Not too rarely, depending on where you attend Mass on any given day, you may see Catholic women with their heads covered, or even fellow Catholics kneeling for Communion while receiving on the tongue rather than while standing and in the hand. Two questions: Why do they do that, and is this even allowed anymore?
Let’s look at the second question first.
The covering of a woman’s head while assisting at/participating in the Mass was once required in the Church. The 1917 Canon Law, 1262§2, stated that women "…shall have a covered head…". However, in 1983 the Church released a new Canon which abrogated that law. So, head coverings are no longer required, though some churches ask that women cover as a sign of reverence (such as when you visit the Vatican, or when you attend the ancient form, or Traditional Latin Mass). Some women also choose to cover their heads when they enter ANY church, which they are free to do. You certainly won’t see anything saying they should not do this.
Kneeling for Communion is also not a requirement, and in fact, the US Conference of Bishops has said that the norm is that Holy Communion is to be received standing. However, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal goes on to clarify that a communicant may kneel if he/she chooses: “The norm established for the Dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling…The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant. " (USCCB, GIRM 160, 2010 ed.). So, in both cases we can see that head covering and kneeling for Communion are perfectly acceptable.
Now to the second question: why do they do that?
When asked, most women who cover say it is out of reverence or as an act of piety. Some say that it helps remind them that they are in a sacred place with God, or that covering helps them to focus on the Mass and be less tempted by distractions around them. Some who veil, but might not actually prefer doing it, say that it helps to remind them to submit themselves to God. You might even get as simple an answer as, “it makes me feel like a lady”. No doubt that as many women as you ask, you will probably get just as many unique answers.
As far as kneeling for Communion, the reason for choosing to kneel has simply been explained as, “because that’s Jesus [in the Eucharist]”. This was best expressed by Francis Cardinal Arinze, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, during a video-taped Q&A session. It started off as a question about kneelers [in the pews] and this was what he said:
“The General Instruction of the Roman Missal prefers that people will kneel down during consecration [with exceptions for those who are unable]…Those who have removed the kneelers [from the churches] have done damage to the Catholic community. The Church…Rome never said [to do] that. It is like some churches where they have removed the altar rails. The Church from Rome never said to remove the altar rails. Unfortunately, after Second Vatican Council, some ‘liturgy experts’ began to spread this idea, and we have reached a stage where some now are against kneeling. If you kneel they are harsh to you. They treat you as if you did something wrong. What is wrong with [kneeling]? If you believe Christ is our God and is present, why don’t you kneel? Why don’t you crawl? Why not show respect?
I grant that a Diocese has the right to give instruction, so that the congregation moves in the same way: when to stand, or sit, or kneel. The documents from Rome do not go [into] too much detail, allowing Dioceses some freedom. When the Diocese regiments too much…our language would be, ‘why do you regiment the people of God? Are they soldiers? Allow them some freedom.’
[In regard to]receiving Holy Communion, the Bishops’ Conference of each country are given the right to decide whether they will receive standing or kneeling, or whether they will receive in the hand or on the tongue. But, even if the Bishops decide that the people will receive in the hand, standing, as in the United States, our congregation in Rome has said, ‘Yes, provided that those who want to receive kneeling, you leave them full freedom. And those who want to receive on the tongue, you leave them in peace, and not in pieces.’” (Francis Cardinal Arinze)
If you happen to see someone kneeling for Communion or covering their heads at Mass, and you have curiosity about their motives, ask yourself this question: “ If we, as Catholics who believe in the Real Presence, would kneel for Christ and submit ourselves to Him if He were truly and substantially and physically present here today, why would I question the motives of someone who chooses to kneel for Him when He is truly present in the Eucharist?”.
For more on whether it is licit to kneel for Communion:
Jimmy Akin discusses whether we can kneel for Communion
For explanations from the women who do, and do not, cover their heads:
To Veil or Not to Veil: Is that the Question?
For the video clip of Francis Cardinal Arinze’s answer:
Francis Cardinal Arinze discusses kneeling for Communion