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(Lat. legare, to send).

Legate, in its broad signification, means that person who is sent by another for some representative office. In the ecclesiastical sense it means one whom the pope sends to sovereigns or governments or only to the members of the episcopate and faithful of a country, as his representative, to treat of church matters or even on a mission of honour. Hence the legate differs from the delegate, taking this term in a strictly juridical sense, since the delegate is one to whom the pope entrusts an affair or many affairs to be treated through delegated jurisdiction and often in questions of litigation, whereas the legate goes with ordinary jurisdiction over a whole country or nation. The canon law treats of delegates of the Holy See, delegati Sedis Apostolicæ (Decret., lib. I, tit. xxix), and in this sense even bishops, in certain cases determined by the Council of Trent (Sess. V, cap. i, De Ref., etc.), may act as delegates of the Holy See. Nevertheless, as will be seen later, according to the present discipline of the Church, a delegate, inasmuch as he is sent to represent the Holy See in some particular country, really fills the office of a legate. Since the jurisdiction of a legate is ordinary, he does not cease to be legate even at the death of the pope who appointed him, and even if he arrived at his post after the death of that pope.

The pope, by virtue of his primacy of jurisdiction, has the right to send legates to provide for the unity of Faith and for ecclesiastical discipline, and to choose them at will. Though self-evident, this authority of the pope has been contested from a very early period. Gregory VII (1073-85) reproved the claims of those who wished to have only Romans as legates and not representatives from other countries. Pasehal II (1099-1118), in a letter to Henry II of England, grievously deplores the vexations inflicted on the pontifical. legate, and maintains the right of the pope to send such representatives. John XXII (1316-34) declares unreasonable and contrary to the authority of the pope the refusal to admit a papal legate without the approval of the sovereign. And there are not wanting writers who denied, some wholly, others in part, such a right on the part of the pope, e.g. Marc' Antonio de Dominis, Richer, Febronius, Eybel, and others. This erroneous claim was upheld in the eighteenth century by four archbishops of Germany, those of Mainz, Trier, Cologne, and Salzburg, to whom Pius VI made the famous reply of 14 November, 1789, in which we read that one of the rights of primacy of St. Peter is that "By virtue of his Apostolic prerogative, while providing for the care of all the lambs and the sheep confided to him, the Roman Pontiff discharges his Apostolic duty also by delegating ecclesiastics for a time or permanently as may seem best, to go into distant places where he cannot go and to take his place and exercise such jurisdiction as he himself, if present, would exercise." Worthy of attention also are the diplomatical note of Cardinal Consalvi to the Spanish Government (9 January, 1802), which treats of the character of the Apostolic nuncio, and the letter of Cardinal Jacobii (15 April, 1885) to the same Government. The Vatican Council, in stating the true doctrine concerning the primacy of the pope (Sess. IV, cap. iii), condemned implicitly the said errors. The Constitution "Apostolicæ Sedis", moreover, contains (no. 5) an excommunication reserved speciali modo to the pope against those who harm, expel, or unlawfully detain legates or nuncios.


The popes have made use of this right from the earliest ages of the Church. The first example was the sending by Sylvester I of legates to the Council of Nicæa (325); afterwards those sent to the Council of Sardica (345); and those sent by Zosimus I to Africa (418), to settle certain ecclesiastical matters. In the fourth century we find the first example of a papal representative sent in an official character, i.e. the apocrisiarius (q.v.), or responsalis. According to Hincmar of Reims, the apocrisiarius dates back to. the time of Constantine, but according to De Marca (De Ord. Palatii, cap. xiii), the office dates from the Council of Colchis (451). From the letters of Gregory I, himself an apocrisiarius, and from a letter of Leo I to Julianus of Cos, whom he appointed apocrisiarius, can be deduced the powers of this officer and his duties, i.e. to look after the observance of ecclesiastical discipline, to resist the spread of heresy, and to defend the rights of the pope. For three centuries such a papal intermediary existed at the Byzantine Court. During the Iconoclast troubles of the eighth century this office disappeared, but was temporarily revived in the West when the empire was restored by Leo III (795-816). Finally, however, the necessity and frequency of extraordinary legations, the weakening and later division of the empire among the successors of Charlemagne, rendered useless and almost impossible the presence of Apostolic legates at the Frankish court.

