The Veil and I

February 26, 2013 | 4 comments

By nature I tend to be a rather contrary person. Or, as my father sometimes put it, I tend to end up "crosswise in the door" when told that a particular direction is one in which I must go. Perhaps then it is no surprise that I kind of liked wearing a veil to Mass . . . until I was told I had to do it. Ever since then the subject makes me bristle.

The first time I wore a headcovering to Mass was soon after my conversion in 1996. A friend invited me to a diocesan-approved Tridentine Mass, and I was happy to go. As a by-the-by, she told me that women usually wore headcoverings of some sort to the Mass, that she had a spare if I wanted to wear one, but that it was no big deal if I did not. Many women in the congregation wore chapel veils and other headcoverings, but no one insisted upon it.

I was fine with trying it out, and if there was a general custom then I was willing to honor that custom. I borrowed the chapel veil. It didn't make me feel any different to wear it, but then I wasn't aware at the time that one of the big selling points promoters of wearing a veil offer is that wearing a veil is supposed to promote a "humble hiddenness." For me, it just seemed like a nice thing to do, both for the personal novelty and out of respect for the congregation I was visiting.

Some years later I became an apologist and learned that one of the ecclesial dramas of life in conservative Catholic circles is whether or not women should "veil." Some promoters are quite insistent that women need to do so, citing Scripture and Church Fathers, arguing against current canon law and normative practice. Other promoters are mild and gracious, citing a personal "call" and a desire for humble hiddenness while refraining from claiming the practice is mandatory. The latter group often makes helpful points on the subject, and its gentle persuasion is likely to win more converts to the practice than those who press their cause more belligerently.

While I am more amenable to the gentle persuasion and would refer women interested in wearing headcoverings to those who use it, I do continue to have concerns about the issue. If promoters of women's headcoverings wish to make headway with women like me who are sympathetic to their concerns but wary of proselytism on the subject, here are some concerns they might want to keep in mind:

The "call" to veil. The word vocation tends to be overused these days. It seems that anyone who wants to do something spiritual couches it in terms of feeling "called." I do not deny that God speaks to the human heart, and I would never presume to tell anyone what God is or is not telling them to do. Nevertheless, even if you really do feel a burning in the bosom to wear headcovering to Mass, please consider not mentioning it. Claiming a "call" gives the impression that you believe God is raising you up to be a sign and wonder to the world, that he is using you to draw others to do as you are doing. I can only speak for myself, but when I get that impression, all I want to do is to back away slowly from the person making that claim. 

Suggestion: If you feel like you'd like to wear a veil, just say you'd like to wear a veil. There is no need to claim God's seal of approval.

Wearing a "veil." Back when the Church required women to cover their heads, all that was required was that women cover their heads. Depending on their culture and resources, women could wear mantillas, scarves, hoods, or hats. According to etiquette maven Miss Manners, women who inadvertently forgot to bring any other form of headcovering made do with a handkerchief. These days talk of "veiling" makes it seem that women not only cover their heads but "take the veil," which in Christian circles may bring to mind cloistered nuns but also raises specters of Muslim women compelled to wear a burqa.

Suggestion: Distinction can drive out the devils of misunderstanding. If you are promoting the Catholic custom of women wearing headcoverings to Mass, then remember that Catholic women have never been expected to wear just one kind of headcovering. They did not "veil"; they covered their heads.

Respecting personal choice. One of the first lessons I was taught as an apologist is not to attempt to bind consciences where the Church does not. If an idea or practice or custom is a matter of personal freedom, then do not say or do anything that might make another Catholic feel like his or her permitted idea, practice, or custom is wrong. It is perfectly fine to have your own idea on the subject and to explain why you hold it. But an acknowledgment that it is your personal opinion or practice goes a long way toward easing tensions among people who feel differently.

Suggestion: My friend who introduced me to the Tridentine Mass hit all the right notes in broaching the topic of headcoverings. She noted that it was the custom of that congregation, offered a spare chapel veil, and left the decision up to me. Those women reluctant to wear headcoverings on a regular basis usually will at least wear one if attending Mass where the custom is to do so, if only out of consideration for the feelings of their hosts.

So, where am I with the veil today? Last time I attended an extraordinary form Mass at the local FSSP parish, I picked up one of the free veils set out for visiting women who wanted to wear one. Since I was allowed to keep it, I did. Next time I go to an extraordinary form Mass in a church or chapel that follows the custom of women wearing headcovering, I'll take it along and wear it.

But, no, wearing a veil does not make me feel humble, hidden, or in any other way set apart. It's just the custom I follow in those places where it is encouraged or expected. 


