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.