Head Coverings for Women

And More on Blessings and on Divine Mercy Sunday

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ROME, MAY 22, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.



Q: A friend of mine told me that according to the Scriptures a woman should cover her head in the presence of Our Lord (holy Eucharist/during Mass). In our churches this is not practiced. Can you please write and tell me as to how and when the practice of women covering their heads came to an end, or is it that we are doing something which is not proper? -- J.M., Doha, Qatar

A: The Scripture text referred to is probably 1 Corinthians 11:4-16:

"Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered brings shame upon his head. But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head, for it is one and the same thing as if she had had her head shaved. For if a woman does not have her head veiled, she may as well have her hair cut off. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should wear a veil. A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; nor was man created for woman, but woman for man; for this reason a woman should have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels. Woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord. For just as woman came from man, so man is born of woman; but all things are from God.

"Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears his hair long it is a disgrace to him, whereas if a woman has long hair it is her glory, because long hair has been given (her) for a covering? But if anyone is inclined to be argumentative, we do not have such a custom, nor do the churches of God."

A full treatment of this text is beyond the scope of this column. But we may say that this passage contains some elements that have perennial theological value and others which reflect transitory social mores which apply only to the specific time and place of the Corinthians.

For example, during the course of history there were times when it was common for men, and even clerics, to wear their hair long; and none felt that St. Paul's words considering the practice a disgrace applied to them.

Likewise, liturgical norms tell bishops to keep their skullcaps on during some of the prayers during Mass, and they may use the mitre while preaching, without falling under St. Paul's injunction that this practice brings shame upon his head. The norms, however, do ask him to remove his head covering for the Eucharistic Prayer and when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed.

Apart from bishops, and some canons, custom still dictates that all other men should uncover their heads in church except for outdoor Masses.

During St. Paul's time it was considered modest for a woman to cover her head, and he was underscoring this point for their presence in the liturgical assembly.

This custom was considered normative and was enshrined in Canon 1262.2 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law alongside the recommendation that men and women be separated in Church and that men go bareheaded. This canon was dropped from the new Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983, but the practice had already begun to fall into disuse from about the beginning of the 1970s. Even though no longer legally binding, the custom is still widely practiced in some countries, especially in Asia. It has been generally abandoned in most Western countries even though women, unlike men, may still wear hats and veils to Mass if they choose.

Sociological factors might also have been involved. The greater emphasis on the equality of man and woman tended to downplay elements that stressed their differences.

Likewise, for the first time in centuries, not donning a hat outdoors, especially for men, ceased being considered as bad manners, whereas up to a few years beforehand it was deemed unseemly to go around hatless.

This general dropping of head covering by both sexes may also have influenced the disappearance of the religious custom.

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Follow-up: Blessings at First Masses

Regarding our piece on blessings by a newly ordained priest (May 8), a Durban, South Africa, reader asked: "There are parishes where the priest blesses ministers of the Word and Eucharistic ministers prior to their performing their respective duties at Mass. Are these blessings appropriate and liturgically correct?"

The short answer is no. The only such blessings foreseen in the present liturgical books are those of the priest who blesses the deacon, or the bishop who blesses the deacon or priest who is about to read the Gospel.

Some Oriental rites do have a blessing of the reader, who is almost always a cleric. The Latin rite, before the present reform, foresaw that the subdeacon received a blessing after chanting the epistle at solemn Mass.

In the present Roman rite the reason for this blessing is to both prepare the minister to carry out his task and to emphasize the special role of the Gospel with respect to the other readings. This is why the Gospel is the only text reserved to an ordained minister, carried in procession, laid upon the altar, and incensed before being proclaimed.

Thus, while the idea of blessing the other readers is not totally foreign to liturgical tradition, its introduction into the present rite is an unauthorized novelty and tends to detract from the special role that the liturgy assigns to the Gospel.

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Follow-up: Divine Mercy Sunday

Another reader asked for further clarification regarding the indulgence for Divine Mercy Sunday (see April 17): "I heard on a recent EWTN program that there is a difference, namely, that one of the conditions for gaining a plenary indulgence is not required, namely, the need for total detachment to venial sins. Elsewhere I have read that such detachment may be so difficult to attain as to make the gaining of a plenary indulgence a rare exception. Clearly, if this is all true, then the Divine Mercy plenary indulgence -- wouldn't this be a more generous grant by the Church?"

The decree instituting the indulgence stated that it was granted subject to the usual conditions, which includes detachment to any sin, even venial sin. This is a sine qua non condition and no indulgence may be obtained without it.

It is not, however, an impossible condition to meet, as we explained in our columns on this topic on Feb. 15 and and March 1, 2005.

A reader from Sydney, Australia, sent a note (adapted here) which might clarify the issue:

"I suspect your reader inquiry regarding Divine Mercy is confused because most likely he is referring to the special grace Jesus speaks of that is offered for Divine Mercy Sunday (see St. Faustina's Diary No. 699) -- which, although similar, is not exactly the same as a plenary indulgence. Moreover, the Holy See offered a plenary indulgence on Divine Mercy Sunday as well. So the special grace in question is similar to a plenary indulgence; however, from how I interpret it, this grace is not dependent upon the individual 'having the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin.' Rather, the following conditions must be met and, unlike a plenary indulgence, this grace is only available on Divine Mercy Sunday itself:

-- celebrate the feast on the Sunday after Easter;
-- sincerely repent of all our sins;
-- place complete trust in Jesus;
-- go to confession -- preferably before that Sunday;
-- receive holy Communion on the day of the feast
-- venerate the image of the Divine Mercy (that is, some gesture of deep religious respect);
-- be merciful to others through our actions, words and prayers on their behalf."

The special graces mentioned in this clarification are not a question of liturgy but of particular devotion due to a private revelation.

Our Lord is free to dispense his graces as he sees fit. But the Church does not normally give official sanction to every aspect of a private revelation, even though it may grant them some measure of approval by instituting liturgical feasts and attaching indulgences to recommended practices.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.