By Thomas J. Craughwell
One of the little gems discovered in Rome's catacombs is a fourth-century medallion that belonged to a Christian woman named Successa. Her name is engraved on the medal, along with a representation of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, roasting on the gridiron. It is perhaps the world's oldest surviving Christian holy medal.
Amulets and talismans worn around the neck were common in the ancient world. They were thought to ward off the evil eye, or attract good luck or demonstrate that the wearer was under the protection of a particular god or goddess. The custom was so widespread that the early Church "baptized" it, encouraging new converts to replace their pagan amulets for a Christian medal.
During the Middle Ages medals shifted from being purely devotional items to souvenirs that gave the wearer bragging rights. Pilgrims would return from famous shrines with a distinctive metal badge pinned to their clothes rather than suspended from a chain or cord worn around the neck. A crossed-keys badge meant the pilgrim had been to Rome and prayed at the tomb of St. Peter; a pewter palm branch signified a successful pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The custom of wearing holy medals as a sign of devotion was revived toward the end of the 16th century, and experienced a genuine boom in the mid-19th century after Our Lady gave the design of the Miraculous Medal to St. Catherine Laboure. In fact, the Miraculous Medal is probably the most widely distributed medal in the Church's history, with many millions of copies given out over the last 170 years.
Of course, it is essential to remember that a holy medal is not a good-luck charm: to wear it or keep it on one's person is an expression of love for and confidence in the Sacred Heart, or the Blessed Virgin or the particular saint whose image is stamped on the medal. And a holy medal is not magic. Any grace that may come to the wearer comes from God, who uses the medal as his instrument to accomplish something wonderful.
Related to holy medals but not nearly as old is the scapular. The word refers to part of a religious habit, a long piece of cloth worn over the shoulders and hanging down front and back. (Scapulae in Latin means shoulders).
Sometime before 1265, Our Lady appeared to St. Simon Stock, prior general of the Carmelites, and promised that whoever wore the brown scapular of the Carmelite habit would be assured eternal salvation. As it was not practical for laypeople to wear a full-size scapular, it was continually modified until it reached the form we are familiar with today: two small pieces of cloth connected by two strings or cords. But true to its origins, the little scapular is still worn over the shoulders, and hangs down front and back.
There are other types of scapulars, but the Carmelite, or Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, remains the most popular.
As we mentioned before regarding holy medals, a scapular in itself has no supernatural power. A persistent, unrepentant sinner can wrap himself in scapulars from head to foot, but that is no guarantee that he will get into heaven. Catholics who wear a scapular commit themselves to striving to live good and holy lives -- that is why at the end of their lives they should have no reason to fear the fires of hell.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the founder of www.antiqueholycards .com and the author of Our Sunday's Visitor's Catholic Cardlinks series.
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