A prefect apostolic (an alternate term) may be a titular bishop but is normally a priest. If a prefecture grows and flourishes, it is elevated to an Apostolic Vicariate, which is headed by a bishop, though it is again not yet a diocese. In both cases, the hope is that with time the region will generate enough Catholics and stability for its Catholic institutions, to warrant being established as a diocese.
The usual sequence of development is: mission, prefecture, vicariate, diocese.
A prefect apostolic is of lower rank than a vicar apostolic. The prefects powers are more limited and does not normally possess the episcopal character, as is ordinarily the case with a vicar apostolic. The duties of a prefect apostolic consist in directing the work of the mission entrusted to his care; his powers are in general those necessarily connected with the ordinary administration of such an office, for instance: the assigning of missionaries and the making of regulations for the good management of the affairs of the mission. Until the Second Vatican Council, the prefect apostolic had extraordinary faculties for several cases reserved otherwise to diocesan bishops, such as absolutions from censures, dispensations from matrimonial impediments and the faculty of consecrating chalices, patens, and portable altars, with some having the power to administer Confirmation.
Prefects apostolic govern independent territories and are subject only to the pope. When a vicariate or a diocese extended over a very large territory in which the Catholic population was unequally distributed, the Holy See sometimes placed a portion of the territory in charge of a prefect apostolic; in which case the faculties of the prefect were more limited, and in the exercise of his office he was supervised by the vicar apostolic or the diocesan bishop. With a view to better protecting the authority of the local vicar apostolic or bishop, it was proposed in the First Vatican Council to abolish prefects apostolic having jurisdiction over districts within a vicariate or diocese of the Latin Rite, but the Council was interrupted and the practice continued until Pope Leo XIII abolished them within the Oriental Churches by a decree of Propaganda Fide on 12 September 1896, and established superiors with special dependence on the papal representatives of the areas concerned.
In 1911 there were 66 prefectures apostolic: 5 in Europe; 17 in Asia; 3 in North America (e.g. the Yukon); 11 in South America; 23 in Africa and 7 in Oceania.
The entire missionary structure of the Catholic Church underwent major restructuring with the Second Vatican Council, the promulgation of Lumen Gentium and the decree Ad Gentes, the reorganising of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith ('Propaganda Fide') as the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, the separation of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches from that of the Propagation of the Faith, the issuance of the Code of Canon Law in 1983 and the Code of Canon Law for the Oriental Churches in 1990.
Apostolic prefectures thus fell out of use in the 20th century, as most traditional mission areas had reached a more advanced stage of development. However Pope John Paul II created some particularly for China.
In China: Ankang 安康 / Hinganfu / Xing′an, Baoqing 保慶 / Paoking, Guilin 桂林 / Kweilin, Hainan 海南 / Hainan, Haizhou, Donghai 海州 / Haichow, Jiamusi 佳木斯 / Kiamusze, Jian′ou 建甌 / Kienow, Lingling 零岭 / Yungchow / Yongzhou 永州, Linqing 臨清 / Lintsing, Lintong 臨潼 / Lintung , Lixian 澧縣 / Lichow / Lizhou 澧州, Qiqihar 齊齊哈爾 / Tsitsibar, Shaowu 邵武 / Shaowu, Shashi 沙市 / Shasi, Shiqian 石阡 / Shihtsien, Suixian 隨縣 / Suihsien, Tongzhou 同州 / Tungchow, Tunxi 屯溪 / Tunki, Weihaiwei 威海衛 / Weihaiwei, Xiangtan 湘潭 / Siangtan, Xining 西寧 / Sining, Xinjiang 新絳 / Kiangchow / Jiangzhou 絳州, Xinjiang 新疆 / Sinkiang / Urumqi 烏魯木齊, Xinxiang 新鄉 / Sinsiang, Yangzhou 揚州 / Yangchow, Yiduxian 益都縣 / Iduhsien, Yixian 易縣 / Yihsien, Yueyang 岳陽 / Yochow / Yuezhou 岳州, Zhaotong 昭通 / Chaotung
Elsewhere in Asia:
Americas and Oceania: