On October 13, 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared at Fatima declaring, “I am the Lady of the Rosary,” and instructing the visionary children again “to pray the rosary everyday.” This is one of the great messages of Fatima to pray the rosary each day, in addition to the devotion of the first five Saturdays. What seems to be less well known and associated with Fatima is the devotion of the brown scapular. In that final apparition, Lucia saw Mary and our Lord pass through the mysteries of the rosary: first, she saw Mary and Jesus as part of the joyful mysteries; and then, they came in the sorrowful mysteries; and finally, the glorious mysteries.
It is specifically in this last vision of the glorious mysteries that Lucia saw Mary as the Queen of Heaven and Earth in the form of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel holding in her right hand the brown scapular. Sister Lucia would later affirm, according to a Carmelite priest Fr. Howard Rafferty, in an interview on August 15, 1950 that, “The rosary and brown scapular are inseparable. You cannot have one without the other.” The scapular is integral to the original message. Just as the Virgin Mary asks each of us to pray the rosary every day, so too, according to Sister Lucia, does Mary want us to wear the brown scapular. This is why she was holding the brown scapular in the vision, as if asking us to take it and wear it.
What is the brown scapular? If you are like me, I knew relatively little about it until recently. The brown scapular is imaged after the brown habit or garment that the Carmelite monks wear. These are the two brown wool cloths the monks wear over their shoulders covering their front and backside. The brown scapular is this garment in miniature form. It is a sacramental of the Church. “Scapular” is derived from the “scapula bones,” or the shoulder blades that the garment covers. The Carmelite monks wear the brown garment as a type of mantle covering themselves, an idea that originally shows up with them in history around the 13th – 14th century at Mt. Carmel in Israel. Tradition has it that Mary first gave the brown scapular to St. Simon Stock.
The Carmelites were the original order consecrated to the Virgin Mary. This is why they hold a special place in Mary’s heart. They pattern their lives after her, just as “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). So too, the Carmelites contemplate these heavenly matters and consecrate themselves to the Virgin Mary. Thus, the Carmelite mantle is synonymous with consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The brown scapular is the passing of this Carmelite garment to the secular world in miniaturized form. The large brown garment that covers the body in the ascetic world is shrunk to two little brown cloth pieces attached by strings in the lay world. It is the same Carmelite spirituality and Marian devotion extended to the average layperson living within the hubbub of common life.
The idea of the Carmelite mantle extends all the way back to Elijah’s mantle in the Old Testament. The prophet Elijah had challenged the false-prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. Baal was the demonic god of the Canaanites, whose religion demanded idolatrous worship, cultic orgies with temple prostitutes, and even the sacrificial offering of infants. That is, the Canaanite religion was a depraved mixture of idolatry, sexual immorality, and human sacrifice. Elijah challenged the 450 priests of Baal at Mt. Carmel to see whose “god” would consume an offering by fire, a kind of liturgical battle. Baal, of course, did not answer, and the false-prophets stood mute. Elijah, on the other hand, called on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and fire from heaven consumed the offering. Elijah, through Yahweh, defeated Baal and the false-prophets. This is the legacy of Mt. Carmel. Later, Elijah parted the Jordan River by touching his mantle to the waters (2 Kings 2:8), and thus, re-enacting the parting of the Jordan by Joshua and the Red Sea by Moses. This is a prefigurement to the Sacrament of Baptism. It is at that point that Elijah is taken up to heaven – linking the notion of Baptism to heaven. The brown garment, then, which is the Carmelite monks’ habit, is by extension reminiscent of the mantle of Elijah at Mt. Carmel.
In modern times, we battle the same type of false-prophets of Baal that Elijah battled in ancient days on Mt. Carmel. The worldly influence of modernism pushes on us various forms of idolatry, especially money, power, materialism, and extreme political correctness. Sexual immorality too is rampant in our society. Even child sacrifice is the law of the land with nearly unencumbered abortion on demand. Baal and Baal-worship is alive and well in Western Civilization. Yet, just like in biblical times at Mt. Carmel, God comes to defeat Baal again. In our New Covenant era of the Gospel, God crushes the head of Baal through the Virgin Mary. In light of this, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel asks us to embrace this special devotion and consecration to her Immaculate Heart through wearing the brown scapular.
We know the essential conditions of the Fatima promise: to pray the rosary daily, make frequent confessions, receive the Eucharist often, make spiritual sacrifices, as well as fulfill the first five Saturdays’ Devotion of Reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Yet, Mary also appeared at Fatima as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel offering us the brown scapular. Through a simple enrollment ceremony with a priest or deacon, we can consecrate our brown scapular and seek to live that consecration each day. It must be of great importance if Mary made sure to present it to the world again, in such a very purposeful and dramatic fashion as at Fatima.
Our Lady of Lourdes is also connected here, as the final apparition to St. Bernadette was on the feast day of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, July 16th. Wearing the brown scapular is something very easy, and takes little effort. Yet, it is a strong affirmation and a tangible sign of our consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It is a badge of our desire to live holy lives each day under the mantle of her guidance and protection.