Yesterday was the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which was cause for a procession through the hot and humid streets near St. Peter’s Square. Most on-lookers were probably familiar with this Marian title… but how many people know where and how it originated?
The Carmelites are unique as a Catholic religious order, because they trace their heritage to pre-Christian, Old-Testament days. The prophet Elijah lived on the middle-eastern (now Israeli) hill called Mount Carmel, in a grotto which can still be visited today. In the Middle Ages, a group of hermits began living there in much the same way, engaging in prayer and contemplation. At some point they took on a more organized structure and the Carmelites were born.
In the 1200’s, an Englishman named Simon Stock was the Superior General of the Carmelites. Little is known about him, except for the vision he had of the Blessed Virgin Mary–who handed him the Brown Scapular and said, “Whoever dies clothed in this will not suffer eternal fire.” The Catholic Church teaches that Brown Scapular still carries with it this promise, which came from the mouth of Mary herself.
This procession is always organized by the clergy of a Carmelite parish church near the Vatican, where it’s easy to get a Brown Scapular for yourself. Pope Saint John Paul II was well aware of this: when a Turkish gunman attempted to assassinate him in 1981, the Pope sent a request to the Carmelites of this particular church: “Please send a new Brown Scapular to me here in the hospital–because the one I was wearing when I was shot is now covered with blood.”