The Custom of Passiontide Veiling

Photos courtesy of Allison Girone of G Photography & Films

Catholics should be attentive to what attracts outsiders to the Faith. The little traditions - many of which have been lost - teach and inspire others to enter more fully into the mysteries of faith. Thankfully the beloved custom of veiling statues for Passiontide (the final two weeks of Lent) is being rediscovered in many parishes (after having been hastily discarded in the sixties, the casualty of a frenzy for modernization).  

Why are images veiled or hidden on the eve of Passiontide? This custom arose in order to help Catholics mystically enter into the final days of Christ's life on earth. The covering of sacred images has the effect of focusing attention on Christ's Passion, and the manner in which He veiled His divinity to suffer in His humanity for the redemption of the world. For Passiontide, the Church's ritual becomes extra penitential.

The tradition is explained thus:

"On Passion Sunday (the fifth Sunday of Lent) the more solemn part of the penitential season begins. The images in our churches are veiled in purple wrappings, remaining thus until the end of the services on Holy Saturday." Source: The Church Visible by Rt. Rev. John F. Sullivan, p. 186. 

The norms of this custom were laid out by the Sacred Congregation of Rites: 

"According to the rubrics of the Roman Missal, Breviary, and Ceremonial Episcoporum, all crosses, statues, and pictures of our Lord and of the saints on the altars and elsewhere in a church to which cultus is given with the sole exception of the crosses and images of the Stations of the Cross, must be covered with purple veils, not transparent or ornamented in any way, from before the first vespers of Passion Sunday until after the Gloria in the Mass on Holy Saturday, no matter what feast may occur." Source: S.R.C. 3638, ad 11. 

A few historical notes:

"The origin of the custom of veiling statues and pictures during Passiontide can be found in the once almost universal practice of veiling, not only images, but also the altar during the whole of Lent as a sign of mourning and penitence. The color for Lenten veils was usually white - not purple, and in some parts of Spain, in southern Italy and the Cathedral of Freiburg (Baden, Germany), it is still the custom to hang an enormous veil in front of the sanctuary, which is a relic of the primitive practice of concealing the altar with curtains during the more solemn parts of the Mass. Mediaeval church inventories make frequent references to white linen veils for Lent, although blue was sometimes used." Source: Churches Their Plan and Furnishing by Peter F. Anson, p. 128. 

The Gospel reading for Passion Sunday in the Classical Rite (i.e. the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the start of Passiontide) tells us how Jesus "hid" Himself from the Hebrews when they attempted to stone him (cf. John 8:59).  According to St. Augustine, at this moment when Jesus hid Himself from the angry crowd, Christ in fact became invisible to them by virtue of His Divine nature. To help signify this mystery, holy images in church are veiled the evening before Passion Sunday. This includes images of the saints, as it is befitting that if the glory of the Master is hidden, then His servants should also not appear. 

Indeed, in the Latin Church, we "hide" His images for two weeks out of the year in a sprit of penance and mourning. An acute sadness is felt in the human heart. We long to be reunited with Him. The veil suggests the discomfort of being separated from Him. We prepare for the agony and triumph of the Easter Triduum. Outsiders are intrigued by these little customs. Children remember them. The Faith is passed on. Let us preserve the inheritance that has been handed on to us by the wisdom of our forefathers in the Faith.  

Images are of the church of St. Mary in Conshohocken, PA. Special thanks to the excellent photographer, Allison!  

Nota Bene: below is an image of the norms for veiling, taken from the Roman Missal, (Sabbato Post Dominicam Quartam Quadragesima).  

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