A History of the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception
This painting, the work of Marian Fr. John Niezabitowski (1744-1804), represents one of the main goals of the Marian Fathers: assisting suffering souls in Purgatory. It is displayed in the chapel of the Marian monastery in Skorzec, Poland.
What is a scapular?
The scapular (the word comes from the Latin scapula meaning an arm, shoulders, and back) is a sleeveless garment consisting of two wide, rectangular pieces of material slipped over a religious's head onto the habit. It is a part of the religious garb of some Orders like the Benedictines or the Dominicans. Sometimes a hood, known in the East as the analobo, is attached to the scapular. This type of garb was introduced in the 5th century by St. Benedict as a scapolare propter opera that is, an apron worn to protect the habit during physical work.
Over time this scapolare underwent some changes. It gradually became longer, and the material from which it was made changed as well. It was no longer a protective garment but a symbol, a sign of dedication to God. Spiritual writers spoke of it as iugum Christi the yoke of Christ. In the 12th century, the Rules of the Servites, Benedictines in certain abbeys, and Carmelites required that the monks wear their scapulars even in their sleep as a source of spiritual protection through the night.
In the Middle Ages, when many laypeople wished to participate in some way in the spiritual life of the religious orders, various religious associations like "Third Orders," "Confraternities," and "Oblates" were established. The sign of acceptance into the spiritual community was the vesting of the scapular to identify its members as belonging to each distinctive, religious order.
Types of Scapulars
There are various types of scapulars depending on the religious Order with which they are associated. The origin of most of them is linked to an apparition of the Blessed Mother instructing a particular religious order to promote a certain type of scapular. The oldest among them is the "white" scapular of the Holy Trinity that dates back to 1200. The "brown" Carmelite scapular originated in 1251, while the "black" scapular of the Servites of the Blessed Mother of Sorrows — in 1255.
The majority of the scapulars have a singular affinity with the Mother of God, not only because they were connected with a particular Marian apparition, which then began the tradition of a particular scapular, but also because of the devotion associated with the practice of wearing a scapular and the indulgences attached to it. The most revered, known, and popular among the Marian scapulars is the Carmelite one. Its origin is shrouded in legend. According to an oral tradition, the veracity of which was never fully established, the Virgin Mary personally gave this scapular in 1251 to the venerable and particularly devout Superior General of the Carmelites, Saint Simon Stock. The Blessed Mother is believed to have promised that whoever wore the Carmelite scapular would not suffer the fires of hell.
At first, people used to place the scapular over their clothing or armor, and it was worn with particular pride on solemn occasions. But over time the visible, showy piety became more discreet, and the scapular "moved" under people's clothing. Consequently, it had to become smaller in size, but it continued to look the same: two pieces of cloth joined by ribbons, which one would put on over one’s head. Sometimes the material was decorated with an embroidered or painted picture. Now the scapular was hidden from the onlookers’ eyes and when it happened to be exposed or revealed like in the famous painting by Matejko showing the prostrate figure of a nobleman with the scapular visible on his bare chest people perceived it as a powerful witness.
Venerable Ursula Benincasa
The scapular was always vested by authorized persons and always according to a strictly defined ceremony that concluded with a special blessing. The acceptance of the scapular meant, in each case, the assumption of specific responsibilities which, in their essence, usually referred to the rule of life of a particular religious community.
The Church has always looked favorably upon scapulars, endowing them with indulgences, defining their prerogatives, establishing conditions of investiture, and even designating their shape, size, and the method of wearing them. On December 6, 1910, by the decree of the Congregation of the Holy Office, Pope Pius X permitted the substitution of each scapular with a medal bearing on the obverse the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and on the reverse, the image of Our Lady. The regulations regarding its conferral in this new form, and the indulgences and blessings attached to it, remained unchanged.
Undoubtedly, the idea of allowing the laity’s participation in the spiritual life of religious orders, expressed in the act of receiving a "new vestment" even if this vestment was only a symbolic one (the scapular was also dubbed "a miniature habit") has at all times been something positive and precious in the eyes of the Church.
The Blue Scapular
The Blue Scapular originated in Italy and is connected with the person of the Venerable Servant of God, Ursula Benincasa (1547-1618), who, in the year 1583, founded the Congregation of the Oblates of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. She also founded the Hermitage of the Contemplative Nuns of the Immaculate Conception. The rule of both communities was approved by Pope Gregory XV on April 7, 1623.
Venerable Ursula Benincasa
In 1617, in Naples, Italy, on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, Ursula, having received Holy Communion, had a vision of the Blessed Mother clothed in a white garment over which she wore another garment of azure blue. In her arms, Mary held the Infant Jesus. Our Lady was surrounded by many persons, all similarly attired.
The Blessed Mother spoke to Ursula with these words: "Cease weeping, Ursula, and turn your sighs into heartfelt joy. Listen closely to what Jesus, whom I am holding in my lap, will say to you."
Then Jesus revealed to Ursula that she would found a convent where 33 nuns, dressed in the same attire as the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of her vision, would live a life of solitude and seclusion. The Savior promised special graces and many spiritual gifts to those who would zealously follow this way of life.
A vision of Venerable Ursula Benincasa from 1617.
The Venerable Servant of God besought the Lord to extend these favors also to such people who, living in the world, would have a special devotion to the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, observe chastity according to their station in life, and wear a small blue scapular. As a sign that her prayer had been heard, Jesus showed Ursula in a vision a multitude of angels distributing scapulars over the earth. This scene is artistically captured in a fresco at the Theatine Sisters' Convent in Naples.
Overwhelmed with joy, Ursula personally made scapulars similar to the ones she saw in her vision, had them blessed, and distributed them among the faithful. The practice of wearing the Blue Scapular began to spread quickly already during the Ursula's lifetime. After her death, her spiritual daughters undertook the promotion of this scapular as their Order's special mission. On August 7, 1793, Pope Pius VI recognized the heroic virtues of Ursula, and proclaimed her a Venerable Servant of God.
In 1633, the Theatine Fathers, in their General Chapter, recognized the Oblates of the Immaculate Conception and the community of contemplative nuns whose inception was rooted in the vision of Venerable Ursula as branches of their order. From that time on, these two communities took on the title of Theatines Nuns of the Immaculate Conception of the BVM. Thereupon, the Theatine Fathers also began to promote the devotion of the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception, a task assigned to them officially by Pope Clement X on January 30, 1671. At the Theatine Fathers' request, he granted privileges and indulgences to the Blue Scapular in a special apostolic breve. These were similar in scope to the ones obtained by the Conceptionists in the 15th century. Another Pope, Clement XI, endowed this scapular with more indulgences, which he mentioned in his apostolic letter dated May 12, 1710. The indulgences were confirmed and amplified by Pope Gregory XIV in 1845 and by Blessed Pius IX in 1850. These two Popes also declared that the indulgences of the Blue Scapular could be applied to the souls of the faithful departed.
Venerable Ursula Benincasa together with St. Cajetan of Thiene, cofounder of the Theatine Order; painting from 1718 by Johann G. Roth
Click to enlarge
Indulgences attached to the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Those who wear the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception can receive a Plenary Indulgence under the usual conditions* on the following days:
• The day of investiture with the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception;
• The solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, December 8;
• The solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15;
• Christmas Day, December 25;
• Presentation of the Lord, February 2;
• Easter Sunday;
• The solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord;
• The feast of St. Cajetan (the founder of the Theatine Order), August 7.
*To gain a plenary indulgence, one must:
• be in the state of grace and free from all attachment to sin, even venial sin;
• have a general intention to gain the indulgence;
• perform acts to obtain the indulgence;
• receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist;
• pray for the intentions of the Holy Father.
It is necessary to go to Communion on the day of joining the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M. and receiving the Blue Scapular. The scapular should be made out of blue cloth. The Scapular should be worn so that its one part is over the chest and the other over the back. It should be worn day and night.
In 1910, St. Pope Pius X introduced a scapular medal, which may be substituted in most cases for any of the various cloth scapulars. However, valid enrollment in the scapulars must be made before the substitution. View the official decree in Latin. View the English translation of the decree.
Both the cloth scapular and the medal should be worthily worn. When the Blue Scapular wears out or becomes misplaced or lost, another scapular should be put on; the replacement can be blessed by any priest or deacon.
People wearing the Blue Scapular also share in all the spiritual benefits of the Order of the Clerics Regular — Theatines, both during their lifetime and after death.
The names belonging to the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception should be recorded in the registry of the Confraternity. Some of the Marian churches at which the Confraternity exists (i.e. in Warsaw-Stegny, Poland, or in London, England, the United Kingdom) have such a registry. In the U.S. the Confraternity is established at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass. Confraternity members receive a special certificate confirming their membership.
