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A prelate is a member of the clergy who either has ordinary jurisdiction over a group of people or ranks in precedence with ordinaries. The word derives from Latin prælatus, the past participle of præferre, "to prefer," suggesting that the prelate is preferred over other clergy.

An honorary prelate does not exercise prelatial authority, but possesses the dignity and privileges of a prelate, such as form of address, dress, and formerly the right to pontificate under certain circumstances. In the United States, honorary prelates of the Roman Catholic Church are addressed Monsignor.

A prelature is the office of a prelate or the entire juridical entity which the prelate governs. Prelacy is the body of prelates as a whole, or a system of government, administration, or ministry by prelates.

The archetypal prelate is a bishop, whose prelature is his particular church. All other prelates, including the regular prelates such as abbots and major superiors, are based upon this original model of prelacy.

Sometimes the clergy of a state church with a formal hierarchy are called prelates without having ordinary jurisdiction, which etymologically suggests that the prelate enjoys legal privileges and power as a result of clerical status.

Personal prelatures

In the Roman Catholic Church, the personal prelature was conceived during the sessions of the Second Vatican Council in no. 10 of the decree Presbyterorum ordinis and was later enacted into law by Paul VI in his motu proprio Ecclesiae sanctae. The institution was later reaffirmed in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Such a prelature is an institution having clergy and (possibly) lay members which would carry out specific pastoral activities. The adjective personal refers to the fact that, in contrast with previous canonical use for ecclesiastical institutions, the jurisdiction of the prelate is not linked to a territory but over persons wherever they be. The establishment of personal prelatures is an exercise of the theologically inherent power of self-organization which the Church has to pursue its mission, though a personal prelature is not a particular church like dioceses and military ordinariates are.

Many features of a personal prelature seem similar to religious orders. For starters, the prelate governs the prelature with ordinary power and is selected according to the statutes of the prelature (can. 295), which could mean election by the members of the prelature or some other method. Also, the clergy of the prelature also are incardinated into the prelature itself as opposed to the local particular church (ibid).

However, the laity and clergy of the prelature do not take the three vows which members of religious orders take. It is also possible for the clergy of the prelature to have a different relationship with the local ordinary than members of religious orders (can. 297) since, normally, religious orders are not exempt from the laws and the governance of the particular church where they live and work. Thirdly, the prelature defines its relationship with the laity dedicated to its mission, which could mean canonical membership or a relationship defined by mutual agreement (can. 296). Such a relationship is not possible in a religious order; dedicated laity would have to join it canonically and take vows. Finally, the prelate may be a bishop, which generally does not happen in a religious order. For these and other reasons, personal prelatures are clearly different from religious institutes and the consecrated life in general, as well as from associations and movements of the faithful.

The first (and as of 2005, only) personal prelature is Opus Dei, which was elevated to a personal prelature by Pope John Paul II in 1982 through the Apostolic constitution Ut sit. In the case of Opus Dei, the prelate is elected by members of the prelature and confirmed by the Pope, the laity and clergy of the prelature are still under the governance of the particular church where they live, and the laity associated with the prelature (both men and women) are organically united under the jurisdiction of the prelate.

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