To wear or not to wear: church veils and mantillas

If you do an Internet search for “church veil” or “mantilla,” you will come across many websites dedicated to wearing a piece of lace covering your head during Holy Mass. You’ll also find many blog posts and articles that ask the question: should I or should I not wear a mantilla?

The reasons for veiling are numerous: humility, reverence, modesty, bringing tradition back to the Mass. The reasons against veiling are just as strong: subjugation of women, false humility, holier-than-thou attitudes, taking the Church back to pre-Vatican II days.

There was a time in the Catholic Church when women were required to wear a veil at Mass. The 1917 Code of Canon Law mandated it. Canon 1262 states,”Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.”

But then, changes occurred. The document Inter Insignoires, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the 1970s, stated that mantillas were no longer mandatory since wearing them was not a matter of faith. “It must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head (1 Cor 11:2-16); such requirements no longer have a normative value.”

Even Cardinal Burke, who is the head of the Holy See’s highest court, the Apostolic Signatura, addressed the question. He wrote a letter regarding veiling which is available on EWTN. In part, he wrote: “The wearing of a chapel veil for women is not required when women assist at the Holy Mass according to the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. It is, however, the expectation that women who assist at the Mass according to the Extraordinary Form cover their heads, as was the practice at the time that the 1962 Missale Romanum was in force. It is not, however, a sin to participate in the Holy Mass according to the Extraordinary Form without a veil.”

The 1983 Code of Canon Law which is in effect today doesn’t mention church veils. Its absence from the Canon means it has been abrogated.

While veiling is no longer required, it is still an option that some women choose, including me. When I was deciding whether or not to wear a veil to Mass, the more I read about it, the more I wanted to. I liked the idea of wearing a lovely piece of lace on my head. I thought the practice of veiling was pretty, not in a vain way, but in the same way that I would dress as attractively as possible if I were going to a special event. And what could be more special than the Mass? The intention of veiling to show reverence appealed to me.

Like many women, I worried that I would look strange and out of place. I didn’t want people to think I was holier-than-thou. And the stares! Oh, how I feared the potential stares of my fellow parishioners. Then I realized that none of my fears and concerns mattered. What was important were my reasons for veiling. If my rationale was genuine, then what did it matter what anyone thought? So, I brushed aside my misgivings and bought a pretty black triangular lace mantilla.

I wore it for the first time to Saturday morning Mass. A few people gave me a puzzled look but I ignored them. The next day at Sunday Mass three women asked me why I was wearing a veil. I explained that wearing one was my personal expression of reverence at Holy Mass. My answer seemed acceptable to them.

It has been one year since I started wearing a mantilla and it has become a natural part of my Sunday Mass attendance. Since I’ve started the practice, I’ve noticed that there are a few more women at my church who are veiling. Recently I’ve been wearing a veil when I visit our Lord at Eucharistic Adoration. When I attend a Latin Mass once a month, I wear an even prettier mantilla made of triangular black lace trimmed with delicate, shimmering silver lace on all sides. My ornate church veil is more suited to the Latin Mass where many women wear elegant veils.

Wearing a veil does not make us more devout, reverent, or humble than the woman who doesn’t wear a veil. From personal experience, what it will do is enhance our experience of worship at Holy Mass and be a beautiful external reminder of our littleness before the Blessed Sacrament. Wearing a veil helps me to envision that when I receive Jesus in Holy Communion, my head covering forms a cocoon that helps to mentally block out the sounds around me so that I can concentrate on praying to Jesus who is now physically inside me. And veiling makes me more mindful of how appropriately dressed I am for Mass.

Whether or not to wear a veil is a personal choice. Before choosing, we ought to spend time in prayer and discernment so that we honestly examine our hearts for the reasons we want to veil. Likewise, once we start veiling, regularly re-examining our reasons will keep us humble, honest, and at peace with our decision.

If you have been thinking about veiling, I urge you to try it. Like me, you may find that your initial fears were unfounded and what matters is that a beautiful piece of lace, worn with the proper intentions, enhances your participation at Holy Mass.

Photo courtesy of and mantilla available at Catholic Chapter House.

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