Popular Piety: Scapulars and Medals

Popular Piety: Scapulars and Medals

 “… I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?”

“Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”

“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”

“Can’t I?”

“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”

“Oh yes. I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”

“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”

“But I do. That’s how I believe.”

This wonderful conversation between Sebastian and Charles in Brideshead Revisited might easily have been triggered by scapulars and medals. To those outside the Church they are often viewed as confirmation of the lunacy of Catholics, and indeed to some within they are viewed as an expression of an out-dated medieval mindset of superstition. Yet properly considered, they are an expression of the fact that God meets us in the physical as well as the spiritual – that The Word became flesh. As Chesterton wrote in one of his columns: Whenever men really believe that they can get to the spiritual they always employ the material. When the purpose is good, it is bread and wine; when the purpose is evil, it is eye of newt and toe of frog. It is worth being aware of a tendency – that I certainly find present in myself – to credit God with so much in His Creation and in His Incarnation and then to express incredulity at small marvels and signs.


A scapular is a kind of sacramental: a prayer, action, or thing which, through the prayers of the Catholic Church, can assist us in receiving God’s grace The word “scapular” comes from the Latin word for “shoulder.” In its original form, the scapular is a part of the monk or friar’s habit. However, in popular piety scapulars are most often composed of much smaller pieces of cloth. Technically, these are known as the “small scapulars”. Each small scapular represents a particular devotion and often has a certain indulgence or even a revealed “privilege” (or special power) attached to it.

The most famous of the small scapulars is the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (the “Brown Scapular”), revealed by the Blessed Virgin Mary herself to St. Simon Stock on July 16, 1251. Those who wear it faithfully as an expression of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is said, will be granted the grace of final perseverance. 

A scapular is not a magic amulet or a lucky charm: rather, when worn with devotion, scapulars have the capacity to help us in our Christian life because they can inspire good thoughts and thus increase devotion. Whilst some scapulars are associated with a particular message, it must be remembered that since sacramentals are not magic, the efficacy of the scapular and its guarantee depends on the faith and appropriate intentions of the wearer. The Vatican Directory on Popular Piety describes it thus: “The Brown Scapular is an external sign of the filial relationship established between the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother and Queen of Mount Carmel, and the faithful who entrust themselves totally to her protection, who have recourse to her maternal intercession, who are mindful of the primacy of the spiritual life and the need for prayer.”


Among the various medals, the most popular is the “Miraculous Medal”. Its origins go back to the apparitions in 1830 of Our Lady to St. Catherine Labouré, a novice of the Daughters of Charity in Paris. The medal was struck in accordance with the instructions given by Our Lady and has been described as a “Marian microcosm” because of its extraordinary symbolism. It recalls the mystery of Redemption, the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and of the Sorrowful Heart of Mary. It signifies the mediatory role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mystery of the Church, the relationship between Heaven and earth, this life and eternal life. The Church blesses such objects of Marian devotion in the belief that “they help to remind the faithful of the love of God, and to increase trust in the Blessed Virgin Mary“. 

Toby Lees OP

Fr Toby Lees is assistant priest at Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic's, London.