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What is a Scapular?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The term “scapular” is used to describe two different things within the Catholic Church. In the first sense, a scapular is part of a monk's garments, in which case it may be known as a monastic scapular. In the second sense, a scapular is a devotional object worn by devout Catholics, typically under their clothing. Lay scapulars, as they are sometimes called, are believed to confer special blessings on their wearers.

Monastic scapulars are quite old in Christian tradition. They consist of bands of cloth which run across the shoulders of the wearer, explaining the name; “scapular” comes from the same Latin root as “scapula,” which means “shoulder blade.” The design of a scapular varies, depending on the order the monk belongs to. Some scapulars are quite long, extending all the way to the floor, while others are much shorter, and scapulars may be hooded or unhooded.

The lay scapular is closely related to the monastic scapular. Lay people are welcome to worship in many monasteries, and at one time, lay people were given monastic robes, but they were not entitled to the full regalia of monks, since they had not taken vows. As a result, lay monks started to wear smaller devotional scapulars to celebrate their faith and ask for the blessings of various saints.

Lay scapulars consist of two cloth pendants connected by bands which are laid across the shoulders. The wearer positions one scapular on the chest, and the other on the back, essentially like a large necklace. Some people also wear metal or wooden scapulars, although these are not approved by all Catholic religious orders. Once a scapular becomes worn out, it must be replaced.

In some cases, someone must belong to a specific confraternity in order to wear a particular scapular. In other instances, a scapular only needs to be blessed by a priest before it can be worn. When purchasing a scapular, it is a good idea to ask about restrictions related to its wear, as Catholics believe that if you wear a scapular associated with a particular confraternity without belonging to that group, you will not receive the benefit of the scapular.

Scapulars can be found at Catholic religious shops, and they are also available through churches and religious offices. Some people like to purchase scapulars while traveling to various holy sites, in the hopes of receiving a sort of double blessing.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon74810 — On Apr 04, 2010

There seems to be a problem with me. i can move my scapular bone. Like i can make it wave like a hand. Personally, i don't think it's weird but everyone says it's disgusting. Is there a problem with me?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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