The following college essay was submitted by Mary Beauchamp from Benedictine College. Clarifying Catholicism enjoys publishing college essays that receive the grade of A- or higher.
The tradition of Catholic women wearing chapel veils while inside churches has diminished in recent years. As modernization occurs, some people view these veils as a form of subjugation, and more people are placing pressure on women not to wear veils. Others negatively perceive veils as a way for women to attract attention or show how “holy” they are. But after examining many different sources this summer, I learned the basic meaning of veiling and was compelled to embrace the tradition. Now more than ever, it is important to understand the roots of this tradition, as well as the symbolism and purpose of veiling in the presence of God.
Veiling, or covering one’s head while in Mass, although now optional, was the norm for women throughout most of Church history. Until 1917, there were no specific written laws requiring women to wear veils, but following the example set in the Bible, the practice was largely accepted. Women wore veils in the Old Testament, and Paul specifies in the New Testament that “any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven” (1 Cor 4-5 RSV). This tradition held throughout history but began to die out as the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum. Still, under Pope Benedict XV, the 1917 Code of Canon Law reversed this trend. Canon 1262.2 of this canon law stated that “men [were] to assist at sacred functions, whether in the church or outside of it, with their heads uncovered, unless a reasonable national custom or special circumstances justif[ied] a departure from this rule. Women, however, [were to] cover their heads and be dressed modestly, particularly when they approach[ed] the Lord’s table.” Because of this canon law, Catholic women (of most cultures) were required to wear a veil in church. Decades later, the 1983 Code of Canon Law replaced the 1917 Code of Canon Law completely, and as this newer canon law did not mention veiling; women were no longer required to wear them. This accounts for some of the confusion regarding whether or not women must wear veils.
There are many reasons for veiling, but one of the most significant ones relates to Marian devotion. The Blessed Virgin Mary, above all others, is the woman who stands as a role model for all Catholic women. It cannot be biblically proven that Mary wore a veil, but as it was a social norm for Jewish women of her time to cover their heads, it is safe to assume she did wear one. This holds great symbolic significance as in the Old Testament, in the makeshift temple, “And after the second veil, the tabernacle, which is called the holy of holies” was to be found (Heb 9:3 D-R). God’s presence was concealed by not one, but two veils, signifying the importance of keeping something so precious covered. The Blessed Virgin Mary was the tabernacle and the Ark of the New Covenant in the New Testament as she carried God inside of her for nine months. For this reason, her veil signifies the sanctity of her body. As we receive God in Holy Communion, it seems only fitting for us women to cover our heads as well, to remind us that as well as being in a holy place, we are to receive the Holy One into our bodies. Since our bodies receive God, we must treat them with respect through means of modesty and humility like the Blessed Virgin Mary. As she humbled herself before God, placing His will above all else and giving up her personal glory, us women can express our desire to do the same by veiling, for “But if a woman nourish her hair, it is a glory to her,” and by covering her hair, she surrenders her pride to God (1 Cor 11:15).
The book Mary in our Life by William Most describes the pure humility of the Blessed Virgin Mary and reflects on how Catholics can grow closer to our Blessed Mother. Although it does not mention veiling, this book offers deep insight into Mary’s holiness and how we can strive to follow her example. Many of her virtues, such as humility, modesty, and obedience can be expressed through veiling. Most informs us that like Mary, “if we do what we can do to free our souls of useless desires and other obstacles, we will grow in prayer and thereby in love.” A prime example of freeing one’s self of these desires is for a woman to give up the glory of her hair and conceal her beauty while in God’s presence. Most also comments that “if one seems to advance in mental prayer without growth in mortification, he is in danger.” Veiling can help in the process of mortification (the act of repressing the desires of the flesh) in repressing lust and removing distractions, both for men and women, thereby putting prayer into action. Most stresses the importance of humility many times throughout the book, describing it as the “prerequisite for all other virtues” and a way for people to “make room for love” by “ridding [them] of extensive disorders of self.” It is necessary, he says, for us to “dwell long and lovingly on the humility of Our Lord and His blessed Mother” to better follow their examples. By veiling, women are meditating on and following Mary’s example in humility. At the same time, veiling reflects obedience to God and the Bible, and Most reminds his readers that “prompt obedience to all lawful authority is an excellent means of growing in humility.” By being obedient, women follow in the footsteps of Mary, who asked only that God’s will be done. Most also reflects on adoration, reminding us that “our realization of the presence of God should naturally invite us to make acts of adoration and of humility; thus we fall down in spirit before Him, recognizing Him as our absolute Lord.” In veiling, women make these “acts of adoration and of humility” so that like Mary, we may kneel before God and lovingly accept His authority over us. Also, when receiving the Eucharist, “there is a fervor of the will which is non-emotional. It consists in doing our very best…in putting genuine, vigorous effort into what we are doing.” Since wearing a veil is an action of the will and a clear effort of love for the One we are to receive, it is a form of prayer that can bring us closer to God in Holy Communion.
Through researching the subject of veiling, I came to understand more fully the origins and significance of veiling. Of course, there are many other reasons why people veil, including that it represents that we are brides of Christ, thus allowing us to focus on God in the Mass. It reflects chastity and modesty, it shows our obedience and submission to God, and it shows respect for Him and the body He gave us. Veiling has a rich significance and is a devotion to Mary; it can bring women closer to God through growing in the virtues of humility and obedience.