The New Scapular

AIDS and the Wrath of God

When I was in Catholic high school, some 15 years ago, even as the last of the marble altars were being pulled out of America's churches, the ornate wooden confessionals uprooted in favor of plywood-and-plexiglass "reconciliation rooms," one devotional custom persisted from centuries before, in the undershirts and blouses of the Vinnics, Patricks, and Marias at Mater Christi High School in Astoria, Queens: the wearing of the scapular. Perhaps because of its simplicity, because of its deep roots in the culture, in the example of grandfather and older sister and Mama, or maybe thanks to rank superstition, this devotion seemed likely to survive the iconoclastic frenzy unleashed by Vatican II. Consisting of two square pieces of brown rough cloth linked by a string, the scapular bears an image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and carries a promise that he who wears it faithfully will die in a state of grace—that Our Lady will intervene and place him if not in Heaven, at least on the bottom rung of Purgatory, which is about as high as most Catholic teenagers back then were aiming.

Of course, this promise was hedged about with all sorts of theological restrictions, warnings from dusty French theologians about "presuming on God's mercy" and "the need for a penitential life"—but none of these were heeded by us feckless, fantastical teenagers. We knew a loophole when we saw one. So in those months...

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