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Could we re-learn respect and modesty by covering our heads at Mass?

Now that the bishops have reinstated fish on Fridays, the tradition of wearing a head covering at Mass could also be revived

By on Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Could we re-learn respect and modesty by covering our heads at Mass?

Having now read some of the blog posts at the (new) Association of Catholic women bloggers, I must apologise to the good lady who asked me to join it. At the time I saw it as a kind of breakaway movement from the proposed Guild of Catholic bloggers which has been discussed on the Herald blog site, and felt that we needed to be united, not divided. What I did not appreciate, in my haste to reject the proposal, is that it is not a question of ‘Either/Or’ but of ‘Both/And’. The Church is rich, diverse, and we Catholics have a multiplicity of different ways of communicating our common faith; thank God for it.

There are obvious difference between the posts on the Catholic women’s blog site and the Herald’s: the former is more personal in tone, less engaged in politics, less disputatious and argumentative, more concerned with sharing stories of conversion or ‘reversion’ and how faith is lived in family life and in adversity. In short, it points to the difference between men and women.

A remark on one of the posts has triggered this blog: “I [now] cover my head at Mass.’ I have sometimes debated this question with women friends. I grew up in the days when women always covered their heads at Mass, with scarves or hats; if I or my sisters emerged from the house on a Sunday without an appropriate head covering, my father would send us straight back indoors to find one. It came as a shock after Vatican II to see that this ‘rule’ was now totally disregarded. Even the elderly gradually stopped covering their heads.

The exception was and still is those who attend the Extraordinary Form of Mass. There you observe a sea of black mantillas. Keeping to the Old Rite meant keeping to the old respectful form of head attire. This makes me ask: is it disrespectful for a woman not to cover her head in church? St Paul, naturally, says ‘Yes’. Cardinal Raymond Burke says ‘No’ – but he makes a careful distinction between women who attend the New Rite, for which head covering is not obligatory, and the Old Rite “where it is the expectation.”

Fr Zuhlsdorf, quoting Cardinal Burke, agrees that in the Latin Church “women are not bound to do so” but interestingly, he admits he “wants the tradition to be revived, even though it would not be obligatory.”

For myself, attending the New Rite, I cover my head for at least nine months of the year.

This is for the same reason that Pope Benedict gave when asked why he was once spotted wearing the camauro: “I suffer from sensitivity of the scalp.” i.e. I feel the cold. I have a friend who attends Mass in both forms; for a time she wore her mantilla to both; then started to feel that at the Ordinary Form she was drawing undue attention to herself and looking ‘too pious’, so she now keeps it strictly for the EF. The blog post that triggered these thoughts suggests that its author always covers her head at the OF.

Now that our bishops are reinstating the rule of ‘fish on Fridays’, I rather wish, as Fr Zuhlsdorf does, that the tradition of wearing a head covering could also be revived. Just as the bishops have argued that we need to remember Christ’s suffering on Good Friday by a particular observance, could they not argue that the modesty and respect that scarves once symbolised has now often been lost by participants at the OF, and that restoring the practice might help to remind us that casual dress is not appropriate?

  • Anonymous

    My feeling is it’s probably a step too far.  I’m all for restoring reverence for the mass, but I do feel that starting to prescribe what people wear (other than the general requirement to dress modestly and humbly – I personally find flashy clothes and best suits are also a big distraction) is starting to sound a bit pharisaical.  I think it’s important that we don’t lose the meaning of the mass in a myriad of trivial rules and prescriptions that will only serve as a cause for people to bicker about, and may deter the poorest from coming in the door at all.

  • ms catholic state

    The mantila is absolutely beautiful…..and I hope it makes a comeback.  It seems so casual to enter a Church just off the street….but to don a mantilla when we do so signifies we are in a different and holy place now.  It is a mark of respect and modesty as you so rightly say. 

    Symbolic gestures like this means so much….and encourages our devotion.

  • ms catholic state

    I wonder could the practise be encouraged by leaving a box of mantillas in the Church porch… be borrowed while in the church.

