Primate (bishop)

Primate (/ˈprmət/) is a title or rank bestowed on some important archbishops in certain Christian churches. Depending on the particular tradition, it can denote either jurisdictional authority (title of authority) or (usually) ceremonial precedence (title of honour).

Roman Catholic Church

In the Western Church, a Primate is an Archbishopor, rarely, a suffragan or exempt bishopof a specific (mostly Metropolitan) episcopal see (called a primatial see) who has precedence over the bishoprics of one or more ecclesiastical provinces of a particular historical, political or cultural area. Historically, Primates of particular sees were granted privileges including the authority to call and preside at national synods, jurisdiction to hear appeals from metropolitan tribunals, the right to crown the sovereign of the nation, and presiding at the investiture (installation) of archbishops in their sees.[1]

Catholic Primate (non-cardinal) coat of arms

The office is generally found only in older Catholic countries, and is now purely honorific, enjoying no effective powers under canon law—except for the Archbishop of Esztergom (Gran) in Hungary.[1] Thus, e.g., the Primate of Poland holds no jurisdictional authority over other Polish bishops or their dioceses, but is durante munere a member of the standing committee of the episcopal conference and has honorary precedence among Polish bishops (e.g., in liturgical ceremonies). The Holy See has also granted Polish primates the privilege of wearing cardinal's crimson attire, except for the skullcap and biretta, even if they have not been made cardinals.[2][3]

Where the title of primate exists, it may be vested in one of the oldest archdioceses in a country, often based in a city other than the present capital, but which was the capital when the country was first Christianized. The city may no longer have the prominence it had when the title was granted. The political area over which primacy was originally granted may no longer exist: for example, the Archbishop of Toledo was designated "Primate of the Visigothic Kingdom", and the Archbishop of Lyon is the "Primate of the Gauls".[1]

Some of the leadership functions once exercised by Primates, specifically presiding at meetings of the bishops of a nation or region, are now exercised by the president of the conference of bishops: "The president of the Conference or, when he is lawfully impeded, the vice-president, presides not only over the general meetings of the Conference but also over the permanent committee."[4] The president is generally elected by the conference, but by exception the President of the Italian Episcopal Conference is appointed by the Pope, and the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference has the Primate of All Ireland as President and the Primate of Ireland as Vice-President. Other former functions of primates, such as hearing appeals from metropolitan tribunals, were reserved to the Holy See by the early 20th century.[1] Soon after, by the norm of the Code of Canon Law of 1917, confirmed in the 1983 Code, the tribunal of second instance for appeals from a metropolitan tribunal is "the tribunal which the metropolitan has designated in a stable manner with the approval of the Apostolic See".[5]

The closest equivalent position in the Eastern Churches in 1911 was an Exarch.[1]

The Holy See has continued in modern times to grant the title of Primate. With the papal decree Sollicitae Romanis Pontificibus of 24 January 1956 it granted the title of Primate of Canada to the Archbishop of Quebec.[6] As stated above, this is merely an honorary title involving no additional power.[7]

A right of precedence over other bishops and similar privileges can be granted even to a bishop who is not a Primate. Thus, in 1858, the Holy See granted the Archbishop of Baltimore precedence in meetings of the United States bishops.[8] The Archbishop of Westminster has not been granted the title of Primate of England and Wales, which is sometimes applied to him, but his position has been described as that of "Chief Metropolitan" and as "similar to" that of the Archbishop of Canterbury.[9]

The title of Primate is sometimes applied loosely to the Archbishop of a country's capital, as in the case of the Archbishops of Seoul in South Korea and of Edinburgh in Scotland. Functions can sometimes be exercised in practice (de facto), as by a de facto government, without having been granted by law; but since "Primate" is today a title, not a function, there is no such thing as a "de facto" primate.

The pre-reformation Metropolitan Archbishop of Nidaros was sometimes referred to as Primate of Norway,[10] even though it is unlikely that this title ever was officially granted to him by the Holy See.

Catholic Primatial sees

The heads of certain sees have at times been referred to, at least by themselves,[11] as primates:

