Forest Gump, the fictitious lead character of the 1994 Academy Award winning movie of the same name, famously said, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” Well, apparently I must not be a smart man either, because I am actually going to tackle the touchy topic of women veiling at Mass.
At the outset, I want to make two things perfectly clear. First, I do realize I am a man and that most men stay clear of this topic by about a mile. However, as a Catholic, a husband and a father of four daughters, this is close to my heart.
Second, and let me be perfectly clear about this, veiling does not make one woman any more or less pious than another. Or to put this in a slightly different way: if you choose not to veil at the Holy Mass you are no less holy than the woman next to you who does.
What Does Holy Mother Church Say?
First, the juridcal assessment of the venerable practice of women veiling for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass comes to us from Cardinal Raymond Burke, the current Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome. In responding to a letter he had received from a Catholic woman who was inquiring on the topic, his Eminence wrote:
“The wearing of a chapel veil for women is not required when women assist at the Holy Mass according to the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. It is, however, the expectation that women who assist at the Mass according to the Extraordinary Form cover their heads, as was the practice at the time that the 1962 Missale Romanum was in force. It is not, however a sin to participate in the Holy Mass according to the Extraordinary Form without a veil.”
In other words, there is no requirement to veil, but there is an “expectation that women…cover their heads” at the Traditional Latin Mass.
The expectation does not come from the 1962 Missal (which makes no such requirement), but rather from Canon 1262 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law which stated in part that “women…shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.” However, the release of the 1983 Code of Canon Law omitted Canon 1262 thereby removing the obligation for women to cover their head at the Holy Mass.
My Wife’s Story
What is even more interesting to me, however, is the deeply profound effect veiling has upon those who choose to do it.
Approximately five years ago my wife Angela began veiling after seeing a small, but ever increasing, number of women in our parish resume the traditional practice. Their example of personal piety intrigued her.
She proceeded to research the practice of veiling, finding quite a few good articles online regarding it. As with other traditions of the Church, she found that veiling fell by the wayside for many during that wonderful time known as the 1970’s.
The widespread rejection of femininity and of the sacred directly lead to the disappearance of the chapel veil. As feminism replaced femininity in all aspects of society, something as radically traditional and gender specific as the veil had to be discarded.
In addition, as the Holy Mass became a place for constant innovation, where the profane was ushered in and the sacred was rejected for simply being old, something as “pre-Vatican II” as the veil was no longer welcomed. Instead of recognizing the power of ritual and discipline to set the Mass apart from ordinary life, many of the faithful chose to extend the ordinary into the sacred space of the liturgy.
Additionally, my wife began to see the veil as a natural continuation of modesty in dress. This is something that is noticeable in many traditionally minded parishes.
She also meditated a great deal on our Blessed Mother. As Mary veiled in the presence of her Son, Angela could no longer see a reason for her not to do the same in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord. Indeed, veiling is a very Marian act.
Given the opportunity at an annual diocesan Eucharistic Congress, she purchased her first veil.
In the years since she has noticed incremental changes in herself. From initially feeling insecure and self-aware she no longer even thinks about it. These days the idea of sitting in the presence of our Lord without veiling, either at Mass or in Adoration, would feel odd to her. As she recently explained to a friend, coming to Mass now without her veil would feel like the equivalent of showing up barefoot.
Angela has also said that wearing her veil helps her to focus in prayer while at Mass. Under the veil it is as if she can listen and respond to our Lord more attentively; at least as much as possible with our youngest wiggling all through Mass some days.
Truth and Beauty
As a man I love to see women veiling. There is a real, visible, femininity and beauty in the practice. As a traditionally minded Catholic I appreciate the continuity with our liturgical heritage that veiling represents. I have also seen the connection between modesty and veiling, particularly among younger women. While veiling may very likely grow out of their understanding of modesty in dress, it none the less reflects a natural development of such understanding.
In addition, the Truth of our Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist is subtly reinforced by the practice. Every time a woman pauses to veil before entering Church she is proclaiming that, indeed, it is Jesus who is truly present within the tabernacle.
One last observation.
Please do not reference veiling as a devotion. Often this is how I have heard veiling casually dismissed. As I said at the outset, veiling is not required and is not a sign of greater piety. However, it is also not a devotion. It will often lead to judgmental glances and even frowns. If a woman chooses to veil it is often an act of the will on her part; an obedient response to something intellectually grasped, even if not emotionally understood.
It is not the same as choosing to pray a daily rosary, or the hours, or being vested in the scapular.
As a man, if I choose to wear a suit to Mass it is not by any means a devotion. It is called presenting myself in a manner appropriate to the occasion. My tie or suit coat is not a devotion; they are instead a reflection of the sacredness of the Holy Mass.
I would suggest that veiling is in the same vein. The devotion is for our Lord in the tabernacle, not to the lace or cloth (albeit blessed) that sits on a woman’s head.
As I said in the beginning, I’m not a smart man. If I were I would have steered clear of this altogether. However, I hope one guys view of the veil, as well as my wife’s personal experience, will help some women as they discern for themselves.