In the wake of Vatican II (and in spite of it), popular devotions like the Brown Scapular were hidden away as embarrassing relics of the past. But happily they are now making a comeback.
There was a time when the life of a Catholic Christian was full of beautiful and meaningful devotions and sacramentals, such as May Processions, the Miraculous Medal Novena, and the Brown Scapular. In the post-conciliar period, however, such devotionals faded away.
Many believers thought that Vatican II had called for such a displacement, but that is not the case. The sacramentals were lost in spite of Vatican II. The history is helpful, especially as the devotions and sacramentals are zealously finding their way back into the hearts of the faithful and into Christian homes and parishes. Let’s briefly summarize the history and identify the sources of confusion.
The life of the Christian faithful consists of many different facets. Each facet has been drawn from the life of Jesus Christ and from the culture of the Church through the ages. Of the many aspects of the Christian way of life, the preeminent action of believers is the worship of the living and true God.
The Lord Jesus was a man of worship. He showed us how to worship the Father, and He entrusted His Eucharistic Sacrifice to us. The Eucharistic Sacrifice is the summit and source of everything we do. Nothing compares, or even comes close, to the Holy Mass.
The Christian way of life, and the paramount importance of the Holy Mass, was emphasized and stressed throughout the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II highlighted the sacred liturgy and called on pastors to teach the faithful how to consciously and actively participate in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Such involvement was to happen through extensive catechesis and a deepening of the spiritual life.
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, explained it this way:
Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects. (#11)
The post-conciliar reality, however, severely missed the mark. The call of Vatican II was misinterpreted at best, or expropriated at worst. In many places, catechesis was replaced by experimentation and popular ideologies, and the work of the spiritual life was eclipsed by an odd type of ecclesial activism. The spiritual work that was called for was inverted and instead became a type of thoughtless, banal involvement in the sacred liturgy, which lacked depth or understanding. To the Church’s great loss, the task of learning the meaning and richness of the sacred liturgy was ignored. “Doing stuff” trumped everything else, and the faithful were left without the real instruction called for by Vatican II.
In this peculiar movement, other aspects of the Christian way of life were also dragged into a similar type of supposed reform. In particular, this included the Church’s pious traditions.
The pious traditions are beloved expressions of faith, such as processions, scapulars, novenas, litanies, the Rosary, chaplets, and especially Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council acknowledged the importance of such pious traditions: “Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended…Devotions proper to individual Churches also have a special dignity…” (#13).
In light of the call for greater catechesis and a more intentional living out of the Christian way of life, however, Vatican II did give some guidance for pious traditions:
But these devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them. (#13)
It must be stressed that Vatican II never directed or intended for pious traditions to disappear. The council’s instruction is clear: namely, pastors are to place the Church’s devotions within the grace of the sacred liturgy, show the connection between the liturgy and pious traditions, avoid a misplacement of devotions over the sacred liturgy, and seek to prevent any sense of superstition. This was the catechetical and spiritual work called for by Vatican II.
And, as with the sacred liturgy, the reality was far different from the summons. In many places, the pious traditions were discarded, mocked, and stripped from the life of parishes. The spiritual sensitivities of the faithful suffered spiritual violence as popular and cherished pious traditions were ridiculed and abruptly thrown out. Parishes that once had rich and abundant devotional lives were ravaged and found lacking in any prayer or devotional opportunity beyond the Mass (with such Masses themselves assaulted with experimentation that neglected the interior life and the call to teach the faithful about the sacred liturgy).
An example of such loss among the pious traditions was the beloved Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The scapular was once the pious tradition of First Holy Communions, July Scapular Masses, and devotional declarations of love for the Lord Jesus and Our Lady. The simple cords holding two pieces of wool cloth were revered and seen as an expression of a disciple’s love for Jesus through Mary. In the pseudo-reform, that falsely claimed the name of Vatican II, the scapular was ridiculed and treated as yesterday’s trash. It was one of many pious traditions that suffered at the hands of false reformers.
The Brown Scapular, however, is back. It is eagerly welcomed back by older Catholics and joyfully embraced by a younger generation of believers. The pious traditions are experiencing a revival as faith is deepening and the real work of Vatican II is being done. And so, let the Church draw closer to the Lord Jesus, revere His gift of the Holy Mass, and revive our culture as we sing “Bring Flowers of the Fairest,” conduct our 40 Hours Devotion, pray our Miraculous Medal Novenas, and happily wear our Brown Scapulars. This is the Catholic Christian way of life. This is what it means to fully live as a member of the Church.