In Europe
  • Austria Salzburg
  • Belgium Mechelen(-Brussels) (1560)[12]
  • Bohemia Prague (1344-),[13][14]
  • Bulgaria Veliko Tarnovo 1204-1235, Primate of Bulgaria and Vlachia (in Bulgaria)
  • Croatia Split (13th century - 1828)[15][16][17]
  • France
    • Arles Gaul and Spain[18]
    • Auch Novempopulania and the kingdom of Navarre[11]
    • Bordeaux Aquitaine[11][19]
    • Bourges Aquitaine (8th century)[11][20]
    • Lyons the Gauls, i.e., the provinces called Lugdunenses[1][11]
    • Narbonne[1][11]
    • Nancy Lorraine title received in 1602. This is a notable exception, considering the fact that Nancy became a bishopric in 1777.
    • Reims[1]
    • Rouen Primate of Normandy[11][13][21]
    • Sens Gauls and Germany[22]
    • Vienne Burgundy, Primate of Primates[23]
  • Germany
    • Mainz Germany 798-1802[24]
    • Trier[1]
    • Magdeburg[1]
  • Hungary
    • Esztergom, known as Gran in German.
  • Ireland
  • Italy Rome (the Papacy) [13]
    • Next in precedence is the bishop of the Suburbicarian Diocese of Ostia, ex officio Dean of the College of Cardinals.
    • Sicily - Palermo
  • Netherlands - Utrecht
  • Poland
  • Portugal
    • Braga - Spains, i.e., the Iberian Peninsula
  • Sardinia
  • Scotland
    • Dunkeld c. 844[29]
    • Abernethy ca. 844908[29]
    • St Andrews 908[29]
  • Serbia
    • Bar
  • Spain
    • Toledo Visigothic Kingdom,[1] Spain[13] (Bull of 1088)[30]
    • Santiago de Compostela
  • Ukraine
    • Lviv - Galicia and Lodomeria 1817-1858
  • Venice for Dalmatia (in Croatia)[13]
  • Carthage Africa ancient, Pope Leo IX: 1893 [1] [31]
  • Canada - Quebec (1956)
  • Archdiocese of Goa and Daman, primatial see of the East & Patriarchate of the East Indies
  • Archdiocese of Santo Domingo, primatial (and oldest) see of the Indies [32]
  • Archdiocese of Buenos Aires Argentina (the title was granted under Pope Pius XI on 29 January 1936).[33][34][35]

Until the Counterreformation

At the First Vatican Council


  • Salzburg, Austria[13]
  • Antivari, Serbia
  • Salerno
  • São Salvador da Bahia, Brazil
  • Gniezno, Poland[13]
  • Tarragona, Spain[13]
  • Mechlin-Brussels, Belgium (1560)[12]
  • Armagh, All Ireland
  • Esztergom, Hungary[1]

Regular clergy equivalent

In the modern confederation of the Benedictine Order, all the Black Monks of St. Benedict were united under the presidency of an Abbot Primate (Leo XIII, Summum semper, 12 July 1893); but the unification, fraternal in its nature, brought no modification to the abbatial dignity, and the various congregations preserved their autonomy intact. The loose structure of the Benedictine Confederation is claimed to have made Pope Leo XIII exclaim that the Benedictines were ordo sine ordine ("an order without order"). The powers of the Abbot Primate are specified, and his position defined, in a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars dated 16 September 1893. The primacy is attached to the global Benedictine Confederation whose Primate resides at Sant'Anselmo in Rome. He takes precedence of all other abbots, is empowered to pronounce on all doubtful matters of discipline, to settle difficulties arising between monasteries, to hold a canonical visitation, if necessary, in any congregation of the order, and to exercise a general supervision for the regular observance of monastic discipline. The Primatial powers are only vested in the Abbot Primate to act by virtue of the proper law of its autonomous Benedictine congregation, which at the present is minimal to none. However, certain branches of the Benedictine Order seem to have lost their original autonomy to some extent.

In a similar way the Confederation of Canons Regular of St. Augustine, elects an Abbot Primate as figurehead of the Confederation and indeed the whole Canonical Order. The Abbots and Superiors General of the nine congregations of confederated congregations of Canons Regular elect a new Abbot Primate for a term of office lasting six years. The Current Abbot Primate is Rt Rev. Fr Jean-Michel Girard, CRB, Abbot General of the Canons Regular of the Grand St Bernard.


Anglican usage styles the bishop who heads an independent church as its "primate", though commonly they hold some other title (e.g. archbishop, presiding bishop, or moderator). The primates' authority within their churches varies considerably: some churches give the primate some executive authority, while in others they may do no more than preside over church councils and represent the church ceremonially.

Anglican Communion

In the context of the Anglican Communion Primates' Meeting, the chief bishop of each of the thirty-nine churches (also known as provinces) that compose the Anglican Communion acts as its primate, though this title may not necessarily be used within their own provinces. Thus the United Churches of Bangladesh, of North India, of Pakistan and of South India, which are united with other originally non-Anglican churches, are represented at the meetings by their moderators.[39]

In both the Church of England and the Church of Ireland, two bishops have the title of primate: the archbishops of Canterbury and York in England and of Armagh and Dublin in Ireland. Only the bishop of the senior primatial see of each of these two churches participates in the meetings.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, who is considered primus inter pares of all the participants, convokes the meetings and issues the invitations.[39]

Primates and archbishops are styled "The Most Reverend". All other bishops are styled "The Right Reverend".[39]

