The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council

"Chapter 22 - Special devotions in honour of Mary"


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The Second Vatican Council, after giving its splendid proclamation of the doctrinal truths about Mary, and in doing so taking up more advanced positions than any other Council in the entire history of the Church, drew the practical conclusion:1 "This most Holy Synod deliberately teaches this Catholic doctrine and it admonishes all the sons of the Church that they should generously cultivate devotion, especially liturgical devotion, towards the Blessed Virgin, and that they should consider of great importance the practices and exercises of piety toward her that were recommended by the Magisterium of the Church over the course of centuries..."

The greatest of these recommended practices is Marian consecration, as we have already seen in chapters 6 and 18. There are many other forms of devotion which the Magisterium of the Church has encouraged. Outstanding among the others are two: the Rosary, and the Scapular of our Lady of Mount Carmel.

The Rosary

Pope Paul VI, in his Rosary Encyclical of September 15, 1966, pointed out that the words we have just quoted from the Council do indeed commend the Rosary:2 "The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, not explicitly, but quite clearly none the less, strongly recommended the Rosary to the souls of the sons of the Church in this statement: 'they should consider of great importance the practices and exercises of piety toward her that were recommended by the Magisterium of the Church over the course of centuries.' " The list of Popes who have promoted the Rosary is long indeed. It includes all the Popes of recent times, along with many of previous centuries. It includes Pope John XXIII, in whose name so many claim they are authorized to ignore the Rosary. He not only praised it, but said it himself. In his Journal of a Soul3 he tells us that from 1953 until his death, he himself recited all fifteen decades every day, even in the midst of the heavy work of the Papacy.

The Rosary is also related to private revelations. Especially, the apparitions of Lourdes and Fatima urged its recitation. The Fatima prophecies make the Rosary one of the conditions for obtaining the conversion of Russia, and world peace.

According to some accounts, the Rosary itself originated in a private revelation to St. Dominic. Blessed Alan de la Roche, who died in 1475, writes that in the year A.D. 1206, St. Dominic had been working hard for three years against the Albigensian heresy, but with little fruit. He then went to a forest at Prouille, and there, with long prayers and severe penances, begged the help of the Queen of Heaven. On the third day Mary appeared to him, gave him the Rosary, told him to go to Toulouse and preach it to others. St. Dominic did so, and taught the Rosary with great success.

It is difficult to know what to say of this account. For certain, the value of the Rosary does not depend at all upon it: we have the repeated recommendations of the Magisterium of the Church, and the insistence of our Blessed Mother herself in her appearances at Lourdes and Fatima. Many scholars, even Dominicans,4 are very doubtful about the account of the vision allegedly given to St. Dominic.

There is a long series of Papal statements, which speak of St. Dominic as the author of the Rosary. The earliest of these comes from Pope Alexander VI, on June 13, 1495. Similar declarations have come from Popes Leo X, Gregory XIII, Sixtus V, Clement VIII, Alexander VII, Clement IX, Clement X, Innocent XI, Benedict XIII, Benedict XIV, Clement XIV. Pius VII, Pius IX, Leo XIII, Benedict XV, and Pius XI.

Yet, the language of these statements is guarded. They call St. Dominic the "author" of the Rosary. That is not quite the same as declaring that he received it in a private revelation. It need not even mean that he was entirely original in promoting it: there could have been somewhat similar earlier practices which he refined and promoted so successfully that he could be called the author of the Rosary. We should add that the Papal declarations on the relation of the Rosary to St. Dominic are not really doctrinal statements. Rather, they deal with a question of history. As such, they do not carry the same sort of weight as do doctrinal statements.

It seems likely that a practice of saying many Our Fathers and Hail Marys existed even before the time of St. Dominic, and that counting devices of beads also existed before his time. What is quite probable is this: St. Dominic made it his practice to give long series of sermons on the mysteries of salvation. In between sermons, to implore the aid of heaven, and to provide a break for his hearers, he had them say Our Fathers and Hail Marys. Out of this preaching-praying method our present Rosary developed.

Saying the Rosary is both easy and hard. It is easy enough for the most simple souls. Yet it is difficult for anyone to say it really well. There are two chief problems, which are closely related: distractions, and meditating on the mysteries.

Some find it helpful to read a series of short lines, perhaps lines from Scripture. between each of the Hail Marys. Booklets have been prepared that are quite helpful for this method. Others will make a meditation between each decade: this is probably what St. Dominic himself did. Still others will be able to continue a meditation while saying the Hail Marys, for it is not necessary to think of the sense of each word or phrase as we say the Hail Marys. Really, to do so for fifty of them in a row would be almost unworkable.

The repetition of so many Hail Marys, and the problem of combining a meditation with them leaves the Rosary specially open to distractions. Here we need to recall the principles we saw in chapter 14 about distractions. As long as we keep trying to banish them every time we become aware of their presence, we are praying well. In fact, a prayer said with a persevering determined struggle, but with little success, will be apt to be more pleasing to God than one said with ease and satisfaction to ourselves.

