A papal legate or apostolic legate (from the ancient Roman title legatus) is a personal representative of the pope to foreign nations, or to some part of the Catholic Church. He is empowered on matters of Catholic faith and for the settlement of ecclesiastical matters.
The legate is appointed directly by the pope—the bishop of Rome and head of the Catholic Church. Hence a legate is usually sent to a government, a sovereign or to a large body of believers (such as a national church) or to take charge of a major religious effort, such as an ecumenical council, a crusade to the Holy Land, or even against a heresy such as the Cathars.
The term legation is applied both to a legate’s mandate and to the territory concerned (such as a state, or an ecclesiastical province). The relevant adjective is legatine.
In the High Middle Ages, papal legates were often used to strengthen the links between Rome and the many parts of Christendom. More often than not, legates were learned men and skilled diplomats who were not from the country they were accredited to. For example, the Italian-born Guala Bicchieri served as papal legate to England in the early 13th century and played a major role in both the English government and church at the time. By the Late Middle Ages it had become more common to appoint native clerics to the position of legate within their own country, such as Cardinal Wolsey acting as legate to the court of Henry VIII of England. The reason for this switch in policy could be attributed to a change in attitude on the eve of the Reformation; by this point, foreign men representing the papacy would be more likely to reinforce dissent than bring Christendom closer together.[non sequitur]
Papal legates often summoned legatine councils, which dealt with church government and other ecclesiastical issues. According to Pope Gregory VII, writing in the Dictatus papae, a papal legate “presides over all bishops in a council, even if he is inferior in rank, and he can pronounce sentence of deposition against them”. During the Middle Ages, a legatine council was the usual means that a papal legate imposed his directives.