Pope John Paul II's scapular: a Roman Catholic version of a rabbit's foot

What did the late Pope mean by giving his lady friend a 'scapular' to drape over herself? Nothing dodgy, says Peter Stanford. It was just a passport to paradise

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The Independent Online

The gift of a scapular is not your standard expression of affection – even in my otherwise Catholic household – but then, the 30-year relationship between the late Pope John Paul II and the Polish-born US philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka – revealed to the world this week by the BBC's Edward Stourton – could hardly be classified as standard. She was married and he had taken a vow of celibacy.

What is clear, though, is that when the former Karol Wojtyla gave her the scapular he had worn since childhood – a gift from his own father, and one of his few personal possessions – he was reflecting the profound spiritual bond that existed between them. He may also, according to traditional Catholic teaching, have been providing her with a ticket for heaven.

The scapular started in the 7th century CE as two large pieces of material, joined over the shoulders (the word comes from the Latin for shoulder), which monks and nuns donned both as a symbol of their vocation, and as a cover-all apron. Today, some religious orders – those that haven't opted for civvies –still sport them.

Much more common in Catholicism for centuries, though, has been the mini-scapular, such as the one John Paul bestowed on Anna-Teresa. Made up of two postage stamp-sized pieces of cloth, wood or laminated paper, featuring a prayer text or a devotional picture and linked by cords, it is also worn over the shoulders, with one image hanging on the chest, the other on the back. (Think of two ID passes on opposite ends of a long lanyard.)

The prototype is said to have been handed by the Virgin Mary to the English Carmelite monk Saint Simon Stock, when she appeared to him in a vision in Cambridge in the 13th century. (Some Carmelite nuns still do a roaring trade in their manufacture.)

Various styles of scapular are available (John Stephen Dwyer/Wikimedia)

Thus, those who down the ages have worn a scapular under their clothes – leaving it outside, on show, would have been spiritually vulgar – were following in Simon Stock's footsteps by placing their lives in the hands of Jesus's mother. Their eternal fate, too; for Mary had reportedly promised Simon Stock that, if he wore the scapular continuously, he would not "suffer the fires of hell".

In traditional Catholicism, it became one of several devotions that, if faithfully followed, allowed the laity to imitate the holiness of monks and nuns, and earn a happy death. Take the case of my Christian Brothers' school in Birkenhead in the 1970s: while we had no Confraternity of the Scapular, as others did, we were encouraged to attend mass on the first Friday of nine consecutive months to earn ourselves safe passage into paradise. I was one of many who did it, and there is still a part of me that vaguely hopes I may receive my eternal reward (though of course, if I don't, I won't be in any position to report back that I was short-changed).

The wearing of the scapular was one of those time-honoured habits that has died off in the wake of the Church's modernising Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. However, there are still hundreds of varieties for sale online – costing between £1 and £10 – or hanging behind the counter in the bookshops of larger Catholic churches.

Among those most likely to sustain the market are the so-called "tertiaries" of various religious orders, including the Carmelites, Franciscans and Dominicans. As well as those monks and nuns who take full vows – and therefore get the chance to wear the full scapular – each also has what is called a "third order" of lay people, who strive to live in keeping with the order's rules, but in the everyday world. They are, to put it crudely, mini-monks and nuns. Look out for them in the changing-rooms.

Peter Stanford is a former editor of the 'Catholic Herald'