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The Veil and I

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. 

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