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An officer acting under the superior general of a religious order, and exercising a general supervision over all the local superiors in a division of the order called a province. The division is to a certain extent geographical, and may consist of one or more countries, or of a part of a country only; however, one or more houses of one province may be situated within the territory of another, and the jurisdiction over the religious is personal rather than territorial. The old orders had no provincial superiors; even when the monasteries were united to form congregations, the arch-abbot of each congregation was in the position of a superior general whose powers were limited to particular cases, almost like the powers of an archbishop over the dioceses of his suffragans. Provincials are found in the congregations of comparatively recent formation, which began with the mendicant orders. The Holy See hesitated for a long time before allowing the division of congregations with simple vows, especially congregations of women into different provinces as a regular institution, and some congregations have no such division.
The provincial is ordinarily appointed by the provincial chapter, subject to confirmation by the general chapter: in the Society of Jesus; he is appointed by the general. The "Regulations" (Normae) of 18 June, 1901, vest the appointment of the provincial in the general council. The provincial is never elected for life, but ordinarily for three or six years. In religious orders he is a regular prelate, and has the rank of ordinary with quasi-episcopal jurisdiction. He appoints the regular confessors, calls together the provincial chapter, presides over its deliberations, and takes care that the orders of the general chapter and the superior general are properly carried out. He is an ex officio member of the general chapter. His principal duty is to make regular visitations of the houses in his province in the name of the general and to report to the latter on all the religious and the property of the order; his authority over the various houses and local superiors differs in different orders. He has in many cases the right of appointment to the less important offices. At the end of his term of office, the provincial is bound, according to the Constitution "Nuper" of Innocent XII (23 Dec., 1697), to prove that he has complied with all the precepts of that decree concerning masses; if he fails to do so, he loses his right to be elected and to vote in the general chapter. In accordance with the privilege granted to the Society of Jesus, the provincial of a religious order is authorized to approve of oratories set apart for the celebration of Mass in the convents of his order; these oratories may receive the blessing usually given to public oratories, and may not be permanently diverted from their sacred uses except for good reason and with the approval of the provincial. In congregations with simple vows and not exempt, the provincial has no power of jurisdiction. According to the "Regulations" of 1901, his duty is also to supervise the financial administration of the provincial procurator and the local superiors.