The Brown Scapular

The devotion of the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is another important practice implicitly recommended by Vatican II in the statement we saw at the start of this chapter. For a long line of Popes has praised it. Hence its basic value is established even without the need to investigate the historical character of the apparition reported to have been received by St. Simon Stock.

The Brown Scapular is said to have originated in a vision, in A.D. 1251. At that time the Carmelite Order, newly transplanted to England, was meeting many difficulties. St. Simon Stock, the Prior General, begged Mary for help.

An early Carmelite Catalog of the Saints. dating from A.D. 1507, gives us this account:5 "The ninth was St. Simon of England, the sixth General of the Order. He constantly begged the most glorious Mother of God to fortify the Carmelite order ... with some privilege ... To him did the Blessed Virgin appear with a multitude of angels, holding the Scapular of the Order in her blessed hands. and saying: 'This will be a privilege for you and for all Carmelites, that he who dies in this will not suffer eternal fire,' that is, he who dies in this will be saved."

The historical evidence for this vision is quite good. We can summarize briefly the chief points, under three headings.

First. the Carmelite Catalogs of the Saints. We have six forms of these Catalogs. The earliest copy that carries a date is from A.D. 1426. However, experts in the study of ancient manuscripts estimate that the Paris manuscript, which carries no date, was probably written in the late 1300s. And that is only the date of our copy: the original from which it was made is likely to be older. Now the fact that the Catalog had several different forms by the late 1300s shows it must have had a rather large circulation in that century. That in turn implies that the original is definitely older.

Furthermore, although the Oxford manuscript of the Catalog quotes papal documents from 1317 and 1347, yet the Old Speculum text (the one which we quoted above) does not mention these papal documents. Now it is likely it would mention them, if they had been issued before it, the Old Speculum text, was composed. Hence, the Old Speculum text seems to go back to about A.D. 1300. That is rather close to the date of the vision, A.D. 1251, close enough for memories to be fresh, especially when we consider the striking nature of the vision.

The second piece of evidence is this: About A.D. 1291 William of Sanvico, a Carmelite in the Holy Land, wrote that when the Order was in difficulties, the Blessed Virgin appeared to the Prior, and told him to go to Pope Innocent. Now the Catalogs of which we have just spoken, do not mention the appeal to Pope Innocent while Sanvico omits details the Catalogs have. The result is this: It seems that the testimony of William of Sanvico is entirely independent of the Catalogs. But the date for William of Sanvico is about A.D. 1291, while the vision should have taken place in A.D. 1251.

Thirdly, we have some supplementary facts which, while not conclusive, are quite impressive. The Bordeaux Constitutions6 of the Carmelites, dating from A.D. 1294, say it is a grave fault for a monk to sleep without his Scapular. And in A.D. 1287, the Carmelite General Chapter of Montpellier says:7 "The outer garment, which is commonly called the mantle, is not essential to the Order, nor is it our special habit." That is a quite remarkable statement: the garment referred to had once been considered a distinctive Carmelite tradition. Something unusual would be required to move the Carmelites to discard it in favour of the Scapular. The St. Simon Stock vision could easily account for this change. Otherwise it would be hard to explain.

Furthermore, we have added details on that Chapter of A.D. 1287, which tell us:8 "They took a white cape as a sign of their religious profession, keeping however, as before the Scapular, which was once called the capuche, for the special habit of the Order." We note those words "as before". They imply that for some time before A.D. 1287 the Scapular had been well established. Some time before A.D. 1287 gets us at least very close to A.D. 1251, the date of the vision.

Similarly, we have the minutes of the meetings of a Carmelite Confraternity for laymen in Florence, Italy. Under the date of November 1, 1298, we read that the members were wearing the Scapular:9 "to render glory to God and to His glorious Mother ... that she may grant and give us the grace to be able to persevere in good and to come to a truly good end." The words in italics obviously refer to the Scapular promise. And, from the fact that we are dealing with a Confraternity for laymen, we see the wide extension of belief in the vision by that date.

However, as we said, the value of the Scapular does not depend solely on the historical character of the apparition. Its general value is assured for us by the fact that it has been recommended by the Magisterium so many times over. And those recommendations, as Vatican II tells us, still hold.

But we can go much farther. Even the very special promise that "he who dies in this will not suffer eternal fire" can be validated by sound theology independently of the historical character of the vision. To understand how this is possible, we must bring into relation two statements of recent Popes. First, Pope Pius XII in a letter to the Major Carmelite Superiors for the 700th anniversary of the apparition to St. Simon Stock said of the Scapular:10 "... may they consider it as a sign of their consecration to the Most Sacred Heart of the Immaculate Virgin." Secondly, Pope Pius XI, nearly thirty years before, had written:11 "... nor would he incur eternal death whom the Most Blessed Virgin assists, especially at his last hour. This opinion of the Doctors of the Church, in harmony with the sentiments of the Christian people, and supported by the experience of all times, depends especially on this reason: the fact that the Sorrowful Virgin shared in the work of the Redemption with Jesus Christ."

