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Why Women Wear Chapel Veils – And Should You Too?

May 5, AD2017

I did not grow up wearing a chapel veil, but I remember hearing the stories from my mother about being required to wear one to Mass. It never occurred to me why a veil was required at one point and then all of sudden it was not. I thought it was just a bygone pre-Vatican II tradition.

Throughout college, I heard ridicule directed at girls and women who were continuing the tradition:

“Don’t these women realize we’ve entered the 21st Century?”

“Women being required to cover their heads for Mass is sexist and misogynistic; not to mention a complete setback for women’s rights.”

Then, when I was inspired to wear one – along with the other women in my family – we were ridiculed as well. We were called “weird” and “orthodox,” as if carrying on an ancient tradition was somehow shameful.

And yet, many people, including the women who are curiously angered by such a tradition, really don’t know how or why the tradition started. More to the point, many people have never bothered to ask why some women, myself included, have decided to carry on that tradition.

The Tradition Begins                                  

The wearing of the veil, or mantilla, is a tradition that has its beginning in the early Church. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul tells of the importance of the veil for a woman:

“And whereas any man who keep his head covered when he prays or utters prophecy brings shame upon his head, a woman brings shame upon her head if she uncovers it to pray or prophesy; she is no better than the woman who has her head shaved. If a woman would go without a veil, why does she not cut her hair short too if she admits that a woman is disgraced when her hair is cut short or shaved, then let her go veiled…Judge for yourselves; is it fitting that a woman should offer prayer to God unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that, whereas it is a disgrace to a man to wear his hair long, when a woman grows her hair long, it is an added grace to her? That is because her hair has been given her to take the place of a veil.” (1 Corinthians 11:4-16)

Other early Christian writers, such as Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria also supported this custom of wearing the veil.

A Symbol of Respect

Tertullian praised the custom, not for its supposed misogynistic implications, but rather for its symbolism of respect towards virginity. Tertullian’s and Saint Paul’s writings explain the meaning of the custom – that women, and more specifically virgins, should be known to God alone. Furthermore, the veil was seen as a symbol of chastity and humility:

“And, of course, that ought to have been chosen which keeps virgins veils, as being known to God alone . . . For that custom which belies virgins while it exhibits them, would never have been approved by any except by some men who must have been similar in character to the virgins themselves. Such eyes will wish that a virgin be seen as has the virgin who shall wish to be seen. The same kinds of eyes reciprocally crave after each other. Seeing and being seen belong to the self-same lust. To blush if he see a virgin is as much a mark of a chaste man, as of a chaste virgin if seen by a man.” (Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins, Ch. 2).

A Symbol of Modesty

The wearing of a veil was customary in the Jewish culture. Jewish sources point out that it was for modesty during a time when society was aware of, and even afraid of sexuality and its dangers.

Throughout early Christian culture, the veil was again seen as a symbol of modesty. To be without a veil was a sign of indecency and impropriety. Furthermore, it was customary to shave a woman’s head as punishment for infidelity – the equivalent of the Puritans making an adulteress wear the scarlet letter ‘A’ sown onto her garment during the 1600s. This is why Saint Paul compares a woman unveiled to a woman shaved, as this was a sign of disgrace, impropriety, and disrespect. As Saint Paul points out later in the same letter to the Corinthians, hair for a woman was a physical sign of feminine beauty and for it to be taken away was going against nature – thus a disgrace to femininity.

Throughout his letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul points out the importance of gender differences and the role each plays in God’s plan – to deviate would be unnatural, disgraceful, and sinful. Of course, it’s important to not focus too much on Saint Paul’s opinion on women’s hair – as if a woman is committing an egregious sin in cutting her hair. At the same time it would be a disservice to the Apostle to skip over his main point on the importance of gender differences and keeping with the natural law – the hair and veil being one example emphasizing those gender differences.

The Significance of the Veil

So covering the head stemmed from cultural custom as well as early Christian tradition. It was carried over as Catholic tradition for the same reasons. However, the significance of the veil has since changed from the cultural tradition from whence it began.

Contrary to what some other religions or cultures may profess, the modern Catholic tradition of wearing a veil does not signify women’s subservience to men. Neither does it have anything to do with shame or guilt. Rather, the veil has been used to cover something that is sacred – that which the veil covers should be cherished, respected, and adored. Take, for example, the use of a veil to cover the Holy of Holies or the Ark of the Covenant in Judaism. For Catholics, a veil covers the Tabernacle that houses our Lord. Similarly, the altar, where the perfect sacrifice of Our Lord is made, is veiled. The chalice, which contains our Lord’s blood, is also veiled. If we veil the very Center of our Faith, how then, is a veil upon a woman’s head any less dignified?

