Judging eyes, hesitant signs of peace, and stares; this is the reaction to veiled women in the Catholic Church today. Whether intentional or not, this revulsion to the veil is concerning and in my opinion, stems from a lack of genuine understanding of its purpose and symbolism in the Catholic Church. As a Catholic woman recently re-veiled, I hope to de-mystify the tradition of veiling and promote respect and understanding for the practice.
Let me begin with a short, personal anecdote. As a little girl, I attended one of the few diocesan latin masses in North America, and as per custom in that service, I donned a veil. However during my college years, I abandoned this practice to protect myself from becoming a subject of public ridicule and frankly had never explored its significance. Over the past several years, I began to feel a pull at my heart to re-veil myself at mass. However, still hesitant to assume the stereotype as the singular ‘weird woman with the veil’ or the ‘run-down, subservient Catholic wife,’ I ignored the summon. It wasn’t until I saw a friend’s picture of herself veiled at mass, that I had the courage to re-veil and began to explore its history and meaning.
The History of the Veil
The practice of veiling has its roots in the Torah and Judaism. The veiling of a Jewish woman in ancient times was a practice of modesty, as a woman’s hair was considered her pride and an erotic stimulus. Coincidentally (or not), the St. Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, who preached against requiring gentile converts to adhere to “the precepts of the (Jewish) law“(Romans 2:26), re-affirmed the traditional Jewish practice of veiling to his Corinthian converts. “Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered brings shame upon his head. But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head….A man…should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man“(1 Corinthians 11:2-6). Here Paul preaches that a woman should veil as a physical act of humility and “authority on her head“(1 Corinthians 11: 2-6).
As a result, veiling became a universal practiced among Catholic women for nearly 2,000 years. The 1917 Code of Canon Law re-affirmed and emphasized the practice of veiling in the church stating that “women shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of Our Lord (the mass),” no doubt in response to the first phase of the 20th century sexual revolution. In the 1960’s the practice of veiling began to fade, with the second wave of the sexual revolution and the dawn of the modern feminist movement. Although the number of veiled women at mass began to dwindle significantly during this time, it wasn’t until 1983 that the Catholic Church officially nullified the practice of veiling in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
Symbolism of the Veil
Let us begin this exploration into the symbolic significance of veiling for mass, by exploring first the symbolism of a wedding veil; a widely practiced and embraced tradition throughout most of the world. A woman wears a wedding veil as an outward sign of her modesty, purity, reverence, and obedience to her husband. At mass, a woman veils as an outward sign of modesty, reverence, and obedience to Jesus Christ present in the Holy Eucharist. The veiled woman is a living, breathing, moving symbol; a reminder that the Church is the bride of Christ. How ironic is it that donning a wedding veil is so universally accepted, however when a woman wears a veil to mass she’s condemned as a radical Catholic zealot? (Which, I would argue, is actually a favorable label).
But why women? You may ask. Why don’t men need to veil. To answer this question, let me refer you back to St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Because woman is the ‘glory of man,’ the pinnacle of God’s creation, it is appropriate that she veil herself in modesty and humility in the presence of her Creator.
In my mind, most of the aversion to veiled women in the church stems from a negative association with veiling of women across all cultures. Veiling, unfortunately has come to symbolize in our modern world, feminine oppression and tyrannical patriarchal societies. Before jumping to this conclusion regarding Catholic veiling, consider a few things. First, let’s establish that veiling is an act of humility and reverence. Second, consider where that act of humility and reverence takes place. In the case of veiled Catholic women, this act takes place in a church in the presence of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. Therefore, given the act itself and the location in which it is performed we can conclude that veiling at mass is an act of humility and reverence towards Jesus Christ, towards God present. However, if I chose to veil in the presence of my husband or any male I should encounter, then my act of veiling would be an act of humility and reverence directed towards all men. Context is crucial.
Consider too what other things are veiled in Church and during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The chalice which holds Christ’s blood and the Tabernacle…the physical holding place of Jesus in the Eucharist, are veiled and covered. Catholics veil the most sacred and precious things and for nearly 2,000 years it’s feminine faithful.
Veiling is a choice; a choice that the Church gave to women starting in 1983. My intent in writing this entry is not to condemn those women who do not veil nor to preach to the veiled choir, but merely to inform and help to shed some light on a controversial topic within the Church. For those of you who veil, I hope this article helped solidify your reasons for doing so. For those of you who don’t veil, I hope this information helped you better understand this tradition of the Church and the psyche of that lady behind the veil at your parish.