Despite Vatican II’s declaration that Latin should still hold a place of primacy at Mass, and the people should learn those Latin responses which pertain to them, the language has been more or less extinguished from Catholic life. At best we’ll sing “Salve Regina” on a Marian feast day. The rest of the time, however, we assist at a Mass which is completely in the vernacular. Many people find this to be a positive change. They like being able to understand what’s going on without having to flip through a missal, Mass in Latin sounds like gibberish to the one who doesn’t speak it, and besides, the language is dead anyway.
So goes the reasoning of such people.
There are many reasons why Latin is an ideal language for something like the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We can start with the fact that it’s dead, something which is actually to its credit. A living language is subject to change. For example, the English we speak in the United States is different in many ways from the English spoken by William Shakespeare, and it’s even different from the English of modern England. The beautiful thing about having Latin not only as the language of the Church itself, but of the Mass specifically as well, is that it’s not going to change. Whether a priest said the Tridentine Mass four centuries ago or just last week, the meaning of it would all be the same. Likewise, it will remain the same another four centuries from now, so that the Mass has its one meaning “frozen and solidified” in this one, sacred language.
A second reason Latin is so good for Mass is the Catholicity of it. If you went to any parish of the Roman Rite before Vatican II, everything would have been the same: the prayers, the readings, etc… The only varying thing would be the priest and his adherence to the rubrics of the missal and reverence toward the Blessed Sacrament. The Mass itself, though, would be identical wherever you went. Now, I suppose a case could be made that having a multitude of languages in the Mass also feels very Catholic, since it proves that we’re all-encompassing, but overall I would say Latin all around is a stronger sign of the Church’s unity of purpose.
A third reason Latin is appropriate for Mass is its distinction from the language we use everyday. Even the Jews around the time of the New Testament used a different language in their worship than the one they commonly spoke. They would have spoken Hebrew in the Temple, though they might have spoken Aramaic on a day-to-day basis. Why? Because they recognized that the worship of God deserved a language which was elevated. Is it good that modern times think differently? I’m hesitant to affirm that.
Another reason? It’s just pretty.
Having Mass in the vernacular has both a positive and negative aspect, moving on from all that was said above. The positive side is that, yes, people can understand it and might get more out of it. The negative side is that it makes us lazy. As anyone can affirm, having to follow a priest speaking quickly in a foreign language, who’s often inaudible anyways, takes work. Latin makes it so that we have to really stay on our toes so as to pay attention. I’ll admit that it can be hard to pay attention at times, but let’s be honest: a lot of folks don’t bother paying attention when the Mass is in English, either.