The death of a Brother or Sister of the Confraternity (the honorary title of a member) should be reported to the respective Marian church, so that the Congregation can include that person in their prayers for the departed.
The pious wearing of the scapular and devotional practices — as for example, kissing the scapular or medal — carry an additional partial indulgence granted by the Church.
There is the opportunity of accepting the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary without joining its Confraternity. The faithful who wish to accept the Scapular but do not want to belong to the said Confraternity should clearly state this when asking for the Scapular. The faithful who wear the Blue Scapular but are not formally aggregated (admitted into the Confraternity of the Marian Fathers and listed in their Register) belong spiritually to the broadly understood community of the Theatine Fathers — custodians of the Blue Scapular. In addition, they share in the spiritual benefits of the Archconfraternity of the Immaculate Conception, which is located at the Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome and run by the Theatine Fathers.
The Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception that has existed since the 18th century
with the Congregation of Marian Fathers
Saint Stanislaus of Jesus and Mary Papczyński (1631-1701), the Founder of the Marian Fathers, considered the spreading of devotion to the Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M. one of his Order's principal goals. Blessed Founder fervently encouraged his spiritual sons to establish Confraternities of the Immaculate Conception at the Marian churches. This was already reflected in the first laws of the Order, issued in 1694-1698. These confraternities were meant to provide assistance to Poor Souls suffering in Purgatory because Bl. Stanislaus associated devotion to the Immaculate Conception with assistance to the faithful departed. Excited by the idea of giving himself into Mary’s bondage, he wished not only to live free of evil and sin, but to provide assistance in purification from the stain of sin to all those who were suffering in Purgatory.
The last chapter of The Rule of the Ten Evangelical Virtues of the B.V.M., upon which the Marian Order was approved by the Holy See in 1699, obliged the Marian religious to wear the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception of the Most B.V.M. They wore it beneath their white habit. Committed by virtue of their calling to spread devotion to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mother, they wished also to popularize the scapular among the faithful.
The Venerable Servant of God Fr. Casimir of St. Joseph Wyszyński (1700-1755) was the first among the Marian Fathers to approach the Theatine Fathers in Rome with the request for permission to bless the Blue Scapular and confer it upon the faithful. The permission was granted in 1733 with the obligation of its renewal every three years. The Servant of God resided then in Rome and held the office of Procurator General of the Marian Fathers. At that time the Theatine Fathers were the only ones with the authority from the Apostolic See to delegate other priests to invest the faithful with the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception. Father Wyszyński probably wished to make the wearing of the Blue Scapular and prescribed associated practices one of the elements of piety of the above-mentioned Confraternity. From that time on, members of “the Scapular Confraternity or our Confraternity” (as the Marian Fathers began to call the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception of the BVM later) are registered in the Confraternity Book, and receive the Blue Scapular as a sign of belonging.
The Marian monastery in Goźlin [Poland] still houses a leather-bound 18th-century book, which records the names of people admitted to the local Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception of the BVM in 1777-1788. The Confraternity members, mostly the Marian Fathers’ benefactors, among whom there were well-known personalities, used to fulfill various services at the church there during "holy days." As the Confraternity Statute stated, their "first and principal duty, bound by a special promise, is to revere, promote, and defend the honor of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. As an external sign [of that] they are to wear a white-collar scapular embellished with blue. This scapular is a sign, as well as a token, of the Most Holy Virgin Mary’s protection."
An entry from 1788 in the Register of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, located in the Marian monastery in Goźlin, Poland.
Another Register of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, similar to the one from Gozlin, belongs to the Marian monastery on Mount Balsamão in Portugal; it dates back to 1774. Today this book is kept in the General Archives of the Congregation of Marian Fathers in Rome. Its greatly yellowed pages preserve several hundred first and last names of people upon whom the Marian Fathers conferred the Blue Scapular.
For the first time, the Marian historical documents mention the establishment of a Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception on June 26, 1734. The entry speaks of an official introduction of this confraternity at the Marian church in Puszcza Mariańska [the Marian Forest - location of the Congregation’s first monastery].
Painting by A. Padrão from the second half of the 18th century in the Marian monastery on Mount Balsamão, which symbolically depicts
Fr. Casimir Wyszynski as the Marian who established the Order in Portugal.
