If you have attended Mass at the Cathedral regularly, or at most parishes in our diocese, you may have noticed that some women wear a veil from the moment they walk in the door of the church until they leave. You might have wondered what this is all about, or thought that Vatican II did away with women veiling during Mass. I have heard some stories from older parishioners of the nuns who made every girl wear a head covering as they attended Mass at their Catholic school – even if that meant a tissue or napkin out of their purse! I am sure that this was not a pleasant experience for some young ladies who did not understand what wearing a veil was all about.
There is evidence for women wearing veils during prayer in the bible. St. Paul wrote, “A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man … For this reason, a woman should have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 11:7-10). Of course, it is true that women are also the image and glory of God, and St. Paul wrote more about this issue than in the few verses I quoted. Essentially, Paul is referring to an analogy that permeates the scriptures to describe God’s relationship with his people: the relationship of a marriage. Earlier in this passage, St. Paul wrote, “The head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3).
Christ is the head of the Church, and Christ is the spouse of the Church. A husband and wife stand in place of Christ and his Church as a sign – a Sacrament – of God’s relationship to the Church. So, when he instructs a woman to wear a veil, he is asking her to stand as a symbol of the Church as the bride of Christ. Admittedly, this symbolism may seem like a bit of a stretch for our modern parishioners, as Paul is also mixing in certain cultural elements which no longer apply today. As it stands now, the Church does not require women to cover their heads in Church, although many women, especially in non-Western cultures, still choose to do so.
Earlier, St. Paul said that a woman should cover her head “because of the angels.” What does this mean? According to one author I read (Peter Kwasniewski), this is a reference to Isaiah when he had a vision of heaven. Here is the passage: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:2). The angels who stand in the presence of God veil themselves using two wings as a sign of reverence, awe, and respect for the God of Israel. In this way, it is a symbol of submission and obedience to God. In this way, the veil is meant to be an exterior expression of an interior disposition of obedience and submission to God.
I have heard a similar explanation during my years in the seminary, and it’s helpful to understand in the context of our Catholic liturgy. In the Mass, we typically veil certain objects and locations to show reverence and honor to sacred places and things. Many churches have a veil over the tabernacle, which holds the Body of our Lord, as a way to show respect to his Real Presence. In the Cathedral, you can’t see the veil unless the doors are propped open, but our tabernacle has a veil hanging inside between the door and the Eucharist. Traditionally, the chalice at Mass has been veiled before it is used at Mass. In wedding Masses, most brides choose to wear some sort of veil to cover their head, which symbolizes purity and reverence for her husband. In the temple of Israel, the Holy of Holies was covered by a veil which hung from floor to ceiling.
Most women who wear veils today wear some sort of lace mantilla, but the same idea applies to any kind of hat or scarf which can be used to cover one’s head. I have heard a few stories of young ladies being reprimanded by older women for wearing a head covering in church, thinking that it is a symbol of repression. This is a misunderstanding of the tradition of covering one’s head. In some cultures, it is certainly true that men force women to wear a veil because they see them as lesser members of society. This is not the case in Christian cultures. Mary is almost always depicted wearing some sort of veil, which symbolizes both her great dignity and great humility as the Mother of God.
An organization called “Veils by Lily” is a great resource for more information about veiling at Mass, along with a good variety of veils for purchase. I used this website in writing this article. Ladies veiling their head during Mass is a pious custom which many find to be a good way to show their love for Jesus. This practice is a beautiful tradition in which the Church still sees great value, but does not currently require at Mass.