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From behind, a person in a white veil faces a Catholic altar.

Photo by Tre Ratcliff, Creative Commons

  • “Smells and Bells”: Catholic Material Religion in Twenty-First-Century America

    Author’s note: All of these women’s names have been changed to protect their identity. Institutional Review Board approval was obtained for this study through Ball State University. 

    Rachel’s preparations for Mass begin at home. Beneath her blouse, she drapes a devotional scapular, worn woolen squares strung on a cord and fastened around the neck. As she enters the church, she keeps her hand on the rosary in her pocket. The cold beads pulse through her fingers, as she silently counts the decade—beads in groups of ten. Taking her seat, she removes a white chapel veil from its blessed velvet bag and lays it gently over her head. She secures the fabric to her hair with four bobby pins, reciting a prayer as she does so. Rachel considers veils and scapulars as daily, physical reminders of her faith, so putting them on requires time and prayer.  

    You might be picturing an older woman, but Rachel is twenty-two, a university student in the Midwestern United States. Growing up, she rarely, if ever, saw women wearing veils in church, and, before starting this practice, people would have called her a typical American Catholic. But two years ago, a friend introduced her to a Facebook group of young Catholic women who worship in older, more traditional ways. Since then, she incorporates veils and scapulars into her religious practice.

    During Mass, she feels the itchiness of the wool against her skin and the slight weight of the veil on her hair. The lace constricts her gaze to the altar, helping her to focus on the priest and his message.

    These objects, once prevalent among the devotional artifacts of the Catholic Church, have helped Rachel recenter her faith and introduced her to an online community of like-minded young people. She also wears a small metal chain around her wrist, a reminder of the Marian Consecration she underwent to devote herself to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The weight of the chain reminds her to keep “practicing in Mary’s footsteps.” Mary’s legacy as a veiled wife and mother includes ideas of virginity and motherhood that many young women, just like Rachel, work to emulate.

    Rectangular piece of fabric embellished with embroidery and colored glass, with tassels off the side and bottom, and a tied cord from the top.
    An embroidered scapular made in Italy in the eighteenth century.
    Photo courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
    Closeup on a hand holding up a small rectangular picture, labeled St. Simon Stock, in a plastic slip and hanging on a white cord around her neck.
    A young woman tucks a more modern version of a scapular underneath her shirt prior to Mass.
    Photo by Emma Cieslik

    Worn by lay people since the early Middle Ages, devotional scapulars carry symbols or verses that once connected the wearer to a particular monastic community. Today, these artifacts signal a more general piety, and their wearing has gained momentum despite no longer being a part of orthodox worship.

    Over the past decade, the United States has seen a rise in the number of young mainstream Catholics, who, like Rachel, have chosen to ground their spiritual belief through physical objects: the “smells and bells” of Catholicism. This return involves the use of devotionals, including veils, scapulars, and rosaries, as well as worship aids, such as purifying incense (the smells) and the ringing of bells at the time of consecration and to call the faithful to Mass (the bells). The very veiling practices once considered outdated, even archaic, are now considered by some young women to be the very opposite: a liberating practice that recenters their faith and focus on their religion.

    The practice of veiling largely died out in the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council worked to update Catholic theology amid changing social norms and the feminist movement.

    The practice of veiling during Mass ties to a controversial Biblical passage:

    But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and a husband is the head of his wife, and God the head of Christ. 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.

    1 Corinthians 11:3-6

    In Vatican II, church leaders determined that the veil was a symbol of man’s authority over women and stopped requiring women to cover their heads during church. Leaders also did away with the full Latin Mass. For the first time in almost two millennia, women, mainly from the younger generation, entered the church with their heads uncovered.

    Some continued veiling, primarily those who had done so as children. Some parishes continued to veil in opposition to the decree. Most worshippers abandoned the practice. Today, both fashion and religious blogs comment on increased veiling inside the mainstream. The diversity of practice raises many questions: why would a woman cover her head during Mass? Is veiling a sign of oppression or liberation? How many women are we talking about?

    From the side, a woman stands at a church pew, her face obscured by a white lace veil over her head. Another woman in the background, bent over in prayer, wears the same type of veil.
    After daily mass, two young women stay to pray, both wearing white lace chapel veils.
    Photo by Emma Cieslik

    Father Coady Owens, a priest serving in Muncie, Indiana, spoke to changes he has witnessed in veiling practices. He previously attended Ball State University and now serves at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church and Newman Center on its campus in his fifth year of the priesthood. “I’m not sure any young women were veiling when I was at college in 2008. Now, in Muncie, the number who wear veils has grown. But it hasn’t been some sort of astronomical growth—a consistent six or seven.”

    The increase, modest though it seems, has come through word of mouth and the support of online communities. Some women have experienced pushback from family members or their congregation when taking up these traditions. Online, women have found a safe space to ask questions about veil colors, styles, and the different ways of wearing them. They feel listened to and supported. A recent addition to a group, Leah, wrote, “I’m discerning wearing the veil, but I have some doubts. What kind of elements can you use to cover your head? Fabrics, veils, hats.” Another woman, Patricia, asked, “I’m a new member here. Do any of you ladies veil daily?”

    Jennine, a mother in her twenties, notes that she can find everything she wants to know about veiling on Facebook, which also allows her to share her veiling practice with more women. Sarah, a millennial from Wisconsin, notes that the internet is largely responsible for the spread. “If the internet did not exist, then I think a lot of things would be lost forever,” she says. “But you have these little pockets of tradition that connect and flourish.” For a generation of young people growing up online, social media and blogs have “made it very accessible to young people seeking information.”

    The past ten years has seen a proliferation of social media groups created by and for Catholic women using devotions such as the veil. Seven hundred members belong to Catholic Women Who Veil, over 3,400 to Catholic Women’s Veiling Devotion, over 4,300 to Traditional Catholic Women’s Group. These are just a few of many groups that I encountered on Facebook and other social media platforms. Although the number of websites and forums for Catholic women re-adopting age-old practices do not rival the number dedicated to the Muslim hijab or Jewish tzniut, the movement is growing.

    From behind, men and women standing up in pews of a church. Most are dressed in black, and a few of the women wear black or white veils.
    Photo by Lawrence OP, Creative Commons

    Veils come in different lace styles and colors. Most women choose white, although some match veil color to the liturgical season, including Lent (purple), Advent (purple and rose), and Ordinary Time (green). Some refer to them as “blinders” that block out distractions during Mass, as did the habits worn by nuns up through the twentieth century. For Elizabeth, a twenty-seven-year-old “cradle Catholic,” or Catholic since birth, her reasons for veiling are multifaceted. She believes that her female body is sacred because it is life-giving—she veils herself both in reverence of this ability and to center her focus during prayer. Some other women note that veiling creates a sense of mysticism at Mass, drawing them closer to God. Judith describes, “It puts me in a different frame of mind, so I do love the ritual.”

    These practices are more commonly seen among traditionalist Catholics, who support regulated Mass dress and often hold more conservative ideas on gender roles. But despite the traditionalist implications of veiling, to Miriam, each woman’s motivation is different. As she explains, “I think if you ask fifteen different women why they wear the veil, you would get fifteen different answers, because it is such a deeply personal thing.” Some women veil as a form of modesty, as many consider a woman’s hair one of her most sensual features. Some veil out of piety or reverence when the Eucharist, consecrated bread and wine, is present, some to focus more intently on Mass, and some to recall a tradition more in line with a newfound religious and political conservatism.  

    Emilia grew up in the Midwest but recently moved to Utah when her husband took a new job. She remembers seeing more devotionals during her time in the Midwest: “You can go to a restaurant and see your waitress is wearing a scapular. I know so many people who wear a scapular. I’m wearing one right now.”

    Though many of the women I interviewed are white, I spoke with several young Latinas who veil. Leslie, a Catholic college student studying the Latinx Catholic community in Muncie, Indiana, remarks that Latina Americans “are people who are traditional, and more likely to be the most committed. But there are a lot of moderates—in my narrowed view of just my church—a ton of people who really want to go back to this traditional idea.” Maria, a Mexican college student studying in Muncie, said that in Mexico and Latinx communities, “it’s very traditional to veil, but it’s not a tradition young people continue, which is really sad. I was in Mexico this past summer, and it was really beautiful to veil, even if I was the only one.” Maria strives to share her veiling practice with others and hopes more young, mainstream Catholics feel called to take up the practice.

    A Catholic priest dressed in a white robe waves a golden incense holder. A thin cloud of smoke is seen coming out of it.
    Photo by Boston Catholic, Creative Commons

    In the twenty-first century, Catholics have seen church membership falling. Although there are distinct paths back to church through confession, people within the Catholic Church often use the term “fallen away” to refer to Catholics who stop attending Mass (the Catholic Church mandates attendance, because of its belief in the necessity of community). Indeed, some of the women I spoke with describe the act of growing lukewarm in faith as falling away. Sarah, in her mid-forties, explains that before veiling, she was like most Catholics who she believed “just check the box, go to Mass, forget about confession, forget about whether you are receiving the Eucharist unworthily, etc. I just described myself as a Catholic zombie.” She felt at risk of falling away. The veil changed that. 

