The young people at St. Mary’s in College Station have a flare for making old things new again, for transforming customs and practices that could be considered old fashioned or obsolete, into fresh, passionate expressions of the uniqueness and beauty of our Catholic faith. Aggie Catholics tend to add flourish to their devotion. Several of them kneel as they receive Holy Communion, or genuflect just before receiving. You might notice a young man a pew ahead take off his shoes to express reverence and prayerful humility. It is normal to now and then to see a student praying prostrate at adoration. As they gather for an event, you might see the activity center ablaze in votive candles that line the floor and kitchen counter. These are a few things I have seen there that are signs of the Catholic Renaissance flowering in this joyful place. I think it is great.
Looking out from my usual pew in the balcony, I have begun to see that the congregation is more and more dotted with lace mantillas, chapel veils, even sparkly shawls, whisked over the head at the door of the church. These young women seem to have discovered that maybe there was something to that old head covering tradition after all. Veiling is an ancient custom that these religious pioneers are re-interpreting, renewing and evolving into a deeply meaningful and relevant practice for our day.
The world of our time longs for a sense of the holy, for a sense of mystery and awe. We as Catholics need to remember the heart of our faith, which is the Presence of God in our midst; Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. The sight of a veil prayerfully worn in recognition of this, can draw us to that sudden chill of knowing, of believing, that the Church is true, that “there is something here that is greater….”
Kristin and Austin, a couple I often see at daily mass, usually sit in the front row of the balcony. They present a sweet picture from behind with their little children, each girl in a different color of lace chapel veil, lined up next to their mother, wearing hers. This is part of Kristin’s response to my inquiries about veiling.
“I am a relatively timid person, and with many small children in tow already, I dread the amount of attention our family draws sometimes at mass. So I truly approached the subject not wanting at all to do it myself….
[But] the reasons for it [are] so beautiful and compelling.
Woman is a representative of the Bride of Christ, the Church, just as man represents Christ… Wouldn’t it make sense for the bride to wear a veil when she comes to mass to meet her bridegroom, especially as she receives His Body into her own in the Eucharist?
Also, it is a sign of humility.… It is beautiful and feminine, and our Blessed Mother is always wearing a veil wherever you see her [represented]. Aren’t we supposed to want to be more like her?
The Church removed the requirement for [veiling]. But…the recommendation to veil is still there…. Actually, that was what tipped me over the edge to let go of my fears and actually do it! ~ Kristin
As I asked around St. Mary’s about veiling, watching and listening to women who did, I began to be drawn to it. I had left off vieling some years ago but have started experimenting with it again lately. It feels peaceful and right.
Veiling, to me, is like wearing a prayer shawl, using a prayer matt, wearing a habit, a wedding veil, a yarmulke. I do it because this is something that helps me enter more consciously into the presence of God. I feel I am honoring the fact that I am stepping into the house of God among His people He has called to His table. My veil to me is a prayer in itself. It connects me to the traditions and history of the Church that is so beautiful to me. It is a time honored expression of Catholic feminine spirituality and the Bride Mysticism of so many of my favorite Saints. It is a sign of consecration and worship, the old carried into the new, bringing the present alive. Putting on my veil as I step into the church intensifies my awareness of the awesome. I just wish it was not so noticeable and that I could find a way to be more sneaky about it.
“… [At first] I felt like Jackie O. rolling into mass…I just needed some shades…
[According to St. Paul] “woman is the glory of man.” (1 Cor. 11:7) In… Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, he [says] the creation story took place in order of importance, culminating in the creation of man and as the crowning achievement, then the creation of woman out of man, making woman the crown jewel and glory of humanity.
[Paul also says this custom of veiling] is “because of the angels.” (1 Cor. 11:2-16.) In Revelation 4 and also in Isaiah 6, we read about the Seraphim, the highest order in all the choirs of angels. They stand in the presence of Almighty God and forever behold His glory with their “eyes all around and within.” [They] are the most glorious and most luminous of the angels yet Scripture tells us it is fitting for them to veil or cover themselves with their “wings,” as they do, in the presence of God…
St. John, as we are taught by the Church, was seeing the Heavenly liturgy in Revelation. So there is a connection between us being in the presence of God at mass and the appropriateness of women covering their heads at mass. It …serves to remind us that when at mass we are participating in Heaven along with the angels and saints.
What really made me fall in love with veiling is the tradition within the Church of veiling what is holy. In Hebrews 9:1-8 we read of the Old Testament tradition of veiling the “old tabernacle,” the Holy of Holies, because it contained the Ark of the Covenant. It is tradition within the Catholic Church to veil the tabernacle and the chalice because they contain the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ in the Eucharist. The Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the Ark of the New Covenant, carried Christ within her womb. She is the vessel that brought true life to the whole world. She is a sacred vessel. She is most commonly depicted as being veiled, as is the practice of our faith. And by veiling ourselves we become imitators of her, affirming ourselves in our sacredness as women, having the capability of bringing life into the world. This further reminds us that we are to spiritually be bearers of Christ to others, as Mary was physically.
~ Hillary Francis
For some, wearing a veil or an alternative head covering for mass is new and fascinating. For others it is a renewal of an ancient and lovely tradition or even something they have always done that is very meaningful to them.
I grew up wearing a veil. My mother (born in 1961) had grown up wearing a veil too, like most women at the time. Then one Sunday her family went to church and all the veils had more or less gone. People seem to have stopped wearing them because they were no longer required to wear them. My mother later thought that this was a poor reason for abandoning a beautiful tradition, and so she started wearing one again as an adult, and passed the tradition down to her children. I do not think that the fathers of Vatican II ever meant to do away with veiling by changing the requirement to wear one – instead, I think they realized that it was a matter that did not need to be dictated, but rather should spring organically from the heart of the people. Like praying the rosary, or spending time in Adoration…. You wear a veil because love has moved you to do so. ~ Sarah Williams
Many and varied are the ways to show reverence and love. The important thing, as always, is the reverence ,the love itself. It’s what’s in the heart, the inner intention, that will shine to God, in and for our family of faith in all we do at mass, whether our heads are actually covered or not.
“Adorn yourselves with the virtues,” says St. Clare.
“Behave outwardly in such a way that your actions may give proof to all of His Presence.”
~St. Francis de Sales
The renewal underway is the renewal of our holy faith and a re-awakened awe in the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, in the sanctity of holy mass and the numinous environment we enter into in the House of God. However we know, live, and express that awakening, that truth, is beautiful, deeply valid, even needed.
And anyway, veiling does have its undeniable mystique.
Special thanks to Kristine Cranley for putting me in touch with the right people so I could pick their lacy brains, and to Hilary, Kristin and Sarah for sharing their thoughts and experiences on veiling at mass for this article. Brightest blessing!