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What is a Scapular and What Does it Mean?

July 13th, 2012
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Have you heard about the Scapular? A small piece of cloth worn by many devout Roman Catholics? “Rome Reports” released a video about them. Following the video you can read Martin Luther’s comment on them:

Cowl, tonsure, rope, and scapular are idolatry, as if we could not be saved without them. They are human works and external things which are used up, and yet they become a god whom men worship. Here they make a god out of a vestment, a girdle, a rope, things which the farmer uses for an amulet. He says, “I do not worship this as god, but I worship my God in this girdle.” Yes, you have made a girdle for your god, a girdle manufactured by the ropemaker. Summary: Our eyes must look to faith and lay hold of God’s grace and freely let all these external things go. Forget about cowl, tonsure, rope, etc., and consider grace alone. The ungodly go their way and make a bewitched god out of a girdle, something sealed with a bull, or something placed into a shrine. A barefoot monk’s god is the contemplation of God in heaven who might have regard for his rope. Another does something else, and each one fashions God according to his own ideas. I therefore admonish you that in all such places of idolatry you pay close attention, because all religion that is the product of one’s thought arises from this ungodliness. Before God this alone is religion: the forgiveness of sins. Outside of this He knows nothing.

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 17: Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Is 44:15 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1999).

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Categories: Roman Catholicism
  1. Gabriel Borlean
    July 13th, 2012 at 13:50 | #1

    not sure I would speak out against these devotional objects, especially ones carrying images of the Savior.

    I do not feel comfortable with widespread mandate, belief, and doctrine that these objects and their use carry special “protective” purposes, especially since they are not mandated in the Holy Writ and are based on a personal vision/dream. If this habit/ritual helps one to be mindful of Christ and their need for repentance … the better.

    But any good personal practice can easily turn into a legalistic/spiritual-superiority contest. … and Lutherans should all know about that (18th century lutheran Pietism).

  2. Jonathan Trost
    July 13th, 2012 at 17:27 | #2

    I have a scabular in front of me addressed to “St. Anthony, Saint of Miracles”.

    On the obverse side is a picture of St. Anthony in his brown robe with cincture, holding a branch of lilies in his right hand, and infant Jesus cradled in his right arm. Halos encircle both heads.

    On the reverse side is this prayer:

    “O Holy St. Anthony, reach down from heaven and take hold of my hand.

    “Assure me that I am not alone. You are known to possess miraculous powers and to be ever ready to speak for those in trouble.

    “Loving and Gentle St. Anthony, reach down from heaven I implore you and assist me in my hour of need. Obtain for me (mention your request here).

    “Dearest St. Anthony, reach down from heaven and guide me with thy strength. Plead for me in my needs. And teach me to be humbly thankful as you were for all the bountiful blessings I am to receive.”

    (This scabular was produced by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor, NY.)

    Although Jesus is shown being held in the arm of St. Anthony, the prayer is addressed only to St. Anthony. That strikes me as “curious”.

  3. Pastor Wally Schiller
    July 13th, 2012 at 19:28 | #3

    Rome clearly has not given up on many of the bad aspects of its history – and yet there is the push to “go back”! I see no point if such distractionary practices continue. I’ll stick with the view Luther portrayed – it is Scriptural and on the ball! In that is my surety of heaven – not in some extraneous focus such as “the scapular”.

  4. July 13th, 2012 at 19:46 | #4

    At a time when there were no bibles in homes, when Jesus was a mighty ruler who was like earthly kings—rutheless, cruel, jealous, and selfish–the people had no place to turn. The church of the middle ages made Jesus “one of them”…an earthly king with a divine title. No longer was he seen as the saviour that he truly was and is and shall ever be. The church of that day purposely made him beyond reach so that people would need indulgeneces and masses “said”, and all for a price! Perhaps a wise monk such as Simon Stock of England got the idea of a wool scapular as a symbol of the lamb…and…well..Mary is certainly merciful and kind! She will ask Jesus to be merciful! At least that is a thought of mine. God would reach out through ways that could sustain some hope that we were loved by him–until he could raise up a new John the Baptist! That man, Martin Luther, showed us scripture which showed us, as he said, that we must look to God’s friendly heart, knowing we are sinners, and trust him to take our sins away in his son’s cross. The man in the gospel said “If you will, you can make me whole” And Jesus said, “I do will it…be healed”. The scapular helped our ancestors to keep their eyes on Jesus, perhaps, in a way similar to the mud and clay Jesus used in healing while he was on earth. Luther emphasizes that we are free and should remain free. So be it!

  5. Ken Howes
    July 14th, 2012 at 09:16 | #5

    The Romans see Jesus either as the infant in Bethlehem, good but powerless, or as the stern Judge of all things, so good that He cannot understand our weakness and can only condemn us unless persuaded to mercy by the saints, especially by His mother.

  6. Collette
    July 14th, 2012 at 20:51 | #6

    A Catholic friend wears one as a necklace; the image on it is much smaller than the ones in the video. She is convinced that if she is wearing it when she dies, she will avoid Purgatory. When I asked her what would happen if she died in mortal sin, she said then she’d just go to Purgatory a short while before going to Heaven.

    I can’t keep, “It is by grace you have been saved by faith” straight sometimes; I have no clue how I’d keep all of the rules of the Catholic church straight.

  7. Mark
    July 15th, 2012 at 17:41 | #7

    Given the context of Luther’s comment, “Cowl, tonsure, rope, and scapular,” I suspect that he is talking about the long, apron-like scapular of monastic habits and not these little devotional items.

    Though given many popular piety notions that surround these devotional scapulars, I suspect Luther’s would have an even stronger critique than the one given above.

  8. July 16th, 2012 at 09:11 | #8

    The Catholic lady that Colette was talking about has her own personal beleifs about what the scapular will do regarding her salvation. It surely is not the teaching of the RC Church that scapulars have such power. If a person wears a scapular as a witness to her faith, I see no harm in it. Maybe in the Middle Ages, people thought that scapulars had powers similar to the lucky “rabbits foot”. However, the Middle Ages were not known for rational thought. At that time they also thought that witches were flying through the air on broomsticks and the dead came back as vampires. The early fundamentalist New Englanders were executing witches not that long ago. We must separate church teachings from personal belief system before making judgements.

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