The Theatine Fathers repeatedly renewed the privilege granted to the Marian Fathers that was first obtained by Fr. Wyszyński. On August 30, 1751, through the efforts of the Venerable Servant of God Fr. Casimir, the Theatines again granted the right to invest with the Blue Scapular — this time to the Superior General and to six other Marian Fathers in Poland. On May 5, 1753, before leaving for Portugal, the Venerable Servant of God obtained once more from the Superior General of the Theatines the privilege of spreading the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception, this time in the Kingdom of Portugal. More than 20 years later, the continuator of Fr. Wyszyński’s activity in Portugal, Fr. Alexis Fischer, approached by means of a letter the Theatine Fathers in Rome with the request for a renewal of the same privilege of investiture granted in 1753. His letter is dated January 26, 1776.
Political upheavals of the first half of the 19th century were undoubtedly the reason for the difficulties in communication with the Theatines in Rome regarding the further spreading of the Scapular by the Marian Fathers in Poland. Thus, it becomes understandable why on February 20, 1841, Fr. Jan Dziewulski petitioned the Holy See directly and asked for permission for the Marian Fathers to continue spreading the Blue Scapular. In the 19th century three zealous Marian priests, noted for their intellectual and spiritual formation: Fathers Stanisław Pórzycki, Jerzy Naruszewicz and Alexander Wilczyński, distinguished themselves particularly in promoting "our Confraternity" established at the churches served by the Order. Let the statistics on the deanery in Mariampole, Lithuania, for the year 1888 testify to the fruits brought about by the pastoral activity of these Fathers and other Marians who followed their example. The Marian Fathers had then three monasteries in Lithuania: Mariampole, Mirosław, and Igłówka. They also conducted pastoral ministry in neighboring churches. There were 99 active confraternities at the deanery’s 15 churches. Along with several other confraternities, each church also had the Confraternity of the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary.
The confraternities existing in the Marian churches exerted a considerable influence over the religious life and Marian devotion both in their parishes and in the vicinity. They contributed to moral renewal and encouraged charitable works. They were instrumental in the sanctification of their members by promoting frequent confession and participation in Holy Mass on the feast days of Our Lady.
The Renovator and Reformer of the Marian Order, Blessed Archbishop George Matulaitis-Matulewicz, also asked the Theatines in Rome for authorization to invest the faithful with the Blue Scapular. The permission was granted him on December 1, 1911.
A detail from a painting by A. Padrão shows Mary as Our Lady of Balsamão holding the Blue Scapular in her hand.
On June 3, 1992, Fr. Donald Petraitis, MIC, then the Superior General of the Marians, obtained from the Superior General of the Theatine Order a perpetual permission for himself and his successors to bless and confer the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. This permission was reaffirmed on March 19, 2005, by a special letter of the Theatine Fathers’ General Superior addressed to the Superior General of the Marians and to the General Promoter of the Association of Marian Helpers. By another letter of July 16, 2008, the Superior General of the Theatines gave the Marian Fathers’ Superior General a perpetual permission to sub-delegate priests, both Marian and non-Marian, to bless and confer the Blue Scapular, according to canon 1169 of the Code of Canon Law. View the official permission given by the Theatine Fathers to the Marian Fathers.
At the request of the General Promoter of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conceptionof the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, run by the Marian Fathers, by his decree of April 7, 2015 (no. O01 / 2015), the General Superior of the Theatines officially aggregated confraternities established at the Congregation of Marian Fathers into the Archconfraternity of the Immaculate Conception that exists at the Sant’Andrea della Valle Basilica in Rome. In this way, the General of the Theatines granted them same rights of sharing in all spiritual benefits, which the Holy See has imparted to the said Archconfraternity. View the original decree.
Thus, according to their centuries-long tradition, the Marian Fathers promote among the faithful the Blue Scapular, which is the external mark of the Confraternity members' piety and devotion to the Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M., fostered by the Congregation of Marian Fathers almost from the beginning of its history. Confraternities of the Immaculate Conception represent one of the important means by which the Congregation of Marian Fathers spreads devotion to the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God and assists the souls suffering in Purgatory, of whom the Immaculate Mother of Christ is a particular advocate.
The Marian Fathers in the United States started spreading the Scapular of the Immaculate Conception in the 1960s. This action met with a remarkable response, and it was later extended to the United Kingdom, Poland, Brazil, and Ukraine. Today the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception of the BVM at the Congregation of Marian Fathers counts several thousand members.