(1) In the early ages of the Church, the popes committed to some residentiary bishops the duty of watching over ecclesiastical matters in a certain region, as the Archbishop of Arles for Gaul and the Archbishop of Thessalonica for Illyria. These prelates were called vicars Apostolic.
(2) Prelates with the title of vicar Apostolic are sometimes commissioned by the Holy See to administer dioceses which are vacant, or whose bishops are prevented from exercising their ordinary jurisdiction by some impediment. These vicars Apostolic have the powers of vicars capitular (q.v.) and at times receive also some extraordinary faculties, which much be learnt from their Brief of appointment.
(3) In regions where the ordinary hierarchy of the Church has not yet been established, and which consequently fall under the ordinary and immediate jurisdiction of the pope in a special manner, the Holy See usually governs such missionary regions by means of a delegate who has received episcopal consecration to some titular see, and who is designated a vicar Apostolic.
These prelates generally have the same powers that bishops have by common law in their own dioceses, and the Congregation of Propaganda also concedes to them various extraordinary faculties. All these powers, however, are delegated, not ordinary. As they are not diocesan bishops, they have not cathedral or chapter (S.C. Prop., 27 Nov., 1858). Without special concession from the Holy See, they may not concede the usual forty days indulgence, nor erect a throne in a church, nor wear the capa magna, nor have their names inserted in the canon of the Mass (Collect. S.C. Prop., 1883 n. 139, etc.). While they may not constitute ordinary vicars-general, they can give special faculties to various priests to assist them in administering the vicariate. They must, in addition, name some proper secular or regular cleric who, in case of their unexpected demise, may rule the region as pro-vicar until other provision is made. The pro-vicar has the same faculties as the vicar, except those that flow from episcopal consecration. He can, however, in case of necessity consecrate chalices, patens, and portable altars, with oils consecrated by some bishop. Regulars in a missionary district must communicate their letters patent to the vicar Apostolic, and in the cure of souls are subject to his authority. Vicars apostolic are appointed outside of Consistory by a special pontifical brief, and later this provision is merely published in Consistory. All matters concerning the promotion of vicars Apostolic are conducted by Propaganda on the lines of the Constitution, "Gravissimum", of Benedict XIV (18 Jan., 1757) and the later Decrees of the Holy See (Collect. S.C. Prop., n. 38-87). There are about 150 vicariates in existence at present.
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