Veils in Church

While sitting in the hotel restaurant with a number of others at the Catholic Writers Conference last week (more on that later!), an interesting conversation sprang up.  It centered around women wearing veils in church - an inflammatory topic in this day and age.  I was so interested to hear varying points around the practice that I was raised with, that I want to synthesize the conversation in a blog post.  Most of the following points originated with others in the tableside discussion, but some are my own meditation and musing on the matter.

First, let me explain that I was raised to wear a chapel veil as a sign of respect for the Blessed Sacrament and for other reasons, but it is not, in fact, a requirement based on the current code of Canon Law.  It is a "best practice".  In fact, I disliked wearing a veil for a couple of years because I was being hounded.  Repetitive "joking" reminders of "Where's your veil?" turned the practice into something that I was socially forced to do, and distracted from the real purpose and reason.  I returned to wearing the veil more consistently when, after discussing the topic with my boyfriend, I realized internally the why behind the tradition.  When there is a tradition, there is always a reason for it beyond the original requirement and the continued practice.  Holy Mother Church is eminently practical and reasonable.

The argument from secular custom:  in Western culture, for centuries, wearing a head covering has been customary for both men and women.  The difference, however, is that men were required to doff their hats or otherwise remove their head covering as a sign of respect, while women were permitted to retain it, even in the presence of a king.  Thus a woman covering her head in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament is a sign of the great respect due to Christ, the Son of God, truly present on the altar.

A natural question follows - why would women be permitted to retain a veil or hat when men were required to remove it?  The answer is based in the fundamental difference between men and women.  Women are gifted with participation in the creative act of God.  He touches them - us - directly, and places life inside our bodies.  Thus women are, in a special way, sacred.  What is sacred is veiled - the temple under the Old Law, the tabernacle under the new, the virgin bride.  A woman wearing a veil emphasizes in a unique way her own femininity and her distinct role in the divine plan of creation.

From a competely natural point of view, beyond the cultural or philosophical, there are eminently practical reasons for veiling before the Blessed Sacrament, if one really believes in the Real Presence.  If we are there for worship of the holy, a veil serves as a way to direct and focus our attention.  It serves almost as a set of "blinders", pushing the distractions of the world aside and pointing us to what is before us, the greatest of sacraments.  I and others find that when we wear a veil, it is a reminder of where we should be pointing our eyes, a physical reminder of the reason for our presence in the holy place.

Men and women alike dress up for a job interview, wear a formal dress to a gala, and wear their best outfits to meet the president.  We are approaching the Godhead.  What we wear for Mass tends to be similar to what we would wear in an executive situation or for another occasion - but Mass is different from these situations, and requires a different article of clothing.  The veil is the special thing we wear to a special occasion, in a special place.

Wearing a veil is a choice, not a requirement; it's not a sign of subjugation; and it's not a proclamation that you're being "holier than thou".  Many people will equate the veil with the burka - while I don't have a complete understanding of the Muslim reasons for that garment, I do know that each religion contains some kernel of truth, and that modesty is a universal language.  While the Muslim garment takes the idea of veiling to an extreme, it does point to an understanding of the difference between men and women that has been somewhat lost in Western culture.  The problem with the burka is that it is connected with the Muslim culture of disdain for womanhood - this is wrong.  Period.  But just because other religions wear veils is no reason for us as good Catholics not to wear them, especially if we really believe in the Eucharist.  Catholic women veil out of respect for the dignity of their own femininity and from a belief in the Real Presence.  If either of those factors is missing, the veil does become a misplaced token. 

I understand why many women feel awkward wearing a veil, especially for the first few weeks.  The question, then, is how important public opinion is to you.  Also, I could almost guarantee that as soon as you start to veil, others will follow - women who just needed to know that someone else feels the same way as they do!  If you wear the veil in pride, that you're so much better than the women around you who just aren't as attuned to tradition as you are, then you shouldn't be wearing it.

In fine, plain and simple, there is  a fundamental difference between men and women.  Both are equal in dignity, in the eyes of God and in our own eyes.  However, the difference between the sexes means that they complement each other in a special way, have been given specific gifts, and serve distinct roles within salvation history.  Emphasizing the unique aspects of femininity does not make it any less than masculinity, nor greater - only distinct. 

Frankly, I love being able to wear a veil to Mass!  For me, it is a token of my faith and my femininity.  I confess that I've taken to making my own veils so that I can customize the pattern and lace that I use.  :)  My favorite is a large, semi-circular veil with fairly opaque lace.  I'm thinking about getting a larger, rectangular (more of a Hispanic mantilla style) veil just to be different.