  • Randy Gritter

    There is just so much support for this in scripture and tradition I suspect it will return. The bishops will wait until a non-trivial number of women are wearing it voluntarily. They are sensitive to the optics of an all-male priesthood making rules that apply only to women.

    Some women going to the veil will cause a general shift towards more modesty for all women. Even one woman in ten being veiled will make people understand that nothing tight or skimpy is going to be appreciated.

  • asshur

    While I like the beauty of a Mantilla (just walk on Maundy Thursday thru Seville …), I don’t think the restoration of the use of headgear by women at Mass is a fight not worth fighting. If the symbolism behind could be restored, but I think it can’t nowadays in the West, so it would be mere archaeologism, and what’s worse easily misunderstood:
    Wearing headgear was the proper way of dressing in the West (both for men and women) up until WWII and beyond, and who, how and where to uncover followed more or less general rules. The usage in the Church was clear and selfevident: Men were uncovered as a mark of respect (and subordination) to God; women had the privilege to remain covered (had to be covered, if only by a token device- as it was the “proper way” to dress). This usage still made a lot of sense in 1917, but in 1983 the usage of headgear in general was all but extinct, so it was dropped for a reason …
    It has been so extinct that (outside formal wedding dress) the usage of headcovering by women nowadays in Europe is rather linked to Islamism than to anything else.

  • Slave2mary

    I want it back! I am too cowardly to do this on my own!

  • Jeannine

    Bad idea. Lice!

  • Lefty048

    what head covering would men wear?

  • Anonymous

    Yes, archeologism is a good way of putting it. Reverence is important, but it is possible to be reverent without trying to recreate an exact replica of pre-Vatican II practices. It is important to remember that practices on questions such as dress in church did vary according to current trends and cultural context prior to the 1960s. Our faith must be living, not a pre-Vatican II reenactment. Also the point made below about deterring the poorest people by being too particular about dress is important.

  • Lindi

    I grew up in the time when it was obligatory for women to cover their heads when entering a church , not just when attending Mass.  Sometimes I feel that it would be good to be able to wear a mantilla at Mass but , I feel also , that if it was encouraged it would soon become obligatory. Would wearing a head covering really mean greater reverence / modest dress ? I try not to be judgmental about others people’s dress , but I hate women’s bare arms /  shorts /  tight jeans / cleavages at Mass. How would a head covering deter women from dressing so ?

  • Ratbag

    I would welcome the return of respectable headgear at Holy Mass.

    There are still a few older women who wear theirs in a parish not far from mine.

    It would be ideal for female Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion when they are ‘on duty’.

    Modest dress would constitute keeping arms, legs and chest covered.

    It is amazing how many men and women arrive at Mass looking like they have just come from the seaside, their back garden or a WAGs lunch…

    Whilst my work requires smart yet casual attire, I go to Mass straight from there wearing a full length coat to ‘cover a multitude of sins’, such as a t-shirt and jeans…

  • Ratbag

    A flat cap.

  • ELEK

     et les hommes enlèvent leur chapeau; c’est ça l’égalité des sexes??? Aucune justification à ce retour en arrière…les traditions n’ont pas que du bon et permettent de légitimer l’excision ou le bizutage !  and men take off their hat, that’s the equality?? No justification to back … traditions have not only good and help legitimize the excision or hazing!

  • ms catholic state

    Men are required to take off their hats etc when entering the Church as a mark of humility before God….as generally speaking their rank and status were reflected in their headgear. 

  • ms catholic state

    Well…..the mantillas could be washed after each Sunday….and wearers would know they were taking a risk.  Though I think it’s only a slight risk of getting lice.

