Monday, September 13, 2021

The Return of the “Care Cloth” at the Traditional Nuptial Mass

On May 1, 2021, I had the great privilege of leading the choir and schola for the wedding of a dear friend and former student of mine, who used to sing in my college choir. The liturgy was a Solemn High Nuptial Mass—the kind of thing one could barely imagine back when I first got involved in the movement for the restoration of the Roman Rite. (My own Nuptial Missa Cantata was difficult enough to pull off back in 1998!) The church where the Mass was held, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Fennimore, Wisconsin, was a perfect home for this grand event.

The bride and bridegroom took great care in planning their wedding—so much so, in fact, that they chose to incorporate into the ceremony an old custom called the “care cloth.”

The velatio nuptialis is an ancient tradition of the Catholic Church, well established since at least the fourth century. During the nuptial blessing, which is said between the Canon and Communion, a white cloth (pallium) is held over the couple. St. Ambrose, fourth-century bishop of Milan, writes, “It is fitting that the marriage be sanctified by the imposition of the veil and the blessing of the priest.” The white cloth signifies the bright cloud, which is at once a sign of God’s protection accompanying the chosen people wandering in the desert (Ex. 13:20–22), the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary (Lk. 1:35), and the bright cloud of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor (Lk. 9:28-36; 2 Pt. 1:17–18). It also signifies that the couple becomes one flesh through marriage. In France, the poêle, which is another word for the veil, is also used to honor the Blessed Sacrament on the feast of Corpus Christi, which appropriately connects the wedding of the couple to the wedding feast of Christ and the Church, represented and effected by the Blessed Sacrament. While the velatio nuptialis experienced widespread use in the Middle Ages in the Roman Rite, it fell out of use almost everywhere outside of France, although the tradition is seeing a slow revival.

As for where the name “care cloth” comes from, we read in Michael Foley's book Wedding Rites:
The couple’s wedding veil, or carecloth, was once so important in the Western imagination that it literally gave the wedding event its name. When a woman in ancient Rome was married, she put on a fiery red veil as a sign of the new obligations and dignity she was taking on as a matron. In Latin this act of covering oneself with a veil was known as nubere, from which comes our word “nuptial.” Latin Christians adopts the veil in the 300s (or perhaps earlier) but put the man under it as well, to stress the fact that both bride and groom were expected to live up to their marital obligations. This explains why it came to be called a carecloth in English, as “to care” once meant “to lay a burden on.” After the Renaissance, the carecloth was itself overshadowed by the bridal veil in most parts of Europe (a pale substitute, in our humble opinion), though it continues to be used in several areas of the world today. (p. 77)
After the Lord's Prayer, the bride and bridegroom ascend the steps into the sanctuary and kneel; the priest stands at the corner of the altar to say the nuptial blessing, during which the cloth is held above the couple by two altar servers:

Let us pray. Be gracious, O Lord, to our humble supplications: and graciously assist this Thine institution, which Thou hast established for the increase of mankind: that what is joined together by Thine authority, may be preserved by Thine aid. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end. 
Let us pray. O God, who by Thine own mighty power, didst make all things out of nothing: who having set in order the beginnings of the world, didst appoint Woman to be an inseparable helpmate to Man, made like unto God, so that Thou didst give to woman’s body its beginnings in man’s flesh, thereby teaching that what it pleased Thee to form from one substance, might never be lawfully separated: O God, who, by so excellent a mystery hast consecrated the union of man and wife, as to foreshadow in this nuptial bond the union of Christ with His Church: O God, by whom Woman is joined to Man, and the partnership, ordained from the beginning, is endowed with such blessing, that it alone was not withdrawn either by the punishment of original sin, or by the sentence of the flood: graciously look upon this Thy handmaid, who, about to be joined in wedlock, seeks Thy defense and protection. May it be to her a yoke of love and peace: faithful and chaste, may she be wedded in Christ, and let her ever be the imitator of holy women: let her be dear to her husband, like Rachel: wise, like Rebecca: long-lived and faithful, like Sara. Let not the author of deceit work any of his evil deeds in her. May she continue, clinging to the faith and to the commandments. Bound in one union, let her shun all unlawful contact. Let her protect her weakness by the strength of discipline; let her be grave in behavior, respected for modesty, well-instructed in heavenly doctrine. Let her be fruitful in offspring; be approved and innocent; and come to the repose of the blessed and the kingdom of heaven. May they both see their children’s children to the third and fourth generation, and may they reach the old age which they desire. Through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, Who with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth God.

The couple return to their kneelers and the priest continues into the embolism.

The care cloth used in this nuptial Mass, which was sewn and embroided by a close friend, is fittingly made from linen, the same material used for altar cloths. Pope John Paul II describes the family as the ecclesia domestica (the domestic church), so the cloth symbolizes that the family coming into being is a participation in the fruitful union Christ and His Church. The veil is, as it were, the altar cloth of the new family. The Marian auspice is embroided on the cloth in blue; the design includes symbols from Mary, Star of the Sea, who “makes our way secure till we find in Jesus joy forevermore,” as the ancient prayer says. The auspice is flanked by lace, which belonged to the bridegroom’s grandmother.
The "auspice"

For more information on the care cloth, see M. Henri de Villiers, “The Velatio Nuptialis: An Ancient (and Forgotten) Part of the Latin Marriage Rite.”

Although it was not in itself the most important moment in the ceremony (there are surely several others that would, theologically, lay superior claim to that honor), it was for me the most strikingly beautiful; the photos will, I think, suggest just how special a custom it is. I hope others who are planning their Latin Mass weddings will take it up, as well. To my mind, in this period of new incomprehension and persecution directed at our patrimony as Latin rite Catholics, young people must bend the stick in the opposite direction and go for uncompromising maximalism: a Solemn High Nuptial Mass with polyphony and pipe organ—and a care cloth. That is a beautiful and decisive way of saying: I choose the old ways, and I am content with them, in fact, they lift my soul. Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

(All photos by Mattson Photography LLC.)

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