However, with this Sunday, March 17, some parishes will veil their statues and crosses as we enter what was traditionally known as Passiontide. Most often the veils are purple, but the color is not stipulated for the ordinary form of the Roman rite.
At one time, all churches covered statues during the last two weeks of Lent. The fifth Sunday of Lent was then called Passion Sunday. The custom of Lenten veils dates to around the year 1000. Christians would undertake rigorous Lenten penances. That often meant exclusion from most liturgical celebrations — and, specifically, from receiving the Eucharist.
The penitents, though, weren’t alone in this separation. A veil — called the Lenten veil, rood screen or hunger screen — was placed in front of the sanctuary, blocking the altar from view. This veil remained in place during the Mass, separating the faithful from seeing the central action of the Eucharist.
This Lenten separation/deprivation — viewed as a form of fasting from the Eucharist — lasted until after the 12th century. By then, elevating the host at the consecration had become a regular part of the Mass.
During the 13th century, the rituals of Ash Wednesday also became universal. The result was that people were no longer excluded from receiving holy Communion as part of their Lenten penance. So the altar veil lost its significance and fell into disuse.
However, using veils to express the separation from grace caused by sin remained and led to the custom of draping statues and crosses in purple cloth. This continued for centuries until after the introduction of the New Order of the Mass (1970). While veils were never officially suppressed, they were discouraged “except in regions where the episcopal conferences judge it profitable to maintain this custom.” In other words, the Vatican left it up to the bishops of each country.
The U.S. bishops did not vote on the matter of Lenten veils at that time, so their use in this country ceased. Individual parishes were not permitted to use them on their own.
That changed in November 2001, when the U.S. bishops did vote to allow parishes to cover crosses and statues, if they wished to do so. This simply meant that parishes could use veils, but it was not required. (Stations of the Cross are not veiled.)
This is still the case and was confirmed in 2001’s “General Instruction of the Roman Missal.” The Third Edition of the Roman Missal, which went into effect in Advent 2011, reads: “In the dioceses of the United States, the practice of covering crosses and images throughout the church from this Sunday (Fifth Sunday of Lent) may be observed. Crosses remain covered until the end of the celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, but images remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.”
So today, veiling statues may take place in parishes. But not until the fifth Sunday of Lent. This is because, while we may not always realize it, there are two levels of reflection during Lent.
The first level — from Ash Wednesday through the Fourth Sunday of Lent — focused on the solemn glory that led Jesus to the cross. We heard of Jesus overcoming temptations in the desert and of his glorious Transfiguration. And, of course, we had rose colored vestments for “Rejoice” Sunday.
After that Laetare Sunday, we’ve moved into a more somber time of reflection. The focus of our readings turns to the Passion and we hear of the woman about to be stoned (fifth Sunday) and then of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem followed at once by an account of the Passion. Before 1970, there was a week between Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday. Today, the two are combined, one flowing immediately into the other, with the Sunday before Easter called Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.
The veiled crosses and statues serve to remind us of the increasingly solemn tone as we approach Holy Week. If statues have not been veiled before then, they may also be covered after the stripping of the altar on Holy Thursday evening.
Also, with the introduction of the new Roman Missal, if a veil is placed over the main cross at the start of Good Friday, it is no longer to be red in color. The missal states that the cross “should be covered with a violet cloth.” The vestments for the day, however, remain red.
Our Lenten focus is turning more and more toward the cross and all else becomes secondary. It was on that cross that the redemptive love of God was fully unveiled for us to see.
Sources: “Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “New Dictionary of the Liturgy”; The Catholic Liturgical Library at www.catholicliturgy.com;catholicliturgy.org; the Roman Missal, third edition; the GIRM; the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; Diocese of San Jose; diocesan worship department.