    Many of the women who have taken up veiling describe themselves as having once fallen away from the church, with experiences ranging from growing up in a non-religious household to ceasing to attend Mass in college. However, many also have a common “reversion” experience, when they are inspired to take their faith seriously again.

    “There are many people seeking tradition, but there is a vast amount of young people who are straying away from the faith entirely, so there are two extremes,” describes Mary, a twenty-two-year-old college student. She references a growing schism between increasingly devout young Catholics who have re-adopted traditions no longer part of the modern church and those who do not go to Mass nor observe the sacraments.

    A few women I spoke to actively claim the title of “rad trad.” Over the past twenty years, radical traditionalists, also called “rigids,” have been part of the movement that advocates for the full Latin Mass instead of the shortened novus ordo mass practiced post-Vatican II. Notably, the Latin Mass mandates that women cover their heads, as well as the use of incense, intricately embroidered religious vestments, and stringent layperson dress codes—including requiring or strongly recommending that women wear dresses instead of pants.

    For women grappling with growing disparities between their Catholic faith and the secular world, the tradition of the veil, scapulars, and rosaries can be a calming influence. As Rebecca explains, “I think tradition—there’s more structure to it, and I think that’s appealing to people who live in a very busy world.”

    Along the same line, Magdalena, twenty-four, notes, “I think more people have been called to veiling because it kind of draws people out of that trance of the world or lack of truth and mediocrity that we’re so used to encountering every day. This is so appealing because it’s so radical, so forward, so physical.” 

    Closeup on a hand holding red and white rosary beads. In the background, a figure of the Virgin Mary with green plants and red and yellow flowers placed at the base.
    Rosaries come in different shapes and sizes. This red rosary is used to pray in front of a statue of Mary adorned with a crown of flowers around Easter 2021.
    Photo by Emma Cieslik
    Closeup on a hand holding white and clear rosary beads.
    The white and clear rosary is used to pray within the home.
    Photo by Emma Cieslik

    For these women, devotionals return to manifesting spiritual, intangible ideas, like transcendence, in physical objects, grounding their invisible faith in a physical ritual. As part of this practice, they find a supportive and uplifting community in other women online who can answer questions and offer guidance. From speaking with women who veil, Father Owens notes that it appears to be “an expression of piety and maybe a very human way to make something internal, external.” In this way, Owens explains, practices like veiling, praying the rosary, and wearing a scapular work to “make a relationship with an omnipotent, omniscient, unseen God concrete.”

    For Esther, a twenty-five-year-old woman who recently adopted veiling, these objects help to cement “the reality of spiritual things that we cannot see or detect with our senses” in order to “mentally reinforce the importance of the church.” As twenty-nine-year-old mother of two Deborah affirms, “people want to see the bells, the incense, and the Latin.” 

    To complicate the picture, on July 16, 2021, Pope Francis reinstituted restrictions on celebrating the Latin Mass that Pope Benedict XVI had relaxed in 2007, explaining that he was doing so because Benedict’s reform had led to divisions in the Church and been used as a tool by Catholics to oppose Vatican II reforms. This decision limits practices common to the Latin Mass, like the burning of incense and the ringing of bells. Veils, scapulars, and rosaries are traditionally associated with an older form of Catholicism. Will the new ruling damper the spread of these practices too?

    The tradition of veiling seems to highlight some people’s hunger to believe, especially in a time of growing secularism. Young mainstream Catholic women are taking up scapulars and veils to strengthen their faith and, in doing so, are becoming more traditionalist in their faith.

    “Since I have become a priest, there seems to be a tendency to draw a thick line for whether I am Catholic or am not Catholic, that perhaps there used to be more lukewarm Catholics who would attend liturgies or events at St. Francis,” Father Owens observes. “Now, it seems that more often than not, people tend to say, ‘I do believe this, or I don’t believe that,’ which somehow may relate to pious practices like wearing veils as well.’”

    For these women, the veil serves as a spiritual tool that enhances their experience of religion or worship. As Helena says, “It helps me just isolate myself in the moment, so I can just be with God.”

    Emma Cieslik is a curatorial intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate of Ball State University, where she studied public history, anthropology, and biology. She has been researching African American clothing traditions, specifically elements of personal adornment closely associated with religious identity and self-expression.

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