Pope Innocent I

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Saint Innocent I
Innocentius I.jpg
Birth name ???
Papacy began 402
Papacy ended March 12, 417
Predecessor Anastasius I
Successor Zosimus
Born date unknown
Died March 12 417
Other popes named Innocent

Pope Saint Innocent I was pope from 401 to March 12, 417. A capable and energetic leader, he effectively promoted the primacy of the Roman church and cooperated with the imperial state to repress heresy. At the same time, he alienated some, especially in the East, who considered his actions heavy-handed. Against those he considered outright heretics, his policy was ruthless. He is recognized as a saint by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, but not by the Coptic Orthodox Church, which honors his adversary, Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria, as a saint.

Innocent is remembered most for his role in condemning Pelagianism, his support of deposed patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, and his unsuccessful attempt to negotiate an end to the siege of Rome by the Visigoth leader Alaric. Innocent also restored communion between the apostolic sees of Rome and Antioch, bringing an end to the Meletian schism.

The Liber Pontificalis gives Innocent's father's name as Innocens of Albano. However, his contemporary, Saint Jerome, indicates that Innocent's father was none other than his immediate predecessor, Pope Anastasius I (399-401). The higher Roman clergy in this time could not marry once ordained, but a previous marriage was not necessarily an obstacle to ordination. Although his feast day was previously celebrated July 28, in the Roman calendar it is now marked on March 12. His successor was Zosimus.


Innocent's date of birth is unknown. A later biography in the Liber Pontificalis states that he was a native of the city of Albano and that his father was called Innocens, the name which Innocent would take as pope. This does not necessarily conflict with Jerome's report that his father was actually is predecessor, Anastasius I, since the latter may have adopted this name, just as Innocent himself probably did. It should also be noted that Innocent was certainly born before Anastasius became pope, and Jerome speaks of Anastasius as a man of great holiness.

Innocent grew up among the Roman clergy and in the service of the Roman church, probably holding the office of deacon before his elevation to the papacy. After the death of Anastasius (December 401) he was unanimously elected as bishop of Rome.

Activities in Rome

Emperor Honorius

The church historian Socrates of Constantinople dubbed Innocent "the first persecutor of the Novatians at Rome" and complained that he seized many Novatianist churches in Rome (Hist. Eccl., VII, ii). Innocent also banished from Rome a teacher called Marcus, who was an adherent of the heresy of Photinus. During his reign, the Emperor Honorius issued a harsh decree (February 22, 407) against the Manicheans, Montanists, and other heretics (Codex Theodosianus, XVI, 5, 40), although it is not known if Innocent approved of this measure.

Through the generosity of a wealthy matron, Innocent gained the resources to build and richly support a church dedicated to Saints Gervasius and Protasius. This church still stands in Rome under the name of San Vitale, not to be confused with the more famous church of the same name in Ravenna.

The sack of Rome

The siege and capture of Rome (408-410) by the Visigoths under Alaric also occurred during Innocent's pontificate. The pope was actively, though unsuccessfully, involved in negotiations to achieve peace before Rome was taken. After the first stage of the siege, a truce was arranged so that an embassy of Romans could go to Emperor Honorius at Ravenna to influence him to make peace with Alaric, who had agreed to end the siege if his terms were met. Innocent joined this delegation, but his endeavors to bring about peace failed. When the Visigoths recommenced the siege, the pope and the other envoys were not able to return to the city, so that he was not in Rome when it was taken.

A report has been preserved indicating that the situation in Rome had grown so desperate that Innocent permitted prayers to be offered to pagan deities to end the siege, although few take this as fact. Rome was conquered and sacked in 410. Churches were left unharmed by the Visigoths, and they did not occupy the city for long. However, the psychological impact of the event on western Christendom was very large, putting an end to the hopeful attitude of the previous century when the Roman state had first come to favor the church. Augustine's reflections in the City of God resulted from the atmosphere created by Alaric's victories. This situation also impacted on theological questions such as the Pelagian controversy, which pitted Augustinian pessimism versus Pelagian optimism.

Advocate of Roman primacy

From the beginning of his pontificate, Innocent acted on the presumption that, as the bishop of Rome, he served as the head of the entire Christian church, both East and West. In his letter informing Archbishop Anysius of Thessalonica of his election as pope, Innocent reminded Ansysius that certain privileges of his office depended on papal authority. Specifically, Pope Damasus I had asserted the rights of the papacy in those parts, and his successor Siricius had bestowed on the archbishop of Thessalonica the privilege of confirming and consecrating the bishops of Eastern Illyria. These prerogatives were renewed by Innocent at the beginning of his reign (Ep. i). A later letter (Ep. xiii, 17 June, 412) entrusted the supreme administration of the dioceses of Eastern Illyria to the archbishop of Thessalonica as representative of the Holy See. The archbishops of Thessalonica thus became firmly established as vicars of the popes.