The picture is clear. Pope Pius XI tells us that one who is devout to the Blessed Virgin will not incur eternal death. He adds that this is a view supported by the Doctors of the Church, by the belief of the faithful, and by actual experience of all ages. Then Pope Pius XII tells us that the Brown Scapular, properly understood, is really the external sign of a consecration to Mary. Thinking of the words of Pius XI, we might rightly ask just how much devotion to Mary would be required to gain such an assurance. Pius XI does not venture to say. Nor does Pius XII define a precise measure: that really cannot be done. But this much is clear: If someone wears the Scapular as the sign of a real consecration to Mary, one made and lived out in the way we have already described, for certain, that one can count on the Scapular promise. And even if there never was any apparition to St. Simon Stock, still, his hope is founded on the sound theological teaching of the Popes, which we have just presented.

So tremendous a privilege as this should be more than enough to make all eager to take up the Scapular devotion. But there is more to be said. For here is another privilege associated with the Scapular: the Sabbatine Privilege.

This privilege was announced in a Bull12 Of Pope John XXII, dated March 3, 1322. In it the Pope said the Blessed Mother had appeared to him and made this great promise. What did she promise? Unfortunately, the manuscripts we have carry two different readings. One reading promises that those who fulfill certain conditions (which we shall soon enumerate) will be freed from Purgatory on the first Saturday after their death; the other version is less specific, promises merely early release.

The original copy of the Bull of Pope John XXII has been lost. Many documents of that Pope have been lost. However, official transcripts of it allow us to trace it back to an authenticated copy made in 1421. Similar copies of the original Bull were approved by Popes Clement VII, St. Pius V, Gregory XIII, and others as well. If we cannot rely on notarized copies, guaranteed by several Popes, then we had better give up trying to prove almost any historical event. For we do not have notarized documents to support most of the data used in our histories.

What of the variations in the reading? There are two different texts, both coming from the same Pope, Clement VII. In the first one, dated May 15, 1528, we have the stronger reading, promising liberation from Purgatory on the first Saturday; in the second, dated August 12, 1530, we have the weaker reading. The first of these was never solemnly issued, and so is technically invalid. The reason it was not issued may be found in the disturbed state of Rome after the sack of the city in 1527. But, whatever the cause, the copy finally issued was the weaker one.

However, even if only the lesser reading be the true one, it is still a privilege richly worth working for.

The conditions required are not too difficult. Different authors group them in different ways. We can conveniently list them under three headings. First, one must wear the Scapular. Second, he must observe chastity, as it applies to his state in life, married or single. Third, he must recite the Office, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, unless, of course, one is already reciting the larger Office of the Breviary. This last condition can be commuted by any priest who has the needed faculty, into something else. Often it is commuted to a daily Rosary.13

The second condition, the observance of chastity, does not mean a vow of celibacy or virginity. It means that each person must obey the Sixth and Ninth Commandments as they apply to his current state in life, married or single. What if one sins? It is commonly held that if one regains the state of grace, his claim to this Sabbatine Privilege is reestablished, though repeated failures might mean one would not gain the privilege in its fullest extent.

Are such privileges too great to be believed? By no means, for they come from the immeasurable love of the Mother of all men, who in turn is acting for the Infinite Love that is God, our Father.


1 On the Church ยง 67.
2 Paul VI, Christi Matri Rosarii, Sept. 15, 1966: AAS 58, 748.
3 Pope John XXIII, Journal of A Soul (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1964) p. 315.
4 E.g., Bede Jarrett, O.P., Life of St. Dominic (New York, 1924), pp. 110-12 does not even mention the apparition.
5 Translated from B. Xiberta, O. Carm. De visione S. Simonis Stock (Rome, 1950) p. 283. Most of the following data comes from Xiberta's study.
6 Cf. Analecta Ordinis Carmelitarum XVIII (1953) p. 140.
7 Cf. Xiberta, pp. 146-47, 243.
8 Xiberta, p. 150.
9 Quoted from Analecta Ordinis Carmelitarum Discalceatorum IV, 3 (January-March, 1930), p. 174.
10 AAS 42,391.
11 Feb. 2, 1923: AAS 15,103. Cf. similar statements by Benedict XV (AAS 10,182) and Pius XII (AAS 39,584).
12 Cf. Eugenius a S. Joseph, "Dissertatio Historica de Sacro Scapulari Carmelitico" in: Analecta Ordinis Carmelitarum Discalceatorum IV, 3 (January-March, 1930) p 182.
13 For those unable to read, the third condition is the observance of the fasts of the Church, plus abstinence on Wednesdays and Saturdays.