When we speak of the Traditional Latin Mass, the Latin Mass, the old Latin Mass, or when we see it listed in parish bulletins as "The Extraordinary Form (Latin)," the commonality is ... Latin. And of course we know the objections that Latin raises: nobody understands it, it puts a wall between the priest and the People of God, it's totally out of date, etc. However, since you cannot have the traditional Latin Mass without Latin, perhaps an examination of the whole question of Latin and its significance in the Mass might be helpful.
The first problem that we will examine is the conviction that the primitive practice of the Church in the liturgy was the use of the vernacular, that Latin became the language of the Mass in the West only after the Church had come out of the catacombs in the fourth century. There are manifold paths to the explosion of this anti-Catholic myth born of the Protestant insistence on a vernacular liturgy, but let me start with just one.
We all know that Pompeii (and Herculaneum) were covered with volcanic ash and lava in the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. During excavations of the last forty years or so, a house was uncovered which was clearly a Christian household. Its identification as Christian was founded on liturgical inscriptions on the walls. And those inscriptions are in Latin-all of them. Why is that important?
Well, first of all we need to understand that in A.D. 79 Neapolis (Naples), Pompeii, Puteoli (Pozzuoli), and Herculaneum-all affected by the eruption-made up one of the most cosmopolitan areas in the entire Roman Empire, a center for the exchange of goods and people from all over the empire. The language most commonly spoken there would therefore have been, not Latin, but the common (or Koine) Greek which was the lingua franca of the Empire, the language of the common man of the first century. Therefore, had the liturgy been celebrated in the language of the common man, it would have been celebrated in that common Greek, and the liturgical inscriptions on the wall of a house in an area where that common Greek was the language of choice would have been in that common Greek as well.
But they are not. They are in Latin. And Latin would not have been the vernacular or the language of the people in that place and in that era. If Mass, as is surely the case, had been celebrated in that house, it was celebrated in Latin and not in the vernacular, in the first century, when the Apostles were, most of them, either still alive, or a very vivid memory amongst those who had known them, heard their teaching, and participated in the Masses which they had celebrated in this point of entry for virtually all who sailed into Italy from all over the known world.
Obviously, therefore, the use of the vernacular in Holy Mass was not a first century "value." Something led to the celebration of Mass in a language foreign to those who were present. What could it have been?
Is it possible (I am not making an assertion here, just asking a question), is it possible that the Holy Ghost, the source and guarantor of Catholic liturgical worship, had led these first-century Christians to worship in a language foreign to most of them in order to demonstrate a continuity within that worship which would continue unbroken until the second half of the twentieth century?
I know that many could become uncomfortable when faced with such a question. It would imply a direct and "hands-on" presence of the Holy Ghost in the life of the Church which flies in the face of the American Deist mentality (and which Pope Leo XIII of blessed memory thought dangerous enough to identify and condemn as the heresy of Americanism). And yet that active presence of the Holy Ghost in the Catholic liturgy is precisely what is active during the miracle of the Consecration in every single Catholic Mass. So why should we find it difficult to accept in a wider historical sense? "Lord, I am a sinner, help Thou my unbelief'! (Mark 9:23)
We must identify and extirpate from our minds the sweetmeats of modern "values" and exchange them for the "pure milk" of Catholic truth. It may make for more discomfort for us here below surrounded as we are, not only by the majority, but by the implication that majority rule implies that the majority is right. If we believe this, we cannot be Catholic, for the Catholic Faith is founded by a God Who is rejected by the majority