Humeral Veils; Fratres in the Confiteor

Date: February 3, 2024
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Question: My two questions are not really related but they are part of the liturgical concerns of many of us. 1) Can you share with us the history of the humeral veil, and tell us if it can be used also to hold the Book of the Gospels during the entrance procession and during the procession with the book before the Gospel proclamation? 2) In the Confiteor, we say “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters." Are we supposed to always say “brothers and sisters” even in the homogenous communities of religious sisters or religious brothers or in the seminary? If one of the words (“brothers” or “sisters”) was in parenthesis, for example, it could be easy to say, depending on the situation. But the way they are, shall we choose one of the two according to the situation? -- F.X.K., Ndola, Zambia


Answer: I will start with the second question. In this case English and some other international languages have translated the original single Latin word fratres as “brothers and sisters” so as to explicitly include all those habitually present at a Mass.


Depending on the context, the Latin word can refer to just male brothers or to a mixed congregation. It is true that in English the word “brothers” or “brethren” can also serve this double duty, but this could be perceived as being somewhat archaic or uncommon in current usage.


That said, however, in a situation in which the regular liturgical assembly is composed exclusively of men — for example, a religious, monastic, or seminary community — I see no difficulty in omitting the reference to sisters when this form of the penitential rite is used. It is enough for one woman to be present to revert to the common practice.


As to the other question: The humeral veil, from the Latin humerus (shoulder), consists of a rectangular piece of cloth about 2.5 meters long and 60 to 100 centimeters wide draped over the shoulders and down the front. It is normally made of silk or cloth of gold. At the ends there are sometimes pockets in the back for hands to go into so that the wearer can hold items without touching them with bare hands.


From antiquity, and even outside of Christianity, it was a common practice to show respect toward sacred objects by avoiding touching them with bare hands by covering them with cloth. The most common use of this veil in Catholicism is the respect shown toward the sacred Host in the monstrance.


Some authors also relate the use of the humeral veil to the Old Testament’s “Tent of Meeting.” To cover sacred objects with a cloth allegorically recalls the image of the temple as God’s dwelling place. This would have also inspired the practice which is still found in some places of veiling the tabernacle in precious cloths according to the color of the liturgical season.


The earliest documented records of the use of a humeral veil stem from the eighth century for pontifical Masses. In this case, however, they were worn by the acolytes who held sacred objects such as the paten. From the 11th century this task had passed to the subdeacon. For a long time this custom was exclusive to the Roman ceremonial and seemingly only passed into more general usage in France, Germany and other countries from the 19th century.


Insofar as its use by priests for carrying the Eucharist in diverse circumstances, especially for bringing viaticum and for giving Benediction, its use would appear to have been introduced sometime during the 15th and 16th centuries. 


It is normally white or gold in color. On Good Friday a violet or red humeral veil may be used to take the Blessed Sacrament from the altar of repose for holy Communion.


As we have seen above, its use has been long associated with the solemn Eucharistic celebration, with viaticum, and with Eucharistic processions and Benediction.


It is true that there are some parallels between adoration of the Eucharist and the veneration of the Book of the Gospels, such as incensation and being carried between candles. These are ways to venerate the book containing the Word of God.


However, the use of the humeral veil has developed in such a way as to be deeply associated with Christ’s substantial real presence in the Eucharist. 


Because of this association, and insofar as there is no custom or tradition of the use of the humeral veil for carrying the Book of the Gospels, I do not think it is a legitimate option or something that should be prudently introduced as it could easily lead to confusion among the faithful.


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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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