The act of an ecclesiastical superior who in the discharge of his office visits persons or places with a view of maintaining faith and discipline, and of correcting abuses by the application of proper remedies. Such visitation is incumbent on the shepherd who would properly feed and guard his flock. This practice, in vogue from early Christian times, had somewhat fallen into disuetude when re-established by the Council of Trent in these words: Patriarchs, primates, metropolitans and bishops shall not fail to visit their respective dioceses either personally, or if they be lawfully impeded, by their vicar-general or visitor; if unable on account of its extent to make the visitation of the whole diocese annually, they shall visit at least the greater part thereof, so that the whole shall be completed within two years, either by themselves or their visitors. Of the purpose of visitation the Council says: But the principal object of all the visitations shall be to lead men to sound and orthodox doctrine by banishing heresies, to maintain good morals, and to correct such as are evil ; by admonition and exhortation to animate the people to religion, peace, and innocence, and to put in vogue whatever else may be dictated by the prudence of the visitors for the benefit of the faithful, as time, place and opportunity shall permit.
The right of visitation belongs to all prelates who have ordinary jurisdiction over persons in the external forum. The pope through his delegates may institute a visitation throughout the world, patriarchs, primates, metropolitans, bishops, vicars apostolic, and vicars capitular or administrators of vacant dioceses in their respective territories, religious superiors within their own jurisdiction. Prelates nullius enjoy this right in conjunction with the neighbouring bishop, whose precepts in case of disagreement will prevail. Visitation does not, however, fall within the province of a vicar-general unless he be specially commissioned by the bishop. A metropolitan is not permitted to visit the dioceses of his suffragan bishop save for reasons approved in a provincial synod and then only after the visitation of his own diocese has been completed.
The canonical visitation of a diocese is incumbent on the bishop personally unless lawfully hindered. A bishop may visit the various parts of his diocese as often as he chooses. According to the Council of Trent he must do so every year if possible, or at least every two years. Attention is drawn to this Decree by the Sacred Congregation of the Consistory (A remotissima, 31 Dec., 1909). The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore requires a bishop to visit every part of his diocese at least once every three years, not only that he may administer the Sacrament of Confirmation, but likewise that he may know his people. Associate visitors, men versed in ecclesiastical affairs, are recommended as useful in promoting the end in view. A secretary to do the clerical work is generally in attendance. It proves a saving of time and labour if the chancellor or secretary receives in advance answers in writing to the numerous questions compiled, since from the replies it may be seen what particular subjects require a personal investigation. The visitation comprises persons, places, and things. It is an examination into the conduct of persons, viz. clergy, nuns, and laity ; into the condition of churches, cemeteries, seminaries, convents, hospitals, asylums, etc., with their furnishing and appurtenances, into the administration of church property, finances, records, state of religion: briefly, it is a complete investigation of the spiritual and temporal affairs of the diocese. The visitor hears complaints, investigates crimes, sees whether pastors and others properly discharge their duties, and inquires into the private conduct or morals of clergy and laity. Regulars in matters pertaining to the cure of souls and Divine worship are subject to episcopal visitation and correction. As delegate of the Apostolic See a bishop may also visit exempt places, but may punish delinquents therein only when the regular superior, being duly notified, fails to do so. Religious communities of nuns are visited by the bishop either by virtue of his own right or as delegate of the Holy See.
The episcopal visitation should be a paternal investigation of diocesan matters. Formal trials and judicial penalties consequently will not be common: from such, should they be made use of, a suspensive appeal may be taken. Otherwise an appeal from decrees promulgated in visitation will beget merely a devolutive effect. The laws made should be enforced, and an authentic account of the entire visitation should be preserved in the diocesan archives as an official record, as well as to enable the bishop in his visit ad limina to render to the Holy See an accurate report of conditions in his diocese. This report to the pope is to be signed not only by the bishop, but likewise by one of the associate visitors. A bishop or other visitor, content with hospitality, will accept no offering for the visitation.
The Pontifical prescribes the ceremonies to be observed in a formal visitation of a parish. At the door of the church the bishop in cappa magna kisses the crucifix, receives holy water, and is incensed ; then proceeding to the sanctuary he kneels till a prescribed prayer is sung. Ascending the altar the bishop gives his solemn episcopal blessing. A sermon follows in which the bishop refers to the purpose of the visitation. Later he imparts the indulgence that he is empowered to grant. Putting on a black cope and simple mitre, the bishop recites certain prayers for the deceased bishops of the diocese. The procession then proceeds to the cemetery if near by, otherwise to some convenient place in the church where a catafalque shall have been erected: there prayers are offered for all the faithful departed . The ceremony is terminated on returning to the sanctuary by still another prayer for the dead. White vestments being substituted for black, the bishop examines the tabernacle and contents (blessing the people with the ciborium ), altars, baptismal font, sacred oils, confessionals, relics, sacristy, records, cemetery, edifices, etc. as above. Finally the Pontifical contains other prayers to be said privately before the departure of the bishop and his assistants.
Religious superiors also visit canonically institutions and persons subject to them, each observing the Constitution and customs of his own order. The efforts of female religious superiors in visiting their houses are directed chiefly to promoting zeal and discipline ; their authority is confined to correcting minor breaches of rule, since they are devoid of canonical jurisdiction. Difficulties beyond their power to settle are reported to the bishop or other lawful superior.
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