Last week, the Vatican sent two representatives to the Diocese of Memphis for an apostolic visitation. According to reports from local media, the visitation was to address concerns regarding major changes made by Bishop Martin D. Holley, including the reassignment of up to two-thirds of the 60 active priests in the diocese.

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta and Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis were assigned as the apostolic visitors, and were sent to Memphis for three days of “fact-finding,” which included interviewing Memphis-area clergy and laypeople, according to Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal.

The Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith defines an apostolic visitation as “an exceptional initiative of the Holy See which involves sending a Visitor or Visitors to evaluate an ecclesiastical institute such as a seminary, diocese, or religious institute.  Apostolic Visitations are intended to assist the institute in question to improve the way in which it carries out its function in the life of the Church.”

In a letter to his priests issued last week, reported on by The Commercial Appeal, Holley said: "Many of you may have read, seen or heard news this week that an apostolic visitation was made to our diocese."

"We are respectful of the confidentiality of the Apostolic Nunciature’s process and are thankful that some of you were invited to participate in that process," he said. "The purpose of an apostolic visitation is to assist the local diocese and improve the local Church’s ability to minister to the people it serves. My hope is that we continue that mission here together in our diocese. The goal continues to be for the common good of our local Church and the people entrusted to our care."

Anthony St. Louis-Sanchez, a canon lawyer in the Archdiocese of Denver, told CNA that apostolic visitations are made on behalf of the pope, who is “the pastor of the universal Church.”

“We think of a pastor as someone who has responsibility over the flock to make sure that things are running well. Specifically with the Church, we’re talking about doctrine and discipline, so when we talk about the pope being the pastor of the universal church, he’s pastor insofar as he’s there to ensure that the doctrine and discipline of the Church are being maintained and passed on; that’s his primary role,” St. Louis-Sanchez added.

St. Louis Sanchez explained that an apostolic visitation “doesn’t suggest any wrongdoing” on the part of a bishop or other leadership figures.

“An apostolic visitation could be for a lot of reasons. It could be just routine - we’re just making sure the Church is running the way it should be - or, there’s some crisis that is happening and the Holy See needs to intervene.”

He noted previous apostolic visitations in the United States, including a 2005-2006 visitation to US seminaries, a more recent visitation to institutes of women religious, and a 2009 apostolic visitation to the Legionaries of Christ, a religious order whose founder was discovered to have committed acts of sexual and psychological abuse.

St. Louis-Sanchez also said that the specifics of an apostolic visitation can vary considerably.  “Some could be to just go in and investigate what’s going on and report back. Others could be to go in, find out what’s going on, report back and give recommendations as to what should be done. And then other times, the Apostolic Visitator will be really empowered to make decisions, so they’ll go in with the authority of the pope and figure out what’s going on and make decisions. It all depends on their mandate.”

The Diocese of Memphis declined to comment on this story.