What is a Scapular?

The scapular, the two small pieces of wool, is a sacramental based on an important piece of the monastic habit. A true scapular, in the original use of the word, is a piece of cloth, about shoulder width that is worn over the shoulders and falls not quite to the wearer’s feet. It is the most important garment for those in the monastic orders and has also been adopted by non-monastic religious orders for both male and female. In the past the scapular also had bands on the arm, connecting the front and back panel of fabric and thus forming a cross on the body of the wearer; this style of scapular is sometimes still used today. For this reason, the scapular was also simply called a crux, meaning ‘cross.’

The scapular is meant to be symbolic of an apron, indicating the wearer’s readiness and willingness to serve. That the scapular is symbolic and not merely a practical apron is based on the point in the St. Benedict’s Rule, where he says that it is to be worn “for work.” Benedict uses a non-specific word for work here, not the word for manual work or labor, which he uses elsewhere in the Rule, and not the words specific to ‘God’s work,’ which he used elsewhere to include prayer. So it is believed that “scapulare propter opera” (“scapular for work”) means a scapular to be worn always, whether at prayer or while doing manual labor.

In the middle ages, it was common for the lay faithful to join religious orders in an affiliate sense, as a tertiary. Since some did not take full vows, they would not wear the full habit. Some others who took private vows would be granted a “reduced scapular” to wear. This was two pieces of wool, about 2-inches by 3-inches each held together by a band or cord and worn over the shoulder with one rectangle in front and one in back. Still larger than the devotional scapular worn by many Catholics, the shape and small size of this scapular is closest in appearance to what many lay Catholics wear. They are still often worn by tertiary members of the Franciscan, Carmelite, and Dominican orders.

The Catholic Church has approved 18 small Scapulars that are used for spiritual devotions. They are:
The Scapular of the Most Blessed Trinity.
The Scapular of Our Lady of Ransom (B. Maria V. de Merced redemptionis captivorum)
The Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
The Black Scapular of the Seven Dolours of Mary
The Blue Scapular of the Immaculate Conception
The Scapular of the Most Precious Blood
The Black Scapular of the Passion
The Red Scapular of the Passion
The Scapular of Help of the Sick
The White Scapular of the Immaculate Heart of Mary
The Scapular of St. Michael the Archangel
The Scapular of St. Benedict
The White Scapular of Our Lady of Good Counsel
The Scapular of St. Joseph
The Scapular of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus
The Scapular of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary
The Scapular of St. Dominic
The Scapular of the Holy Face