Color of the Veil for the Cross

And More on the Sede Vacante

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In the new Roman Missal the color for covering the cross is violet; however, the color is red for the vestments. I have noticed that different churches do red and some violet; even the Vatican used red, which is the proper color for veiling the cross on Good Friday. — M.P., St. Petersburg, Florida

A: The Roman Missal says the following with respect to covering images.

On the fifth Sunday of Lent: “The practice of covering crosses and images throughout the church from this Sunday may be observed, if the Conference of Bishops so decides. 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.”

No specific color is mentioned here, but violet may be reasonably presumed because this is the traditional color and it also corresponds to the liturgical season.

The missal is clearer regarding the first form of showing the cross on Good Friday:

“The Deacon accompanied by ministers, or another suitable minister, goes to the sacristy, from which, in procession, accompanied by two ministers with lighted candles, he carries the Cross, covered with a violet veil, through the church to the middle of the sanctuary.”

In the extraordinary form, violet is also stipulated both for Good Friday and for covering all images and crosses exposed for public veneration before the vespers that precede the first Sunday of Passiontide (fifth Sunday of Lent in the present calendar).

As our reader points out, however, at the Holy Father’s celebration of Good Friday a red-colored veil has been used in recent years.

This might be a particular custom of papal liturgy, similar to the tradition that red vestments are also used for a pope’s funeral.

As mentioned once or twice in previous articles (see March 8, 2005), the historical origin of this practice probably derives from a custom, noted in Germany from the ninth century, of extending a large cloth before the altar from the beginning of Lent.

This cloth, called the “Hungertuch” (hunger cloth), hid the altar entirely from the faithful during Lent and was not removed until during the reading of the Passion on Holy Wednesday at the words “the veil of the temple was rent in two.”

Some authors say there was a practical reason for this practice, insofar as the often-illiterate faithful needed a way to know it was Lent.

Others, however, maintain that it was a remnant of the ancient practice of public penance in which the penitents were ritually expelled from the church at the beginning of Lent.

After the ritual of public penance fell into disuse — but the entire congregation symbolically entered the order of penitents by receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday — it was no longer possible to expel them from the church. Rather, the altar or “Holy of Holies” was shielded from view until they were reconciled to God at Easter.

For analogous motives, later on in the Middle Ages, the images of crosses and saints were also covered from the start of Lent.

The rule of limiting this veiling to Passiontide came later and does not appear until the publication of the Ceremonial of Bishops, of the 17th century.

After the Second Vatican Council there were moves to abolish all veiling of images, but the practice survived, although in a mitigated form.

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Follow-up: When the Holy See Is Vacant

In the wake of our Feb. 19 comments on omitting the Pope’s name during the “sede vacante,” several readers asked for clarifications.

One reader asked: “In the commentary on the mention of the name of the Pope after retirement, you said something about the mention of the name of a retired bishop. In the diocese where I served, after the retirement of the bishop we continued to mention his name as “bishop emeritus” after the name of the present bishop. Even the present bishop does the same. Is there any rule on this? Are we wrong to mention “… and N… our bishop emeritus” in the Eucharistic Prayer?”

In fact, this is incorrect. In a column on Nov. 24, 2009, we mentioned an article on precisely this theme. The article was published in Italian in Notitiae, the official organ of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments: “Regarding the Mention of the Bishop in the Eucharistic Prayer” (Notitiae 45 (2009) 308-320). Although it is a study and not an official decree, the work gathers all the relevant official documentation on the subject.

This article clarifies that only the current diocesan bishop is named. There is the option of naming the auxiliary bishop if there is only one. Otherwise, they may be referred to collectively and not by name.

The reason for this distinction is that naming the bishop is not a question of courtesy or respect but one of ecclesial communion. In the Roman Canon we do not just pray “for” but “together with” the Pope and bishop. In other words, praying in communion with the Pope and the local bishop unites the assembly to the universal Church and manifests the Church in that particular celebration.

An Irish reader asked if we should use titles, prefixes, or surnames in mentioning Pope and bishop. He points to a study article, in French, from Notitiae 1970 that argued in favor of being able to translate the Latin as “with our Bishop Smith.”

Our reader admits that the article was a study with no official standing. It must also be observed that, in practice, this suggestion was never actually taken up by any official translation.

I believe the translation principles it advocated are now superseded by those found in the Vatican instruction Liturgiam Authenticam, which requires a more literal translation. The new English translation also requires this practice. In Ireland it would be theoretically possible to say “Dr. McCoy our Bishop,” but this would be very difficult in the United States or other English-speaking countries that do not use such titles.

Therefore, common practice is that in mentioning the Pope and bishop, only the name is proffered. The numeral corresponding to the reigning pontiff is also omitted. Thus: John Paul or Benedict our Pope, not John Paul II or Benedict XVI.

Finally, a Maltese reader inquired: “After certain prayers, like the rosary, the Way of the Cross, etc, we usually pray for the Pope’s intentions to gain a plenary indulgence, according to the document on indulgences of the Vatican. So now while the Holy See is vacant, for whose intentions can we pray to gain the plenary indulgence?”

There is certainly no suspension of plenary indulgences during the vacancy of the Holy See. Since prayer for the Pope’s intentions is a requirement for gaining an indulgence, one can presume that such prayers can still be said although the person praying knows that he or she is basically entrusting the prayer to God’s providence to apply it as he wishes.

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Readers may send questions to 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.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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