Legati Nati

Almost contemporaneously with the apocrisiarius, the popes established in the fourth century another class of legates, of a purely ecclesiastical character, known eventually as legati nati, or perpetual legates. They may be regarded as originating from the "Apostolic vicars" established by Popes Damasus I (366-84) and Siricius (384-99). To provide more expeditiously for ecclesiastical discipline and to facilitate the dispatch of ecclesiastical affairs the aforesaid popes deemed it opportune to attach to certain sees (and first to Thessalonica) the title and duties of Apostolic vicar. The same title and duties were conferred by later popes on other sees. The prelates who successively occupied those sees came to be known as legati nati, inasmuch as by their election to the said sees they became ipso facto Apostolic legates, that office being attached to the see itself. In the course of time legati nati became very numerous; in France those of Arles (545), Sens (876), Lyons (1097); in Spain those of Tarragona (517), Seville (520), Toledo (1088); in Germany those of Trier (969), Salzburg (973); in Italy that of Pisa; in England that of Canterbury, etc. In the beginning the faculties of legati nati were very ample, namely, the right of visiting the dioceses of the province, of examining the status of candidates for bishoprics, of consecrating the metroipolitan, etc.; eventually, however, these faculties were much lessened, and in the eleventh century the legati nati practically ceased to exist. In our day the sees to which was annexed such privilege have no longer any extraordinary jurisdiction, though some enjoy an honorary distinction; the Archbishop of Salzburg, for example, may wear the cardinalatial purple, even in Rome.

Legati Missi

The ecclesiastical conditions of the tenth and eleventh centuries were responsible for the cessation of the office of legati nati. Ecclesiastical life was then in many ways and places ill-regulated, and ecclesiastical discipline very lax; the legati nati proved incapable of remedying these evils, either because some times times their own conduct was not exemplary or because they were negligent in the discharge of their duties. The Holy See was obliged to combat these abuses by choosing and sending into various countries persons who could be depended upon to secure the desired results (Luxardo, "Das päpstliche Vordekretalen-Gesandschaftsrecht", 1878). Thus came into existence the legati missi, or special envoys. Later all those whom the Holy See sent on a special mission were called legati missi, even those who were to preside at some solemn ceremony, e.g. a royal baptism or marriage; those appointed to meet anemperor or a sovereign visiting Rome, etc. This title was also given to those who were chosen to rule some provinces of the Pontifical States, e.g. the legate of Bologna, of Urbino, etc.

Legati a Latere

About the same time another form of legation was established, which became and is the highest, i.e. the legati a latere. The legate a latere is always a cardinal, and this name arises from the fact that a cardinal, being a member of the senate of the pope, is considered as an intimate, one attached to the very side of the Roman Pontiff. Other authorities derive this title from the custom of receiving the insignia and the office in the presence, or at the side, of the pope. Such legates are sent on missions of the greatest importance, e.g. the legate a latere sent to France by Pius VII, in the person of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Caprara, to execute the famous Concordat of 1801. The last legate a latere was also sent to France in 1856, in the person of Cardinal Patrizi, to baptize the Prince Imperial. The "Diario di Roma" of that year gives all the particulars of the proclamation of the appointment in a consistory of 27 August, and of the ceremonies which accompanied the departure of the legate. The same Cardinal Patrizi on that occasion was deputed to present the Golden Rose to the Empress EugÈnie. The powers of the legate a latere are of the most ample character, both in matters of litigation and favours. He journeys with an imposing suite; immediately after leaving Rome the cross is borne before him, and in his presence not even patriarchs have the right that their cross should precede them; bishops cannot give episcopal blessings without his consent. According to the present usage, however, a cardinal sent on a mission does not always bear the title of legate a latere, as in the case of a cardinal sent by the pope to represent him at some religious gathering, like the Eucharistic Congresses of Westminster, Cologne, and Montreal. The Decretals and the Council of Trent clearly defined the powers of legates missi and legates a latere. Since the latter were sent only for very important matters, the custom of sending legati missi became more frequent.


In the thirteenth century legati missi came to be known as nuncios, by which name they are yet called. After the Council of Trent nuncios were established permanently in various countries. Besides an ecclesiastical mission, they have also a diplomatic character, having been from their origin accredited to courts or governments. Their jurisdiction is ordinary, but it is customary at present to grant them special faculties, according to the needs of the country to which they are sent; such faculties are conveyed in a special Brief. They are also given credential letters to be presented to the ruler of the country, and particular instructions in writing. The nuncios are usually titular archbishops; occasionally, however, bishops or archbishops of residential sees are appointed to the office. Some nuncios are of the first and some of the second class, the only difference between them being that, at the end of their mission, those of the first class are usually promoted to the cardinalate. Vienna, Madrid, and Lisbon have nuncios of the first class. Paris was also of this class, but, on account of the rupture of diplomatic relations between France and the Vatican which took place in 1907, it has at present no representative of the Holy See. Bavaria, Belgium, and Brazil have nuncios of the second class. There is no specified period for the duration of the term of a nuncio's office; it depends on circumstances and the will of the pope.


