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2011-12, 371, 372, Frank Carleton, Latin Grace

Benedictiones Mensae (Blessings of the Table)

FOR MOST OF MY ADULT LIFE it has been my practice to say Grace before meals in Latin according to a traditional formula. Many years ago I bought a small format Latin Grace book with an Irish imprint from Pellegrini’s in Sydney. After its loss I always hoped to acquire another.

Grace in Latin was once traditional in university colleges before formal dinners. The little book I bought was acquired after a two-year undergraduate incarceration in a nominally Catholic university college that rejoiced, if that’s the right word, in the patronage of St Albert Magnus (1206-1280), a Latin writer and the Dominican mentor of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the doctor dilectissimus of mediaeval philosophy and theology.

The college inflicted compulsory fortnightly formal dinners on its student residents, an occasion that always featured the after dinner exhilaration of listening to an impassioned rendering of the college’s most recent football results, invariably an informational episode slightly less interesting than watching the grass grow. Uniquely amongst the colleges of the university, but unsurprisingly in the era of post Vatican II, Grace before a formal dinner at ‘Snalberts’, as the football-obsessed there usually referred to it, was generally a vernacular diatribe of saccharine sentimentality by a Dominican friar.

After many months of this, a Latin request written on a serviette was conveyed from one table by a student waiter during dinner to the Master of the college at the top (not high) table. It read: ‘Pater reverendissime, speramus te gratiam acturum esse in lingua Latina pro traditione’ [Most Reverend Father we hope you will offer Grace in the Latin tongue for the sake of tradition]. It was signed with the Latin equivalents of the names of several long-suffering diners. On this sole occasion Grace after dinner was in Latin.

In December 2008, early in a three months’ book acquisition odyssey in England for bookselling purposes, I visited the bookshop of St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough in Hampshire. There I lighted upon multiple copies of a Latin Grace book, Benedictiones mensae juxta Ritum Romanum et Monasticum [Blessings of the table along with the Roman and Monastic Rite], an undated reprint of a 1956 edition by the once renowned liturgical publishers of missals and other Catholic service books, Desclée & Socii, the Latin title page proclaiming, as usual, printing by the Society of St John the Evangelist. The original edition date is that of the imprimatur of the Vicar General of the Belgian diocese of Tournai on the titlepage verso.

As the title page states this book is for the Roman Rite and also for monastic use. This item, of which I bought several copies, is in black wrappers and measures 10.5 x 7.5 cm. Its 58 pages contain the forms of Grace ante and post prandium (before and after lunch) and ante cenam and in fine cenae (before and after dinner) plus variations for particular feasts: Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Saturday, Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost. Apart from set versicles and responses, antiphons and set prayers, particular psalms are included. Staves featuring Gregorian notation allow for Grace to be chanted as once widely occurred in religious communities.

This practice survives at the Benedictine Downside Abbey, 12 miles from Bath in Somerset, from which the first Catholic bishop in Australia, John Bede Polding OSB (1794-1877) arrived in Sydney in 1835. Between December 2008 and February 2009 I made three visits there of up to a week each to resume work, begun there six years before, on the archival sorting and arrangement of the papers relating to Dom Hugh Edmund Ford (1851-1930) who served as the first Abbot there from 1900 to 1906. I was pleased to find that the full Latin Grace was chanted by the monks before lunch and before and after supper in the monastic refectory.

Frank Carleton



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