who wear it faithfully!
The Scapular wearer remains free to reject the graces attached to it and give himself over to sin. In that case, the Scapular would cease to be a sign of life in Christ, but become a sign of condemnation, a kind of mockery of God’s offer.
The Scapular, then, is not a ticket to heaven nor a magical object–it is a channel of grace! Magic claims to work by its own power, glorifying itself. The Scapular works by the power of Christ, glorifying God, if the wearer chooses to do so.