Today the use of the veil is considered a visible act of modesty and humility. A veil is not worn out of guilt, or as an act of subservience, or out of shame for feminine beauty, but rather as a sign of reverence and surrender to God’s will.

The Bride and The Church

“You who are husbands must show love to your wives, as Christ showed love to the Church when he gave himself up on its behalf.” (Ephesians 5:25)

“. . . The time has come for the wedding-feast of the Lamb. His bride has clothed herself in readiness for it . . .” (Revelation 19:7-8)

We are all familiar with the Scripture passages referring to Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as His Bride. Husbands are supposed to love their wives in the same way that Christ loves the Church, and wives are supposed to submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ.

The veil is this visible reminder of submission. Of course, today, if we hear the words women and submission in the same sentence, many people automatically spout a feminist disapproval. However, the veil as a symbol is not supposed to be a symbol of submission to men, but rather to Christ’s love. It’s a reminder of obedience to Christ and a symbol of humility before God. The wearing of the mantilla is not to say that women are not worthy of Christ because they are women. Rather, wearing the mantilla is merely another physical and visible reminder of all of humanity’s unworthiness compared to Christ.

Men throughout history have recognized their unworthiness – Saint John the Baptist (John 1:27) for example. Also, Saint Peter, our first pope and leader of the Church saw himself unworthy to be killed like Christ, and so requested to be crucified upside down.

And even the greatest woman of all, our Blessed Mother, recognized her role as one of submission and obedience (Luke 1:38).

A Calling, Not a Mandate

For sure, the mantilla is not and never should be, a mandate. It would do the tradition a great disservice, turning the sacred meaning of the veil into a rule simply to follow. Much like other sacramentals, such as the scapular, the veil is a calling. Wearing a veil should not be a fashion statement, or an act of pious pompousness. Wearing the mantilla is a way to show devotion to virtue – piety, humility, modesty, and obedience.

But in today’s society, wearing a veil has also become counter-cultural. It’s a way to be fortitudinous. It does not mean that one is less than another or better, for people live virtuous lives in different ways. The veil is an outward sign of the heart. It’s a desire to make visible your obedience to the will of God.

We are all called to live out our Catholic faith in a visible way, and the veil is just one way for women to show devotion to Christ.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Steffani is a wife, a mother, and a devoted Catholic. She has written for various publications, both print and online. Previously, she was an editor and writer for a military history magazine. She holds a B.A. from DeSales University in English and Communications. Steffani has a deep appreciation and love for good rhetoric. Always searching for a deeper understanding of Truth, she has never backed down from a good debate or discussion.

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  • lroy77

    There is one woman who wears it; she has it in each liturgical color.

    I wear a scarf too (if weather is bad), but I suppose it’s not quite the same…but still at least my head is covered.

  • GregB

    In Bible study I was told that the passage of St. Paul about women’s hair is to be understood in the context of the pagan idol worship at the temples in Corinth. It is my understanding that there were women pagan temple prostitutes who wore their hair down, letting it be known that they were sexually available, and that bound hair was a sign of modesty and respectability. The pagan temples at Corinth were places of drunken orgies. I was also told that the wearing of hoods was associated with men engaging in pagan idol worship.

  • Rick Reed

    “Contrary to what some other religions or cultures may profess, the
    modern Catholic tradition of wearing a veil does not signify women’s
    subservience to men. Neither does it have anything to do with shame or
    guilt. Rather, the veil has been used to cover something that is sacred –
    that which the veil covers should be cherished, respected, and adored.
    Take, for example, the use of a veil to cover the Holy of Holies or the
    Ark of the Covenant in Judaism. For Catholics, a veil covers the
    Tabernacle that houses our Lord. Similarly, the altar, where the perfect
    sacrifice of Our Lord is made, is veiled. The chalice, which contains
    our Lord’s blood, is also veiled. If we veil the very Center of our
    Faith, how then, is a veil upon a woman’s head any less dignified?”

    If this is to be believed, and not the double-speak of some of the comments, then ALL (men and women) should have our heads covered. To say it’s a practice only for one gender sets up an inequality. How can one gender show respect differently from the other? Why would that be needed?

    • Bill A

      Wow…great subject I guess as it generated interesting comments and some bitterness too it seems. I grew up with women covering their heads and men uncovering them…both done out of respect. My reaction over time for the women was that it reminded me of, and still does, of my mind picture of Mother Mary! Looking for a practical reason, I settled on the fact that even though it’s unpopular today for men to walk on the street side, or open doors, or remove headgear in the presence of a woman, I still believe the respect is warranted and anything but belittling to them. In addition, men being men I assumed also that a woman’s beauty would be a natural and purely human distraction to them in Church that is not prudent, so modesty on the woman’s part would encourage and stimulate men to be focused on the Godliness of the woman and not on the human beauty God gave them. That if anything is a slap at men for being men and again not a belittling of women at all. Just some thoughts…thanks.

