Armstrong: Wait, is that a church veil on your head?

WHILE AWAITING Sunday's papal Mass, I spotted something that took me back - way, way back.

Several of the faithful had on chapel veils.

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JENICE ARMSTRONG / DAILY NEWS STAFF

I was like, come again?

The last time I'd seen that was in 2009 when first lady Michelle Obama visited then-Pope Benedict XVI. She covered her head in the old-style Catholic tradition by donning a black head scarf known as a Spanish mantilla.

That's the tradition for first ladies attending papal audiences at the Vatican. I've since seen photos of former first ladies Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Nancy Reagan all wearing long, black head coverings during their visits.

But for everyone else, I assumed that kind of thing had gone the way of white gloves and Catholics not eating meat on Fridays. Then, on Sunday, I noticed Olga Quesada, of St. Timothy Roman Catholic Church in the Northeast, who had a round, lace chapel cap pinned to the top of her head as she chatted with a friend.

I blinked. An aberration, maybe? But I also noticed one on the head of Lauren Hale, 18, of Tarpon Springs, Fla. It was cream-colored and lacy, and reminded me of the shoulder-grazing black one my mother used to wear during the 1970s. Lauren was dressed like any other teen at the mall - in a T-shirt and pants.

"I wear it when I go to Mass or in adoration before the blessed sacrament," Lauren explained, smiling. "For me, it's a reminder that I'm a bride of Christ."

I saw another woman - Barbara Byrnes, who attends church in Camden, wearing one, too. Hers was secured with jewel-trimmed clips on either side of her face.

"In the Bible, it says we should have our heads covered when we are in church or in prayer," she said, while standing on a bench to see over the crowd milling about. "It shows respect for God."

In addition to the white mantilla she wore Sunday, Byrnes has them in black and brown. She added: "It's pretty. A lot of young girls are wearing them."

A lot? That's a stretch.

But according to fans of the old-style head coverings and some Catholic bloggers, it's a tradition enjoying a bit of a comeback, mostly among the younger set who don't see it as a sign of female oppression but of reverence and piety. Online, there's been a surprising amount of chatter among Catholic women about whether to veil or not to veil.

In recent years, a group called the Latin Mass Society in Charlotte, N.C., has sponsored a "Wear the Veil Day" to encourage women to wear head coverings on Dec. 8. Last year, churchgoers took the effort national. Meanwhile, the owner of Veils by Lily (veilsbylily.com) told me that she regularly ships out 700 to 800 orders a month.

"It's coming back in full force," Lily Wilson said yesterday. "I was the first one to wear a veil at my parish, and now there are about a dozen of us."

She started Veils by Lily five years ago and quickly had to quit her job as a researcher at the University of Washington in St. Louis.

"It really was about wanting to encourage it in other women and seeing the way to do it was to get beautiful ones," Wilson said.

But this isn't supposed to be a vanity thing, although I did see where a blogger on ChurchPop.com wrote, "It makes the women feel beautiful, and some husbands think that veils are 'hot.' " (Who knew?)

"The purpose isn't to direct attention to yourself but to make you think about whose presence you are in, which is God's," Wilson said.

Fans of the church veils point to biblical passages such as 1 Corinthians 11, which references head coverings during prayer.

It wasn't until around 1917 that canon stipulated that female churchgoers wear hats, scarves or other head coverings. When that law was revised in 1983, the church wisely made no mention of any such requirement.

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

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Email: armstrj@phillynews.com