According to the present discipline, there are also internuncios, who in the order of pontifical diplomacy follow immediately after nuncios. These also are frequently titular archbishops, always have a diplomatic character, and are sent to governments of less importance. They are equivalent to ministers of the second class, have the same faculties as nuncios, and are furnished with similar credentials and instructions. At present there are internuncios in Holland, Argentina, and Chile. In Holland, however, because of the exclusion of the Holy See from the Peace Conference of 1899, the internuncio, Monsignor Tarnassi, was recalled, and now there is only a papal chargé d'affaires. The internuncio of Holland is also accredited to the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg.

Apostolic Delegates and Envoys Extraordinary

Actually there are also papal representatives known as Apostolic delegates and envoys extraordinary. Apostolic delegates, strictly speaking, are always ecclesiastical in character, and are usually sent by the Congregation of Propaganda to missionary countries. However, the pontifical secretariate of state is accustomed to send Apostolic delegates purely ecclesiastical in character to countries which have not diplomatic relations with the Holy See; at the same time when sending an Apostolic delegate to a country which has diplomatic relations with the Holy See there is added the title of envoy extraordinary, by which title he is accredited to the Government. Such are the Apostolic delegates and envoys extraordinary to South America, e.g. to Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, etc. Other Apostolic delegates, purely ecclesiastical in character, are those sent to the United States of America, Canada, Mexico, Philippines, Cuba, and Porto Rico. The Apostolic delegation to the United States deserves special mention. First, on account of its importance it is practically equivalent to a nunciature of the first class, as may be inferred from the Encyclical of 6 January, 1895, addressed by Leo XIII to the archbishops and bishops of the United States, which declares:

When the Council of Baltimore had concluded its labours, the duty still remained of putting, so to speak, a proper and becoming crown upon the work. This we perceived could scarcely be done in a more fitting manner than through the due establishment by the Apostolic See of an American legation. Accordingly, as you are well aware, we have done this. By this action, as we have elsewhere intimated, we wished, first of all, to certify that in our judgment and affection America occupied the same place and rights as other states, however powerful and imperial.

Moreover, from the beginning all the incumbents of this office have been elevated to the cardinalate. Second, the Apostolic delegation to the United States has the power to decide appeals by definitive sentence; in other words it is a tribunal of third instance, and from its decision there is regularly no appeal to the Holy See. This power, although granted from the beginning, has been recently confirmed by a declaration of the Consistorial Congregation to an inquiry of the Apostolic delegate at Washington, as to whether the original papal grant of authority was to be continued, in view of the transfer of the United States from the jurisdiction of Propaganda to the common law of the Church (Sapienti Consilio, 4 November, 1908). The said reply, given 8 May, 1909, establishes once for all that the parties are free to appeal from a sentence of a diocesan or metropolitan curia directly to Rome or to the delegation, but, an appeal once made to the delegation, the sentence pronounced by the delegate is to be considered definitive.

