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(Lat. primas, from primus, "first").
In the Western Church a primate is a bishop possessing superior authority, not only over the bishops of his own province, like the metropolitan, but over several provinces and metropolitans. This does not refer to episcopal powers, which each bishop possesses fully, but to ecclesiastical jurisdiction and organization, especially in national churches.
Primates exist only in the West, and correspond not to the patriarchs but to the exarchs of the East. There is no uniformity in the institution, it has no place in common law; primatial rights are privileges. In their widest acceptation these rights would be: to convoke and preside over national councils, to crown the sovereign, to hear appeals from the metropolitan and even episcopal courts, and finally the honorary right of precedence.
This organization formerly useful, as it favoured and maintained unity in national churches, has lost its importance and disappeared; first, because national Churches as such no longer exist, and secondly on account of the gradual disciplinary centralization of the Western Churches around the Roman See. Except in the case of Gran in Hungary, the primatial title is merely honorific. At the solemnities accompanying the canonization of the Japanese martyrs in 1867, no special place was reserved for primates; and in the Vatican Council the precedence of primates was recognized only at the insistance of the Prince-Primate of Hungary (Vering, "Kirchenrecht", § 133), as something exceptional and not to be considered a precedent. The Brief "Inter multiplices", 27 November, 1869 (Acta S. Sedis, V, 235), ranks the primates according to their date of promotion after the patriarchs, but adds: Ex special indulgentia, i.e. by special favour, for that occasion only, nor must it be interpreted as conferring any right on them or diminishing the right of others.
The history of the primacies in the Middle Ages is largely concerned with interminable disputes concerning special rights, privileges, etc. The real primacies were at first those that did not bear the name. The Bishop of Carthage exercised a true primatial jurisdiction over the provinces of Roman Africa, without being called a primate; on the other hand, in the provinces, other than the Proconsular, the oldest bishop, who resembled a metropolitan, was called the primate. The title Primate of Africa was restored again in 1893 by Leo XIII in favour of the Archbishop of Carthage. The Bishop of Toledo was also a primate for the Visigothic kingdom. On the other hand, the Bishops of Thessalonica and Arles, invested with the vicariate of the pope, had authority over several provinces. We meet later with claims to primatial authority in every country, and refusals to recognize these claims; the primates who have exercised a real authority being especially those of Mayence, the successors of St. Boniface, and of Lyons, made by Gregory VII, Primate of the Gauls, in reality of the provinces called formerly "Laughmenses". All kinds of reasons were invoked: the evangelization of the country, the importance of the see, pontifical concessions, etc.
It is impossible to give more than the mere names of primacies: in Spain, Toledo, Compostella, Braga; in France, Lyons, Reims, Bourges, Vienne, Narbonne, Bordeaux, Rouen; in Germany, Mayence, Trier, Magdeburg; in England, Canterbury, York; in Scotland, St. Andrews; in Ireland, Armagh; in the Scandinavian countries, Lund. But of all these nothing but a title has remained; and at the Vatican Council the only bishops figuring as primates, in virtue of recent concessions, were those of Salzburg, Antivari, Salerno, Bahia, Gnesen, Tarragona, Gran, Mechlin, and Armagh (Coll. Lacens., VII, pp. 34, 488, 726).
THOMASSIN, Vetus et nova discipl., pt. I, bk. I, xxvi sq.; PHILLIPS, Kirchenrecht, § 62.