Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What's with the Veil? Discussing the presence of headcoverings in church

Happy feast of St. Bonaventure! 

When I was young, I would occasionally see old ladies at church wearing cute hats or lace doilies on their heads. I really didn't know why they did this; I figured they couldn't let go of an ancient Catholic practice that had been outlawed by Vatican II. As the years passed, I grew a bit more curious about this practice, especially since one of my good friends in high school wore a white veil to Mass. So, I prayed about it, thought about it, argued with God, and...long story short, I've been veiling my head in the presence of the Eucharist for the past 6-7 years. I've researched into this devotion a lot, had many conversations with men and women about it, and even wrote a major paper on veiling in college. I've found that sometimes, people who aren't interested in veiling want to know about it--and I think this is awesome! I think it is important for all Catholics, regardless of whether or not they want to veil themselves, to understand a little bit about this devotion. So, in case some of you out there want a basic idea behind the "veiling devotion," I'd like to provide you with some information. 

How long has the practice of veiling been around? 
It's been around for thousands of years! In ancient Greek and Roman cultures, respectable women wore veils when they left the house. Just take a look at the Code of Assura, from 1075 B.C.:
 If the wives of a man, or the daughters of a man go out into the street, their heads are to be veiled. The prostitute is not to be veiled. Maidservants are not to veil themselves. Veiled harlots and maidservants shall have their garments seized and 50 blows inflicted on them and bitumen poured on their heads.
Veiling was a cultural practice that had many benefits, like protecting oneself from the elements. The practice of headcovering was brought over into the Jewish faith, and with the formation of the Catholic Church, the practice came there, as well. Elizabeth Kuhns, in her book The Habit, argues that "The first female Christian converts would have likely continued to wear the dress of their ethnic heritage." The practice of covering one's head in Catholic churches continued throughout the centuries, and was even mandated by the Code of Canon Law in 1917. Canon 1262 states that "women, however, shall have a covered head and be modesty dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord." 

Hmm. Interesting. But veiling was totally outlawed by Vatican II, right? 
Actually, Vatican II did not outlaw veiling. Around the time of Vatican II, the practice of veiling was falling into disuse, and there was some confusion among people as to whether or not they were required to do it anymore. 

from The Statesville Record & Landmark, June 19, 1968
In 1969, things got a bit more complicated when the Rev. Annibale Bugnini was misunderstood by a news reporter in an interview about the new missal. The Associated Press ran with it, and, well, take a look: 
The change abolishing the head cover custom from women is new. It struck down a symbol of distinction that had implied an inferior position for women, and was often regarded as an ancient form of prejudice against females. (The Kokomo Tribune, May 3, 1969)
In July of 1969, newspapers clarified information, and actually quoted the clergy discussing the topic of veiling in the presence of Our Lord. 
The information director for the New York Archdiocese, the Very Rev. Msgr. Thomas J. McGovern, said the practice is recommended “out of respect.” “It is still encouraged that women wear a headcovering, although it depends more on the custom of the place, and the fashion that is in vogue,” he added. (from the Indiana Evening Gazette, July 3, 1969)
In 1970, the CDF issued the document Inter Insigniores, which stated that
It must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head; such requirements no longer have a normative value. 
Then, the 1983 Code of Canon Law abrogated the 1917 Code of Canon Law.  So, as you can hopefully see, veiling was not outlawed by Vatican II. It is no longer required, but it is still a beautiful practice "out of respect." 

So, do all women veil out of humility? 
One of the beautiful aspects I find in the devotion of veiling is the manifestation of our unity and incredible diversity as Catholics. I have interviewed many women about veiling over the past year or so, and they all have different stories. While their personal reasons for this practice overlap a little bit, many women have completely different reasons behind their head covering. Yes, some women veil out of a desire to grow in humility, but that is not the first thing on the radar for all women. 

What are some of the other reasons behind veiling? 
They are numerous, but here are a couple that I have learned about:

Veiling expresses the universal call to motherhood. In churches, the objects that hold life are veiled. Tabernacles, which hold the life-giving Body of Christ, are veiled. Chalices, which contain the life-giving Blood of Christ, are veiled. Women, who give and bear life, are veiled. Even though all women may not become physical mothers, we are all called to become spiritual mothers. Just think about celibate religious sisters! 
Spiritual motherhood takes on many different forms. In the life of consecrated women, for example, who live according to the charism and the rules of the various apostolic Institutes, it can express itself as concern for people, especially the most needy: the sick, the handicapped, the abandoned, orphans, the elderly, children, young people, the imprisoned and, in general, people on the edges of society. (St. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem)
Veiling shows that Christ is present. Wearing a head covering in church is like wearing a big sign that says, "HEY EVERYBODY! CHRIST IS HERE!" I particularly notice this significance when I'm attending Mass in a gymnasium at a conference. Yes, there's an altar set up, but it's still the same ol' basketball court. Oh wait--a woman in a veil! Something huge is about to happen-the Mass will begin, and Christ is coming. 

Veiling manifests our nuptial relationship with Christ. We receive Christ's flesh in the Eucharist, becoming united so intimately with him. We are His brides, and a veil can display this beautiful reality. 

Veiling is a special way to "dress up" for Jesus! I especially discovered this when I attended Catholic high school. I wore my school uniform to Mass, same as everyone else. But I wanted to do something special, something external that would reflect my interior excitement at coming to the Sacred Liturgy. Wearing a head covering was something extra epic and special that I did for Christ. 

So, those are just a few different reasons behind veiling, but like I said--there are plenty more. This is a devotion that takes on special meaning for each and every woman who practices it. It's really awesome! I hope that you learned something helpful today, or at least started thinking about the significance of this devotion in the Catholic Church. 

Check out Part 2 of this topic here! 


  1. Dear AnneMarie,

    Thank you for this lovely article, especially for the historical record of where the practice of veiling comes from. I have come to love veiling and I am currently studying it for a research project in my liberal arts Catholic BA program. Would you be willing to share your college paper or bibliography with me? Finding sources has been a bit tricky so far. I don't know how to facilitate getting your paper, but I would be happy to share my email with you if you are willing to share your paper.

    Thank you, and God bless.

    Miss S.

    1. Hi, Miss S! Thank you so much for reading! That's beautiful that you have come to love veiling as well, and that you're working on a project about it :) It was very tricky to find sources, because there isn't a whole ton of published material on it! Unfortunately, I don't have a bibliography, because my paper was Creative Nonfiction, so while I needed to draw from actual sources, I wasn't required to create a bibliography (I wish I would have done this, instead of jotting down notes from books). I scoured newspapers that were available online, and looked in different books about lace, the history of fashion, etc. to find pieces that I could use, which, together with personal interviews (my paper told the stories of different women I knew who veiled), created a narrative. So, those are the places I recommend checking. Sorry I don't have more specific sources! I hope your research goes well!