Michelle Arnold is a staff apologist at Catholic Answers. You can visit her personal blog or contact her online through Facebook.
Mothers of the Church: The Witness of Early Christian Women
Mothers of the Church: The Witness of Early Christian Women will reinforce Catholics understanding of the part played by women in the early Church. Drawing upon a wide spectrum of sources, it illustrates the many kinds of women that left their mark on sacred history by responding to God s call. Whether they were martyrs, abbesses, mothers, desert solitaries, or managers of large family businesses, these women s stories will encourage you and deepen your faith.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Donetta Robben - Hays, Kansas

Michelle gives one woman's view. However, after overcoming my fear of ridicule, and wearing the veil now for over a year, I love that it controls the peripheral vision keeping the vision focused on the altar. It also makes me feel more like a Bride of Christ, and gives me courage to live as such outside Mass. I don't think I'm better than women who wear the veil or other head covering, just doing what -- sorry Michelle -- I feel called to do to honor our Lord and Savior.

September 16, 2013 at 1:20 pm PST
#2  Emily Davis - Fort Worth, Texas

I believe veiling/wearing a head covering is still something we should do. We have to cover our heads in front of the Pope (out of respect) but not Our Lord? That makes little sense to me.

I long for the days when all women covered their heads out of reverence for Our Lord.

Further, I have never thought I was better than anyone else. But I do feel like it is right for me and I am thrilled that this tradition is coming back. After all, we are as free to wear them as others are to NOT wear them. Right?

For me, wearing the veil is humbling, feminine and right.
Blessings,
Emily

November 24, 2013 at 3:07 pm PST
#3  Barbara Bishop - La Junta, Colorado

I see there are two veins of discussion on the practice of "veiling" in Church, the worldly view and the Sacred view.

The worldly view includes modernization of Church practices in attempt to make the Mass more accessible to the contemporary Catholic, i.e.: relaxing dress, behaviors, removing the Latin, turning the Altar around, female Altar servers. After all, we must balance tradition with the times we live in.

Abandoning the head covering for women was a worldly modernization brought about through, but not only by, the media and social pressure applied by the women's liberation movement.

The idea that the veil is a symbol of oppression in ingrained into the minds of many women, from religious sisters to the occasional Mass attender. The arguments on this issue are many and vigorous. I, for one am glad we are discussing the practice.

There is no denying that covering the head for women and uncovering the head for men is Sacred Scripture. The Church can change its rules but Sacred Scripture cannot be changed by anyone, it is the word of God. All Christian women, not just Catholics, are commanded to cover their heads in public prayer, while prophesying and before the Holy Eucharist, by the Word of Sacred Scripture.

The more I delve into the Sacred Scripture, the more I am compelled to obey God's word.

Modernism does not trump the Word of God.

Yes, we women have free choice by the Church and by God. The Church removed the mandate and God allows us to choose to follow The Word or not.

Just as men have free choice to wear their baseball caps or cowboy hats in church and during prayer around the graveside, still, I do not see men wearing hats in defiance or to prove that they are in control of their gender position in society.

I wear the veil to Church because God commanded, as written in the Bible, for women to cover their heads. I wear a veil, my preferred style of head-covering, because it is my cultural heritage, it is in my comfort zone, as opposed to a hat, it is beautiful and feminine and as woman, it is my role, my calling, and my heart's desire to imitate our Blessed Mother Mary as I participate in the Sacred celebration of Mass. I am honored and humbled to cover my head before God. All that God has done for me leaves me dumbstruck, the least I can do is cover my head in humility before the Altar.

April 29, 2014 at 7:27 am PST
#4  Barbara Bishop - La Junta, Colorado

P.S. Many who are against the wearing of the veil in Church often cite the burqa. Muslim women must veil before man, must wear the burqa when one is in the presence of the male gender.

Catholic women are in no way obliged to wear a veil in the presence of men, only in the presence of God. The chapel veil and the burqa are in no way the same. We are Christian, we are Catholic, not Muslim.

Even when I am in the Church alone I veil, even when only women are present I veil, even when I am the only one among them with a veil. I do not wear the veil because men are present.

Christ put the image of his Face on St. Veronica's veil while staggering beneath the weight and pain of our sins. He bore the Cross of which I have played a part in burdening Him. In this way he blessed the wearing of the veil. In this way he gave us his gracious forgiveness. In wearing the veil, I humble myself before God and beg forgiveness from Him. Not from man who is a creature just like me.

April 29, 2014 at 1:28 pm PST

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