Veils have a long and complicated history, dating back to an interpretation of St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians.
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One of the most common practices in the United States, as well as many other Western nations, is the use of veils for girls receiving their First Communion.
While it is not a requirement, many families still abide by this tradition and purchase an elaborate veil for their daughter for her First Communion.
Why is that?
The short answer is that according to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, wearing veils was a requirement for all women attending Mass.
[W]omen … shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.Canon 1262
This particular requirement reflected a cultural tradition that was already in place at that time and is often traced back to the following verse from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
[A]ny woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil.1 Corinthians 11:5-7
Without any biblical background into why St. Paul wrote those words, many in the Church took a literal interpretation of this passage and mandated that all women should wear a veil when they enter a Catholic church.
The problem St. Paul was addressing
According to various biblical scholars, veiling at Corinth was a particular issue that has major social implications.
Biblical scholars Lee Anna Starr and Adolf von Harnack explain in their book The Bible Status of Woman that being unveiled in Corinth was part of local pagan practice.
There was special reason why Christian women should veil while officiating in the religious services in the church at Corinth. Heathen priestesses–and there were many–offered petitions and delivered their oracles with uncovered heads and disheveled hair. The Apostle counseled nonconformity to this heathen practice.
Furthermore, an unveiled woman was also viewed as a prostitute.
McGriffert says Corinthian immorality was proverbial the world over. The city was thronged with lewd women who went abroad with uncovered heads; chaste women veiled their faces. The veil itself was a distinguishing badge between the virtuous woman and the prostitute.
Catholic biblical scholar Scott Hahn also affirms this interpretation of this passage and how St. Paul was addressing local customs in his commentary on the New Testament.
In the 1970s, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a document titled Inter Insigniores, noted that, “the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head (1 Cor. 11:2-16) … no longer have a normative value.”
Ever since the wearing of veils by women in the Catholic Church has become an optional custom, which some women still prefer to continue.
The veil is no longer a requirement for girls at their First Communion, though can still be used to symbolize the invitation of Christ to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Alternatively, instead of a veil, some will use a crown of white flowers.