Saint of the week

St Simon Stock, 16th May

St Simon Stock was born in Kent in the 13th century. He was elected head of the Carmelite order in its early years and he founded White Friars religious houses in the university cities of Cambridge, Oxford, Paris and Bologna in a period which witnessed the rapid spread of the order throughout western and southern Europe. Most famously, the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom he was strongly devoted, is believed to have bestowed on St Simon the privilege of the brown scapular, the habit of the Carmelite Order and the Discalced Carmelite Order.
Butler’s Lives of the Saints reminds us that little is known about the life and person of St Simon Stock and it cautions readers about legends that have grown up around him which are probably unlikely – such as the story that St Simon, a strict vegetarian, ordered a cooked fish served up to him to be thrown back into the river where it had been caught, whereupon the fish swam away. Anything written about the saint before 1247 “is conjectural”, Butler’s says.
It is nevertheless accepted, however, that after a short period living as a hermit in England, St Simon travelled to the Holy Land where he encountered primitive Carmelites, whose early profession was eremitical and he joined them as a religious. Attacks by Saracens prompted the withdrawal of the Carmelites from the region and nearly all of them returned to Europe. In Aylesford, Kent, St Simon “being a man of vigour and exceptional holiness” was elected the superior general of the order during a chapter in 1247, and was probably the fifth or sixth person to hold such office.
There is no doubt that his rule corresponded with the swift development and spread of the Carmelite order, with foundations appearing in a number of countries throughout Europe, especially England, Ireland and Spain.
St Simon oversaw the modification of the rule to accommodate an influx of vocations and the changing role of the Carmelites from hermits to mendicant friars. This was approved in 1247 by Pope Innocent IV, who five years later also issued a letter of protection to counter jealousy and harassment experienced by the White Friars at the hands of other clergy resentful of their success.
Saint_Simon_StockIt was in 1251, during this period of stress and trial, that Our Lady is said to have appeared to St Simon in a vision, holding out the scapula and promising him: “This shall be a privilege unto thee and all Carmelites; he who dies in this habit shall be saved.”
In their original context, the words of Our Lady would have been interpreted to mean that the person who persists in his or her vocation as a Carmelite would go to heaven.
Yet the veracity of the vision has been the subject of much controversy, running late into the 20th century, partly because no contemporary document attests or refers to it; the first written account appears only a 100 years after it was received.
In spite of this the scapula, extended to the laity in the 16th century, has become and continues to be a popular devotion, a sacramental encouraged by several popes.
In 2001 St John Paul II described the devotion to the scapular as a “treasure for the whole Church”, for instance, while the Venerable Pope Pius XII in 1951 wrote to the Carmelites to say he hoped that the scapular would be to them “a sign of their consecration to the most sacred heart of the Immaculate Virgin”.
Indeed today the Vatican takes the view that the scapular is “an external sign of the filial relationship established between the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother and Queen of Mount Carmel, and the faithful who entrust themselves totally to her protection, who have recourse to her maternal intercession, who are mindful of the primacy of the spiritual life and the need for prayer”.
St Simon Stock died in Bordeaux, France, on 16 May 1265 and after his death many miracles were reputedly wrought by his graveside. In 1951 a section of his skull was translated to the restored Carmelite friary at Aylesford and today his relics are the focus of pilgrimages there.