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(1) In ancient Rome an ambassador appointed by the Senate or a representative authorized to carry out a political assignment. During the period of the late republic assistants to military commanders and vicegerents were referred to as legates. Legates were first given command of legions during the rule of Caesar. In the period of the empire legates of the emperor carried out the functions of vicegerents in imperial provinces.
(2) Papal legate—the title of a higher class of diplomatic representatives of the pope. The term “legate” is frequently used to designate any ambassador or diplomatic agent.
Several types of legates exist in the Catholic Church. The title legatus natus (nati) is conferred upon a Catholic prelate by virtue of the post he occupies (for example, archbishop); he has the primacy of jurisdiction in relation to all other prelates within the limits of a given territory. Representatives of the pope who are sent to Catholic countries with a special mission are referred to as legatus datus or missus (missi). Such representatives have three ranks. The nuncius apostolicus is a permanent diplomatic representative of the pope, accredited with heads of state. Greatest authority is enjoyed by the legatus a latere, who has the power to remove bishops from their positions and has full jurisdiction in relation to all prelates within the limits of a given territory. The legatus delegatus is generally appointed by the pope from the members of the local clergy for the purpose of carrying out a special mission; his authority is limited to specific church affairs.