Traditional Anglican Communion

The head of the Traditional Anglican Communion's College of Bishops takes the title of Primate.[40]

Eastern Orthodox equivalent

Historically, the primatial title in Western Christianity corresponded to the title and office of supra-metropolitan exarch in Eastern Christianity. Such exarchs, or primates, were archbishops of Ephesus (for the Diocese of Asia), Heraclea (for the Diocese of Thrace) and Caesarea (for the Diocese of Pontus).[41]


  1. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Primate" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  2. Joseph Lins, "Gniesen-Posen" in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York 1909)
  3. Aurelio Palmieri, "Archdiocese of Warsaw" in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1912)
  4. John P. Beal, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (Paulist Press 2002 ISBN 978-0-80914066-4), p. 595
  5. John P. Beal, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (Paulist Press 2002 ISBN 978-0-80914066-4), p. 1631
  6. Sollicitae Romanis Pontificibus, in Mandements, lettres pastorales et circulaires des évêques de Québec, vol. XVIII : Son Éminence le Cardinal Maurice Roy (1955-1966), Québec, Chancellerie de l'archevêché, 1967, pp. 44-46, suivi de la traduction en français du décret, (pp. 47-48) (page viewed February 14, 2014)
  7. Paul A. Bramadat, David Seljak, Christianity and Ethnicity in Canada (University of Toronto Press 2008 ISBN 978-0-80209584-8), p. 131
  8. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Archdiocese of Baltimore" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  9. " As Ordinary of the Diocese of Westminster his jurisdiction extends over much the same area as that of the Bishop of London. As chief Metropolitan, he occupies a position similar to that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England" (Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Archdiocese of Westminster" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.). "By the grant in the Apostolic Constitution of 'certain new distinctions of preeminence', for the preservation of unity in government and policy, to the Archbishop of Westminster for the time being, comprised under the following three heads: He will be permanent chairman of the meetings of the Bishops of all England and Wales, and for this reason it will be for him to summon these meetings and to preside over them, according to the rules in force in Italy and elsewhere. (2) He will take rank above the other two Archbishops, and will throughout all England and Wales enjoy the privilege of wearing the Pallium, of occupying the throne, and of having the cross borne before him. (3) Lastly, in all dealings with the Supreme Civil Authority, he will in his person represent the entire Episcopate of England and Wales. Always, however, he is to take the opinion of all the Bishops, and to be guided by the votes of the major part of them'. Thus, though the Archbishop of Westminster was vested with more powers and privileges than Primates usually enjoy, unity of action has been safeguarded" (Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Reorganization of the English Hierarchy" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.).
  10. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-07-14. Retrieved 2014-06-10.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  11. François de Dainville. Cartes anciennes de l'église de France (Vrin 1958 ISBN 978-2-71168055-9), p. 275
  12. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Mechlin" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  13. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Hierarchy" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  14. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Archdiocese of Prague" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  15. Dalmatia - Catholic encyclopedia
  16. Athanasius Matanić, De origine tituli "Dalmatiae ac totius Croatiae primas", Studium historico-criticum (Romae - Sublaci, 1952)
  17. Ottavio Maria Paltrinieri, Notizie intorno alla vita di quattro Arcivescovi di Spalatro, Primati della Dalmazia e di tutta la Croazia (Roma, 1829)
  18. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Archdiocese of Aix" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  19. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Bordeaux" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  20. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Bourges" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  21. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Archdiocese of Rouen" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  22. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Sens" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  23. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Grenoble" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  24. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Mainz" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  25. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Armagh" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  26. James Murray, Enforcing the English Reformation in Ireland (Cambridge University Press 2011 ISBN 978-0-52136994-7), pp. 41-43; MacGeoghegan, James, The History of Ireland, Ancient and Modern (1844), James Duffy, Dublin, p. 337
  27. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Archdiocese of Gnesen-Posen" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  28. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Archdiocese of Cagliari" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  29. By royal grant (Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Scotland" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.) but refused by the Holy See (G.W.S. Barrow, Kingship and Unity (Edinburgh University Press 1981 ISBN 978-0-74860104-2), p. 69)
  30. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Toledo" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  31. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Africa" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  32. "Concordato entre la Santa Sede y la República Dominicana".
  33. Episcopal Conference of Argentina: "Arquidiócesis de Buenos Aires" Archived 2013-05-14 at the Wayback Machine.
  34. Agencia Informativa Católica Argentina: "El nuevo arzobispo de Buenos Aires es Mons. Mario Poli"
  35. Esquiu, 16 December 2012, p. 14
  36. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Canterbury" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  37. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Ancient See of York" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  38. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Archdiocese of Gran" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  39. Anglican Communion: "What Is a Primate?"
  40. Traditional Anglican Communion primate resigns. December 12, 2011.
  41. Meyendorff 1989, p. 56, 58.


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