  • john

    In the cited passage from Corinthians, are we to surmise that it is somehow either sinful or disgraceful for women to have short hair and for men to have long hair? Seriously? Highlighting nonsense such as this only further delegitimizes scripture on issues that really matter. Spreading the good news is difficult enough without having to address blatantly irrelevant, sexist and outdated notions of social norms that existed 2000 years ago.

  • John j

    I don’t understand why St. Paul a Jewish man would say it is shameful for a man to pray with his head covered and not women? Jewish men must wear prayer shawls and cover their head when in prayer. And they still do that, whereas it’s uncertain if woman wore head coverings like men did in prayer. Jewish women today are arrested in Israel for covering their head in a prayer shawl.

    I just don’t understand, I’d like to but don’t.

    Thanks

    • john

      EXACTLY!

    • Kathryn Groening

      Jerry S talks about that above. It seems like a good argument. I do not know my history well enough to know if this is the case, but it might be. We are 2,000 years away from St. Paul’s reasoning. It is a pity we do not have the letters written to him (with their questions) that he was answering.

  • John Craft

    Although I was not Catholic at the time I am old enough to remember women attending the Catholic church wearing veils. Now I am a Catholic and this article clarifies the purpose of that veil. I would encourage that practice and will look for ways to further experience the presence of the Eucharist.

  • Jerry S.

    In her book Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden says women were veiled in the interests of equality. In Roman society, only upper class women wore veils. They had status and protection. Unveiled women were either lower class, or slaves or prostitutes. Paul wanted all women veiled, since all women were equally beloved by God, and all should be protected.

    Similarly, men remove their hats, since headgear often denotes official status. Think a soldier’s helmet or a chef’s hat. By removing their hats, they remove that status, and stand equal in the eyes of God.

    • Kathryn Groening

      Assuming this is an accurate telling, this, to me, is the one convincing argument. Paul talks about short hair, which I have. I guess if I follow all the traditions, I ought to have long hair, since short hair is shameful.

    • ruthi carrillo, ofs

      But we need to remember that culture changes – in our culture today, short hair is not a sign of disgrace or sinful. But the veil remains the tangible symbol of your submission to God, and if you feel called to wear it, by all means do so! I also liked this argument.

    • Kathryn Groening

      I am not sure why wearing a veil would not change as culture changes. It seems that wearing a veil may have been a way to bring about a leveling of status between men and women some 2,000 years ago, and possibly to differentiate between the new Christian community (and possibly the Jews) with the pagans–Romans, Greeks, etc, who were behaving in scandalous ways. Now, of course, we have Islam, which, depending on whom you believe, demands (or maybe not) the wearing of various types of head scarves, face veils, etc by the women. Women who do not do so may be arrested, thrown in prison, stoned. (Some years back, I remember reading about an incident where a fire broke out in a Saudi girl’s school, and the girls died because they could not put on their veils fast enough to escape the flames/smoke.) I used to veil. Not so much now because it the veil/head coverings have become totally politicized. There are women who risk their lives in Iran taking off their veils.

  • buckyinky

    However, the veil as a symbol is not supposed to be a symbol of
    submission to men, but rather to Christ’s love. It’s a reminder of
    obedience to Christ and a symbol of humility before God.

    Then even though I am a man it would probably be a good idea for me to start wearing a veil.

    • Elizabeth

      My understanding is that, as the Church is the Bride of Christ, so each woman is a sign of the Church. That’s why St. Paul says the man should love his wife as Christ loves the Church. Therefore it is appropriate for women to veil in the Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, whereas men uncover their heads in church. Man and Woman signify Christ’s love for His Bride the Church, and every Mass is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. So especially at Mass we are mindful of this symbolism and veil or unveil accordingly.

    • ScienceJoe

      A veil is also a symbol that a woman, Mary, was a tabernacle to Christ as His mother. Every woman similarly holds the mystery of bringing life into the world and is thereby a sacred place.

  • Elizabeth

    I wear a veil whenever or wherever the Blessed Sacrament is present…..at Mass, when in any Catholic Church anytime, when in any Catholic Chapel with the Blessed Sacrament, when taking part in outdoor Eucharistic processions, etc.

  • Mary Pesarchick

    I was so delighted to see your article! I felt called to start wearing a veil at Mass about a year ago. I realized how desensitized I had become to the Real Presence in the Eucharist and was looking for a way to refocus myself on Him. Although it was difficult at first to overcome my fear of standing out from the crowd and appearing all “holier than thou”, wearing the veil has become a very precious thing to me. As you correctly point out, it shouldn’t be a mandate. But I would definitely encourage any woman who is thinking about veiling to give it a try. It will add a depth to your prayer life and your experience of the Mass.