The Delegation of the United States was established by Leo XIII, 24 January, 1893. The first delegate was Monsignor Francesco Satolli, who in 1892 had been selected to represent the Holy See in the United States at the World's Fair in Chicago, as papal commissioner. He was born at Marsciano, Archdiocese of Perugia, Italy, in 1839; d. at Rome, 8 Jan., 1910. Acknowledged as one of the leading theologians of the day, he was appointed by Leo XIII a professor in the most famous theological schools of Rome, the Propaganda college and Roman seminary. He was later made president of the Academy of Noble Ecelesiastics in Rome (1886), and titular Archbishop of Lepanto (1888); promoted to the cardinalate 29 November, 1896, he received the biretta in February, 1896, at the cathedral of Baltimore, from Cardinal Gibbons. Cardinal Satolli was succeeded 27 Aug., 1896, by Monsignor Sebastian Martinelli, an Augustinian. Born in August, 1848, he entered the Augustinian Order in 1863 and was ordained priest in 1874. He occupied many prominent positions in his order, and was elected prior general for the second term in 1895. While in Nice he was appointed Apostolic Delegate to the United States and created Archbishop of Ephesus in August, 1996. He was made cardinal 15 April, 1901, and received the biretta 9 May of that year, in the cathedral of Baltimore, from Cardinal Gibbons. The present Apostolic delegate (1909), Monsignor Diomede Falconio, a Franciscan, succeeded Cardinal Martinelli 30 September, 1902, and took possession on 21 November, 1902. he was born 20 September, 1842, at Pescocostanzo in the Abruzzi, Italy, and entered the Franciscan Order 2 September, 1860. On the completion of his studies he was sent as missionary to the United States to the mother-house of the Franciscans at Alleghany, New York, and was ordained priest by Bishop Timon of Buffalo, 4 January, 1S66. After filling several important positions, he was sent, November, 1871, to Newfoundland, as rector of the cathedral, and secretary and chancellor to the bishop. He left Harbor Grace in 1882, and in 1883 returned to Italy. In 1889 he was chosen procurator-general of his order, and in July, 1892, was preconized titular Bishop of Lacedonia. A few years later, he was promoted to the archiepiscopal See of Acerenza and Matera in Southern Italy. Monsignor Falconio was appointed first permanent Apostolic Delegate to Canada, 3 August, 1899, and on 30 September, 1902 was nominated Apostolic Delegate to the United States.

The Holy See is also accustomed, according to circumstances, to send so-called Apostolic vicars, who may be either bishops or prelates or simply members of religious communities. Such representatives have always an ecclesiastical mission only, and are sent to examine the status of a diocese or seminaries, or some religious body.

To nunciatures and Apostolic delegations is attached a staff composed of an auditor and a secretary. They are nominated by the Holy See, and are either of the first or second class. Sometimes the Holy See sends also to nunciatures a counsellor and an attachÈ. In the absence of nuncio or delegate the auditor takes his place with the title of chargé d'affaires.

Among the envoys of the Holy See should be mentioned also the Apostolic ablegate and the bearer of the Golden Rose. The Apostolic ablegate is generally a Roman prelate or private chamberlain, sent to bear the cardinal's biretta to a new cardinal who is absent from the residence of the pope. He is accompanied by a member of the Noble Guard, who carries the zucchetto, and by a private secretary. The ceremony of conferring the biretta is performed either by the head of the State, if in diplomatic relation with the Holy See, or by the highest ecclesiastical dignitary in the country. The bearer of the Golden Rose is appointed to carry the Golden Rose (blessed by the pope on Lætare Sunday of each year) to sovereigns or to distinguished individuals or to some famous church. In 1895 this office was established permanently.


The question of precedence among the various diplomatic representatives to foreign countries was treated at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and it was decided that it always appertains to the representatives of the Holy See. Hence nuncios are by right and in fact deans of the diplomatic body. Some objections were afterwards made, especially by England and Sweden, as to the precedence of Apostolic delegates and internuncios, these not being mentioned in the Congress of Vienna; however, it ended in their practical recognition as included in the decision of said congress.

SOURCES.--Decret. Grat., dist. xxi, c. xi, xxxvi, C. II, q. vi; Compl. I. 1. I, t. xxii, dc off. legati.; II, I, t. xiii; see also Decret. Gregor., IX; and Liber Sextus, I. t. xv; Conc. Trid. Sess. XXII, cap. vii, De Ref.; and SEss. XXIV, cap. xx, De Ref.; Pius VI, Responsio ad Metropolitanos Mogunt., Trev., Colon., et Salisburg.(14 Nov., 1789); Pius IX, Const. Apost. Sed., no. 5; Acta SS., XVII, 861.
Authors.—Commentators on the Corpus Juris at this title; ZECH, Hier. Eccles., XXV, De Leg. et Nunt.; PHILLIPS, Kirchenrecht, I, n. 30; DE LA TORRE, De auctoritate . . . legatorum a latere; FERRARIS, s. v. Legatus; BOUIX, De Curia Romana, 579 sqq.; see also THOMASSIN, VeTus et Nova Eecles. discipline, I, 1.II, cvii sqq.; and DE LUISE, De jure pabl. seu diplom. Ecci.Cath.: AUDISIO, Idea stor. e rag. della Diplom. Eccles.; WERNZ, Jus Decr., II; GIOBBIO, Lezioni di Diplom. Eccles., I: PINCHETTISANMARCHI, Guida Diplom. Eecles., II (Rome, 1908); TAUNTON, The Law of the Church (St. Louis, 1906), s.v.


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