St. Anthony Messenger

Rediscovering Catholic Traditions: Scapulars and Medals

Men are seen wearing scapulars during a Mass July 16 marking the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at the Pontifical Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Harlem, N.Y. Founded in 1884 to serve Italian immigrants, the parish now ministers to a congregation comprised primarily of people of Haitian and Latino ancestry. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

I recently read Swimming With Scapulars, by John Lickona, a decidedly conservative young Catholic man who has found, in devotion via the scapular, a more certain way in an uncertain world.

He’s not alone. There is a current crisis of Catholic identity, as a generation raised on the possibilities and question marks of Vatican II comes of age without sure answers.

We’re in a moment when the pendulum that swung in the direction of openness to returning to our roots (during the Council and its aftermath) is swinging in the direction of openness to continuity with our more recent past, the immediate centuries before the Council.

Different Signs

Many older Catholics’ concerns with this trend may be unfounded. Could we ever return to an era that most people today never experienced? For the younger Catholic, a devotion such as scapulars or religious medals is sure to have a very different meaning than it might have had in the 1950s, when such objects were used by most Catholics in this country.

I wore a scapular when I was a child, back in the ’60s, just as the Council was unfolding. Indeed, I took it seriously: It was a sign of my commitment to Christ, a reminder to me of my own

faith as I went about my daily tasks. But that sign didn’t last long. I never did quite catch the whole message of scapulars, or properly memorize whatever prayers I was supposed to say. Over the years, during a time when I considered life as a missionary priest, I wore a simple wooden cross. That felt akin to the idea of a scapular, though I know they’re technically distinct. I wore that cross for several years, wearing out more than one leather string.

Gifts for Life

When my 101-year-old Nana passed away, I took to wearing a crucifix of hers that had been blessed by Pope Pius XII on her trip-of-a-lifetime to Europe. The daughter of Irish immigrants, she had nurtured my faith in ways for which I am forever grateful. Once again, I found something tangible, hung around my neck, to call me to faith.

Years later, on my own trip to Europe, when I went to write a story about the post-earthquake reconstruction of St. Francis Basilica, I purchased a crucifix that I wore for some years, until I lost it in a hotel room. (I never did take to wearing a “miraculous medal,” the medal that replaces a scapular.)

Next, I took to carrying a medal of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of Catholic journalists, and, for a time, a medal of our own St. Anthony of Padua. These medals, I know, don’t carry the indulgences associated with scapulars or their substitute medals associated with Marian devotion.

But, when I see these saints’ images among my personal items daily, or when I’m searching for coins or my tiny computer flash drive, they keep me centered on my God-given vocation. When I consider the saints’ lives, I think of their belief and commitment and pray for the same.

Maybe that’s what a renewed appreciation for scapulars or medals of any sort is about. Fifty years after a time when these types of things seemed stifling to many, perhaps they can again find an appropriate place, small daily reminders of what we’re really about.


St. Simon of Stock, a Carmelite who died in 1265, reportedly had a vision in which Mary urged him to spread the custom of wearing a scapular as a sign of devotion to her and of commitment to the Good News of Jesus Christ. The scapular consists of two pieces of cloth attached by long strings so that they can be worn on a person’s chest and back, over the shoulders (scapulae in Latin).

By the time Pope St. Pius X (1903-14) permitted a medal to be substituted for a scapular, some people had already begun wearing a medal on a chain as a reminder of Jesus, Mary, or some particular saint.

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