  • asshur

    There is a lot which can/should be recovered (never exactly in the same form), but it is only possible if meaning (external or symbolic) can be restored, and this it is not the case …
    About deterring the poor. Simple let me state, it’s  sheer nonsense. Have a walk into working class parishes and probably you’ll a see better dress code than in affluent ones. Remember, it was simply head covering (even if token) what was required. A kerchief or a shawl held over the head was enough. Even baseball caps would qualify, but …

  • asshur

    You expresed one reason why I don’t think it’s worth actively trying to restore it. But you didn’t get why.
    Mens uncovered … was exactly the opposite of a privilege. When wearing headgear (in the military the order of salute takes care of
    it) the “inferior” has to uncover -or at least rise his hat- before the
    “superior” on salute or standing. The only place  -out of private quarters- you could see the all powerfull kings of Spain or France bareheaded was at Mass, ’cause as everyone else they were “less” than the Divine Majesty and had to uncover. . This is dead letter now, and even mentioning it looks “weird”. But it is the necessary complement on women keeping its headcover. They were dispensed.

  • Anonymous

    If you had troubled to read the post I was referring to with relation to deterring people, you would have noticed that its says that increasing the number of rules and prescriptions for coming to Mass will deter the poorest. It is not referring just to head covering. Restoring head covering would be part of a broader move towards a more prescriptive dress code. You might also note that “the poorest people” is not the same the working class – over half of the population describe themselves as working class.

  • Harold

    Not Jewish men, from whence bishops take their cue, wearing the zuchetta/yalmulka.

  • guest

    It is not the covering of the head that matters, in can look pretentious and pious, it is what is in the heart.
    The RCC is getting emptier, add more rules, more dogma is going to make it a place only the elderly and desparate parents that want their kids to go to a good school. In the convenants in Ireland and all over the world, nuns cover their heads and dressed modestly while doling out beatings and abusing children. It doesn’t make anybody holier. I know many, many Catholics that attend Mass serveral times a week, that are very unhappy with the way things are going.

  • Auricularis

    Just waiting to see if Aging Papist bursts an artery reading this…

  • Lefty048

    you are right.  it seems it is always make rules for the women.  if bare arms, nothing on their head, and other dress you deem inappropiate is a problem for you then it is your problem.  deal with it.  we do not raise our daughters  to obey a man anymore we raise them as equals i have a daughter and 11 nieces.  leave them alone.  i was with a priest the other day who was wondering how to get 14 year old boys back in the church.  surely it is not with a latin mass,  and rules from the 1950s.  those of you who recall that as the good ald days remember in america we were still hanging black men from trees and didn’t call them black men.  society is always changing and the changes in the last 60 years for the most part have made mankind better.  it is not how you dress when you pray its afteryour done praying do you live your faith and beliefs.

  • GFFM

    Covering one’s head does not equal reverence at all. It is nostalgia pure and simple. Let’s put our energies into the renewal of the Mass and the restoration of traditional and truly meaningful devotions and not in reviving veils for women.

  • ms catholic state

    Sorry but didn’t you read… are not allowed to wear hats in Church as a symbol of their humility.  It’s not just rules for women.  That’s ridiculous!

    And we are material creatures as well as spiritual ones… things like our dress matter!  Dress signifies a lot about our beliefs and attitude.

  • ms catholic state

    Nothing wrong with covering your head… has a lot of significance….and aids our sense that we are now in a holy place in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. 

    If our religion is to be stripped of all symbolic gestures and dress codes….watch many people especially women convert to Islam….where their manner of dress is a large part of their faith.  You can’t totally spiritualise and internalise a faith….without losing something essential.

  • Petrus

    Bishops do NOT take their cue from Jewish men by wearing the zucchetto! 
    “The scull cap worn by Catholic clergy is called the zucchetto (It.). It is similar in appearance, but not identical, to the yarmulke, which Jewish men are required to wear during any sacred ceremonies or in a sacred place.  In his book on ecclesiastical protocol, The Church Visible, James-Charles Noonan devotes a chapter to it.  
    It original use was purely practical. Clerics were tonsured, had a ring of hair removed off the top of their head when they embraced celibacy. The skull-cap was meant to cover it and retain body  heat, an absolute necessity in the unheated churches and monasteries of the past. From this practical use it acquired the role of identifying ecclesiastical rank by the color of the zucchetto.”

    It was a purely practical piece of headwear.  Nowadays it shows the clerics ecclesiastical rank. 

  • Mt 7:1

    I’m all for respect and modesty at Mass.  But why would a woman covering her head reflect this?  It might mean something to some people.  It’s lost on me. 

