It is easy to imagine Our Lady or any nun wearing a veil on her head, but we much less often imagine lay women of the Catholic Church veiled. The practice of the Catholic veil is a practice that has faded from our culture in many contexts, but the tradition and mystery surrounding the veil is still present in the testimony of the women who continue this practice.
During the first 2,000 years of the Church, the veil was a mundane tradition. In the days of the early Church, it was for the sake of modesty in everyday life, but eventually the practice evolved so that women only covered their heads inside churches, in the presence of the Eucharist. The veil, whether with a chapel veil or a mantilla, or even a hat, became less common after Vatican Council II, until 1983. Code of Canon Law completely removed statements about women’s headgear. Now the tradition remains an optional devotion that many traditional or charismatic Catholics cherish because of the mystery and meaning it holds.
Much of the initial motivation behind the veil comes from Saint Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 11: 3-7, where he explains that when a woman prays or prophesies she must cover her head but a man must leave his discovery. Saint Paul goes on to explain that this is a visualization of the submission of woman to man within marriage. Veils de Lily, a modern sailing company, quotes a priest’s homily explaining: “These days, the idea of submitting to her husband’s authority is frowned upon, to say the least. But that shouldn’t be the case, once we realize that the bridal veil signifies the submission of that particular woman to the loving care of her husband. It means his trust, his trust in his leadership in the manner of Christ. This means that she has chosen to follow him as a loving partner and companion. It also means that he was specifically dedicated to manipulate this sacred vessel – to safely touch this ark – and that is something mysterious and beautiful.
Just like a confident and free submission to one another in marriage, a religious sister or a consecrated virgin who wears a veil communicates the same truth: “I surrender myself to this relationship, I give you my life. Further still, following the example of Mother Mary, each Catholic woman is a living icon of the Church. Veils de Lily goes on to quote the same homily: “Thus, when she veils herself here, in the presence of Our Lord, it is a visible reminder for all of the conjugal relationship – the nuptial relationship – between the Church and the Lord. Christ.
As well as being a reminder of the mystery of the marital relationship between Christ and the Church, the veil is a reminder of the holiness and dignity of women – a concept that denies the veil as an oppressive practice, but rather as true freedom. Biblically and in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the faithful cover or veil sacred and life-giving things. The Ark of the Covenant was veiled in the Holy of Holies; Moses veiled his radiant face as he descended Mount Sinai; The body of Christ was covered with the shroud; and even now we veil the altar and the tabernacle. When something is veiled, it is recognized that it is worth protecting, for it is holy and life flows from it. Just as life is brought to the world in the Eucharist and is then veiled in the tabernacle, the body of women too can be brought to life through the female genius, as Pope Saint John Paul II called it. Covering her head with a woman is a declaration of her dignity as a woman, sacred and life-giving daughter of God.
“The veil is a visual sermon,” concluded the priest quoted by Veils by Lily, “it is a visual statement, it is a public proclamation before the Lord that he is the Lord and that we love him and that we are ready to obey him. It is a totally counter-cultural statement proclaiming obedience in the midst of a culture that is totally imbued with this “I will not serve” attitude. This, at any age, but especially in ours, is indeed a very great mystery. “