I’ve been a Catholic for a whopping twenty-five years, but only for the last two of them have I been choosing to wear a mantilla or chapel veil when in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Whilst veiling is becoming an increasingly popular decision among young Catholic women, my journey to the mantilla has been far from easy. Everyone, it seems, has their own opinion on whether or not I should cover my head, what it signifies, whether it improves my relationship with God.
Let’s get one thing straight. The only people who should be involved in your decision to wear the mantilla are you and God. That’s it. But for those of you who – like me – were on the fence about veiling for many years, let’s explore some reasons why – or why not – women choose to veil.
Reasons to Wear a Veil
- It reminds you that you’re in God’s house. When I was dating my husband, we used to meet on a bridge between our houses and walk down to Mass together. This being a town in the north of England, it was usually freezing and frequently snowing, so we’d walk wrapped up in coats, scarves and hats – which, of course, he removed on entering the church. It was his way of saying, I am in God’s home now. I, however, had no such symbolic action, and felt marginally guilty that I had no way of expressing my respect in such a way. + Wearing a veil allows me to take a moment at the back of the church to acknowledge that I have just entered Christ’s presence, and to show Him the respect and honour He deserves.
- To focus your attention on the altar. I’m a chronic people-watcher, and it’s a bad habit – especially during Mass. Wearing a long mantilla with sides that drape around my face helps me to keep my attention focussed on the altar. I can’t peer left or right without actively turning my head, which serves to stop my eyes and mind wandering when I ought to be praying, attending, or responding. I can’t claim it’s a miracle cure, but it’s helping me remember where I am and why I am there, and in that respect, is important.
- The sanctity of womanhood. Next time you’re in a church, take a glance around you at what is veiled. The tabernacle. The altar. Perhaps even the whole sanctuary has a canopy? Veiling has long been used in the Catholic Church not to conceal what is beneath, but to distinguish it as Holy. + Women play a vital and sacred role in the Church in our role as mothers and life-givers. Veiling distinguishes us from the men in this regard, and reminds us of our vocations. Whatever vocational path God has cut for you, we are all called to embrace our role first and foremost as members of His Church. Just as a bride wears a veil on her wedding day, so we wear a veil before Christ, the first Bridegroom.
- Following the tradition of thousands of years. Perhaps it’s a hangover from my History degree, but I particularly enjoy connecting myself to the more traditional aspects of Catholicism. The Church’s teachings and traditions define and shape many aspects of Catholicism, and head coverings are a significant part of this. Early Christian women would never have been seen in public, far less in a church, without their hair covered by a scarf, hat, or veil. In wearing the mantilla, we are following the path of thousands of saints and women who have gone before us, joining our prayers to theirs.
- Mary veiled. Take a look at any picture of Our Lady, and she will almost certainly be wearing a veil. From the Annunciation to the Crucifixion, she may be wearing a lacy mantilla, a thick shawl, a hijab-style covering, a silken scarf, but she is almost never depicted as bare-headed. As Catholic women we are called to imitate Mary, and veiling was one of the ways we, too, can indicate our obedience to God – embracing Mary’s Yes rather than Eve’s No.
Reasons Not to Veil
- They’re pretty. Yes, mantillas are gorgeous! They appear now in every colour of the rainbow, with a huge variety of laces, patterns, and styles – from tiny kerchiefs to draping shawls. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the beauty of a mantilla, or cooing over different designs, but if the main reason for you choosing to wear one is the prettiness of the lace, I’d encourage you to take a step back. + Whilst mantillas can, do, and should enhance women’s natural beauty, we should not be wearing colourful mantillas to draw attention, to take pride in our beauty, and to the distraction of others. Only you can say where the line falls for you, but when materialism is your primary concern in decision-making, it’s time for a rethink.
- To prove your piety. Mantillas are more commonly worn by more traditional Catholics, usually at a Latin or Old Rite Mass – although as they grow in popularity, they are often seen now among younger women at Novus Ordo churches too. Whilst the majority of women who veil consider it a deeply personal decision, I have come across one or two who have looked down on others for choosing not to wear a mantilla, considering them to be less pious or less faithful Catholics. Wearing a mantilla does not make you any ‘better’ a Catholic than anyone else, it does not prove your piety, it does not give your prayers more kudos with God. And if it reaches the stage of judging other women for their decision not to veil, I encourage you to take it off and spend a few Sundays bareheaded.
- If it becomes a distraction. The constant adjustments and re-adjustments, fidgeting with the ends, the desperate grab to try and keep the stupid thing on your head! Wearing a veil can be a pain at times and isn’t always the easiest thing to keep balanced, especially if you have babies or toddlers who are at the grab-and-pull-anything age. If you find yourself fidgeting awkwardly with the veil or re-adjusting it hundreds of times throughout the Mass, you’ll need to either pin it firmly to your hair or ignore it altogether. The veil should never become more of a hindrance to your prayers than a help.
- You don’t want to. Some women aren’t comfortable with wearing a head covering, particularly if they would be the only one. It took me several years before I was comfortable wearing the mantilla at a Novus Ordo Mass, or where I’d be the only one – and this is fine! However, if you’re worried about the opinion of others, remember that this is a decision between you and God – no-one else should come into it.
- To cover up. This is a curious last point. Most religions that require women to cover their heads or hair do so because women’s hair is considered a private or sexual part of the body, to be concealed in the presence of the opposite sex. But the mantilla is different; its role is to highlight, not conceal. This is often indicated by the fact that mantillas are often lacy or transparent – the aim is not to cover the hair or conceal the head, but to show respect. + That’s not to say that modest dress has no role to play in how we should dress for Mass, but rather the mantilla is not a requirement for modest dress.
Ultimately, only you can decide whether or not to wear a mantilla, and this article only scratches the surface of the different reasons why women choose, or do not choose, to cover their heads. If you’ve never worn a veil before, or it’s just not ‘something people do’ in your parish, I encourage you to give it a go! If you’re nervous about veiling on your own, see if you can find a mantilla buddy – you may find that you’re not the only one who has been thinking about it.
It took me a while before I was confident wearing my mantilla at Novus Ordo masses, or when I was the only one – but now, I’d feel strange without it. I veil for God, to show the respect I have for Him and His Church – but I also veil for myself, to prepare myself for Mass and to help keep my prayerful focus. In doing so, I have taught myself not to care what others think of my dress code or personal choices, and come to love God in my prayers all the more.
Antonia Goddard is a writer and playwright based in London, UK. A country girl born and bred, she’s currently learning the joys and struggles that come with life in a big city – and offering both to God. When she’s not writing or reading historical fiction, she’s probably cooking. Definitely not burning things.