Pope Francis blesses objects presented to him at the end of an audience to the participants of the International Meeting for Shrine Rectors and Shrine Workers on November 11, 2023 at Paul-VI hall in The Vatican. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

VATICAN CITY, Holy See– Pope Francis on Saturday dismissed US bishop Joseph Strickland, a prominent conservative who has repeatedly criticised his papacy, the Vatican announced.

The rare decision to remove a senior Catholic figure came after Francis sent two US bishops to visit Strickland's Texas diocese in June.

"The Holy Father has relieved from the pastoral governance of the diocese of Tyler (US) Joseph E. Strickland," the Vatican said in a statement.

It said the bishop of Austin, Joe Vasquez, had been named as apostolic administrator of the diocese, but gave no further details.

The Vatican has not said what sparked the apostolic visitation this summer -- which Strickland himself made public -- or what conclusions were drawn.

But Strickland, appointed by former pope Benedict XVI in 2012, was one of the most prominent critics of Pope Francis.

The Argentine pope, 86, has sought to forge a more compassionate Church, open to different views.

But he has faced intense opposition from critics -- particularly in the United States -- who accused him of causing confusion and failing to uphold key Catholic beliefs.

In a message earlier this year on X, formerly Twitter, Strickland accused the pope of "undermining the deposit of faith".

In a blog posted on his website in September, the bishop addressed rumours that he was being encouraged by the Vatican to step down.

"I cannot resign as bishop of Tyler because that would be me abandoning the flock" under his care, he wrote.

"I have also said that I will respect the authority of Pope Francis if he removes me from office as Bishop of Tyler," he wrote.

"I love Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church which He established. My only desire is to speak His Truth and live God's Will to the best of my ability," he wrote.

The diocese of Tyler on Saturday announced the Vatican's decision to dismiss the bishop on its website, saying: "Our work as the Catholic Church in northeast Texas continues."