    One thing that keeps me in the Catholic Church is precisely that it’s catholic: young, old, rich, poor of all nations and cultures.  So what exactly would the Church be saying to all females if it now said they must wear a hat, mantilla, scarf or hanky if you’ve forgotten to bring the first three? 

    I suggest that women not covering their heads after Vatican II was because there was a huge cultural shift then which included the way we dress.   

  • ms catholic state

    The fact is that when our Faith no longer influences aspects of our everyday life like food music architecture and clothing… our culture….life becomes guided by the dictats of secularism…..and our Faith becomes sidelined and invisible.  This is not the sign of a living faith.

    Islam has not made this concession and capitulation to secularism….and it thrives.

  • Anonymous

    Firstly, it is very different to be proscribed specific headgear to wear, rather than have to take something off you may, or may not have been wearing.

    Secondly, men don’t wear hats any more as they did in the past. Cloth caps or bowler hats are of the past, most men don’t have a hat that they wear every day as part of their dress.

  • ms catholic state

    Most establishements have a dress code…even supermarkets.  And so should Churches….it is the house of God after all!!

    If men don’t wear hats….then they can’t take them off. So no problem. But many do wear baseball hats etc

  • Anonymous

    The Church does have an implied dress code already. To dress with modesty and respect. For the most part it is followed – but this could be improved.

    The problem is it smells too much like the subjugation of women to me, or at least could be perceived that way. I think modesty in everyday dress is enough.

  • ms catholic state

    Don’t worry…..many women love to wear something on their heads…..and the Catholic Church doesn’t do subjugation of women….unlike pagan and Islamic societies.

  • Tecvba

    just wondering when pious became synonomous with pretentious and somehow a negative thing? Maybe The Church is getting emptier because it has failed to train its members properly such as: how many people believe in the Real Presence, how many believe and live by The Church’s teaching on intimate relations. Even on so called Catholic dating sites there are people who don’t even think pre-marital sex is wrong. It’s all “go by your conscience” hogwash that passed as CCD after Vat II. A person can’t depend on their conscience if their conscience is stunted and not fully formed. And yes, some people in The Church are flawed and some are evil but that is the condition of the sinful world we live in. There isn’t a human institution on earth whether it’s religious, political, social or what have you that does not have some members of it’s group that fail to live up to the aspirations and stated goals of that group. There are failures in every human endeavor. Those nuns, and the child abuse priests, are a small percentage of the total of their groups, but they make headlines. When was the last time you saw an article about the thousands upon thousands that lived their lives the best they could fulfilling their vows? Maybe a veil doesn’t make one holy but it seems more appropriate in the house of God than a tank top, shorts and flip flops. Yes I know someone will say as long as you go to Mass it doesn’t matter what you wear, but honestly, if a person deep down to the bottom of their soul believed that Jesus Himself was waiting for them would they really choose to dress like a day at the beach?

  • Parasum

    “Now that our bishops are reinstating the rule of ‘fish on Fridays’, I
    rather wish, as Fr Zuhlsdorf does, that the tradition of wearing a head
    covering could also be revived.”

    Just do it. That is how it will be revived – by being done.

    These things, like many others, are not *primarily* rules – they are regulated, only because they are done in the first place. To expect the bishops to make rules that will cause them to come into being, is hopelessly artificial, for a custom that lives only because a rule commands it, will die when the rule is taken away. 

  • Anonymous

    ‘Many’ – Ok, so tell me how many Christian British women have converted to Islam in the last year. It is wrong to speak as if something is true based your assumptions of what is going on.
    Can you link what you are saying to anything more than just hearsay?

  • Anonymous

    The Church is not facing a problem in retaining older members of it, it is facing a problem holding onto its younger members as they leave home and the weekly routine of Church.

    Focusing on keeping the older generations through a return to traditionalism and nostalgia is counterproductive – as it will drive a way the young, who obviously are the future of the Church.

  • Tecvba

    Like I said the Christian Education has been so sorely lacking in the last 40 years that so many of todays young Catholics don’t even know their faith. It’s easy to leave when you don’t know why you should stay. If people had been taught the truth of the Real Presence, if they truly understood that it is Jesus Himself they receive at communion and if they had been taught the reality of sin and how it separates us from God, maybe the confession line wouldn’t be 3 old ladies and the communion line goes out the door. The teachers of religion and priests who do not tell the truth about sin and it’s consequences will have a lot to answer for. Ok, so veiling is a respect issue for some and a non issue for others but the respect, honor and awe we should be showing God is critical.

  • Den flyvende hollender

    What on earth do you mean by covering “our” heads? Should men cover their heads in church? This is a sloppy headline if ever there was one.

  • ms catholic state

    I don’t know…..and I don’t even know if it is possible to find out….BUT many Muslims will tell you that a large proportion of converts to Islam are ex-Catholics….and most seem to be women from what I can gather.

  • ms catholic state

    Strangely enough…..a recent survey showed that the most orthodox views were held by elderly Catholics…AND Catholics in the 18 – 24 age bracket.  So thank God something is going right for the future :)

  • Lefty048

    what percentage of baptized catholics between the age of 18 to 24 actually go to church on any kind of regular basis?.

  • ms catholic state

    I don’t know….why don’t you look it up.  But the ones that do….apparently are very orthodox!

  • Lefty048

    if that’s true it would not be a good thing.  if you paint yourself into an orthodox corner it would mean less people coming even occasionally that would mean less money coming in.  you need a big tent not a small orthodox one

  • ms catholic state

    Actually….it is good news as the more orthodox….the more children in the future.  The less orthodox a congregation….the higher the mean age.

  • Tecvba

    Maybe it would help to define what each of us means by “orthodox”. To me it means someone who lives by the total teachings of the Church, not a pick and choose what I want to obey cafeteria style Catholic. So people of whatever age group if they are truly orthodox according to my terminology will be at Mass every Sunday and Holy Day as prescibed by Church doctrine and contribute to the support of the Church. Seems to me a few of those may be of more value, even monetarily, than a greater number who show up occasionsaly and never contribute a dime. Kind of quality rather than quantity approach.I’m not saying the Church should dump everybody who doesn’t agree with everything but I’m just answering your objection.

  • Anonymous

    People pick and choose because some of what the Church teaches is either misguided, immoral or unethical. It also shows they have a brain.

  • Annie

    I wear a mantilla/hat/scarf when I go to the EF and I more recently began to wear one at the Ordinary Form too. I wear one because I want to, and because after a lot of thinking and reading, it is what I believe I ought to do. It’s something very special I only do when in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

    I understand it causes some people grief, although why I don’t know, boob tubes and saggy shorts don’t seem to matter at all, so why should my scarf? And some people can think you’re being holier than thou. I’m not aiming to upset anyone, or be uber pious, which is what it can seem at the Ordinary Form Mass.

    What I’m aiming for is consistency. As I believe in the Real Presence, whichever Mass I’m at, I can’t in all conscience not wear a mantilla for the OF if I do without fail at the EF. Yes, I do stick out like a sore thumb in my parish, and yes, I don’t feel entirely comfortable being the only one, but I certainly feel worse if I forget, or choose that day to put aside my mantilla because I just don’t want to stick out. 

    If you don’t want to wear anything on your head, fine. If you do, fine.

    It’s not very liberal though to call it ‘nostalgia’. FWIW, I have no memories of anyone ever putting anything on their heads at Mass, so for me, nostalgia it isn’t.

  • Annie

    Just do it, it gets easier :D

  • Harper

    One of the most unforgiveable aspects of the 1960s reforms was its transformation of unselfconscious traditions such as women’s covering of their heads into a self-conscious badge of piety or party. The Mass was similarly “politicised”. The irony is that whatever changes lay middle class Catholics of the 1950s (relaxation of moral teaching perhaps), virtually no one would have questioned either the Mass or traditions such as head covering. These changes were clerically driven from above, resulting in the unfortunate ideological divisions described in this article.

  • Lefty048

    you have a choice   which is the way it should be.  it should not be forced on others