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( Latin prœfectus, one put over or in charge of something)
During the last few centuries it has been the practice of the Holy See to govern either through prefects Apostolic, or through vicars Apostolic (q. v), many of the territories where no dioceses with resident bishops exist. These territories are called respectively prefectures Apostolic and vicariates Apostolic. This had been done by the Holy See when, owing to local circumstances, such as the character and customs of the people, the hostility of the civil powers and the like, it was doubtful whether an episcopal see could be permanently established. The establishing of a mere prefecture Apostolic in a place supposes that the Church has attained there only a small development. A fuller development leads to the foundation of a vicariate Apostolic, i.e., the intermediate stage between a prefecture and a diocese. A prefect Apostolic is of lower rank than a vicar ; his powers are more limited, nor has he, as a rule, the episcopal character, as is ordinarily the case with a vicar Apostolic . The duties of a prefect Apostolic consist in directing the work of the mission entrusted to his care; his powers are in general those necessarily connected with the ordinary administration of such an office, as, for instance, the assigning of missionaries, the making of regulations for the good management of the affairs of his mission, and the like. Moreover, he has extraordinary faculties for several cases reserved otherwise to the Apostolic See, such as, for instance, absolutions from censures, dispensations from matrimonial impediments. He has also the faculty of consecrating chalices, patens, and portable altars, and some prefects Apostolic have the power to administer Confirmation. The prefects Apostolic we have described so far have independent territories and are subject only to the Holy See. Sometimes, when a vicariate or a diocese extends over a very large territory, in which the Catholic population is unequally distributed, the Holy See places a portion of such territory in charge of a prefect Apostolic; in which case the faculties of the prefect are more limited, and in the exercise of his office he depends on the vicar Apostolic or the bishop, whose consent he needs for the exercise of many of his functions, and to whose supervision his administration is subject. With a view to still better protecting the authority of the local vicar Apostolic or bishop, it was proposed in the Vatican Council to abolish this second class of prefects Apostolic having jurisdiction over districts within the limits of a vicariate or diocese of the Latin Rite ; but the existing order remained unchanged owing to the interruption of that Council. As to the same class of prefects Apostolic within the limits of territories subject to Oriental Churches, Leo XIII abolished them by a Decree of the Propaganda (12 Sept., 1896), and substituted superiors with special dependence on the delegates Apostolic of the respective places. There are (1911) 66 prefectures Apostolic : Europe, 5; Asia, 17; North America, 3; South America, 11; Africa, 23; Oceania, 7.