Innocent likewise strengthened papal administrative control in France and Spain. Bishop Victricius of Rouen (Ep. ii) had appealed to the pope to clarify a number of disciplinary matters. On February 15, 404, Innocent decreed that important matters should be sent from the local Episcopal tribunal to the apostolic see at Rome, including ordinations of the clergy, questions of celibacy, the reception of converted Novatianists or Donatists into the church, etc. As a general principle, Innocent held that the discipline of the Roman church should be the norm for other bishops to follow. Innocent directed a similar order to the Spanish bishops (Ep. iii). Other such letters were sent to Bishop Exuperius of Toulouse (Ep. vi), the bishops of Macedonia (Ep. xvii), Bishop Decentius of Gubbio (Ep. xxv), and Bishop Felix of Nocera (Ep. xxxviii). Innocent also addressed short letters to several other bishops, among them a letter in which he decided that those priests who had begotten children should be dismissed from their offices (Ep. xxxix).

Never willing to tolerate what he and the Roman church considered as heresy, Innocent moved forcefully against Montanism in Africa, employing the power of the state as his agent. A delegation from a synod of Carthage (404) appealed to him for severer treatment of the Montanists in that territory. After the envoys came to Rome, Innocent obtained from Emperor Honorius a strong decree against the African Montanists, inducing some of them, out of fear of the state, to be reconciled with the Catholic Church.

Defense of John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom

The pope's energy also found a channel of expression in the Christian East, over the matter of Saint John Chrysostom. As bishop of Constantinople, Chrysostom had been deposed for defending Origenism at the so-called Synod of the Oak in 403, presided over by the Alexandrian patriarch Theophilus. Chrysostom appealed to Innocent for support. Theophilus, meanwhile, had already informed Innocent of Chrysostom's supposedly lawful deposition. However, the pope did not recognize the sentence of the synod against Chrysostom. He now dared to summon Theophilus, the patriarch of Alexandria, to a new synod at Rome. Innocent also sent letters of consolation to the exiled Chrysostom, as well as an epistle to the clergy and people of Constantinople, in which he scolded them severely for their conduct towards their bishop (Chrysostom).

Innocent now announced his intention of calling an ecumenical council, at which the matter would be sifted and decided. Realizing that Rome would be an unacceptable location for those of the East, he suggested Thessalonica as the place of assembly. The pope influenced Honorius to write three letters to his brother, the eastern Emperor Acadius, asking him to summon the eastern bishops to meet at Thessalonica, where Patriarch Theophilus must appear. This strategy met with complete failure, as Arcadius was favorable to Theophilus, and in any case was not about to allow Rome to act so heavy-handedly in eastern church affairs. The synod never took place.

The pope refused to recognize John Chrysostom's successors, Arsacius and Atticus, on the grounds that John was still Constantinople's lawful bishop. Innocent remained in correspondence with the exiled Chrysostom until his death in 407 (Epp. xi, xii). After Chrysostom's demise, Innocent insisted that his name be restored to the diptychs (honor roles) in Constantinople's church. This was finally accomplished, but only after Theophilus was dead (412). The pope also attempted, with varying degrees of success, to have Chrysostom's name restored to the diptychs of the churches of several other eastern cities.

Ending the Meletian schism

The Meletian schism, dating from the Arian controversy, was finally settled in Innocent's time. This conflict had resulted in a break between Rome and Antioch which had lasted for generations.

Reconciliation between the two apostolic sees was accomplished when, through careful negotiations, Innocent recognized Patriarch Alexander of Antioch in 414, after the latter had succeeded in winning over to his cause the adherents of both the former Bishop Eustathius and the exiled Bishop Paulinus. Alexander also agreed to restore the name of John Chrysostom to the Antiochene diptychs, and the pope at last entered officially into communion with the patriarch of Antioch, writing him two letters, one in the name of a Roman synod of 20 Italian bishops, and another in his own name (Epp. xix and xx).

Condemnation of Pelagius

Innocent was also a key player in the Pelagian controversy, which had been brewing since the Synod of Carthage of 411 first condemned Pelagius' ideas. The saintly British monk was well respected for his asceticism and moral virtue, but he preached an optimistic theology of human nature which denied Original Sin and put him at odds with the formidable intellect of Saint Augustine.

In 415, a synod in Jerusalem brought the matter of the orthodoxy of Pelagius to Innocent's attention. A synod of eastern bishops held at Diospolis (in modern Turkey) in December of that year supported Pelagius' orthodoxy and wrote to Innocent on his behalf. Hearing of this, a new synod of African bishops assembled at Carthage in 416 and condemned him. The bishops of Numidia did likewise in the same year. Both of these African councils reported their acts to the pope and asked him to confirm their decisions. Soon after this, five African bishops, among them Saint Augustine, wrote to Innocent regarding their own negative opinion of the teachings of Pelagius. In his reply, Innocent went out of his way to praise the African bishops for being mindful of the authority of the see of Rome. He also rejected the doctrine of Pelagius and confirmed the decisions of the African synods (Epp. xxvii-xxxiii). The decisions of the Synod of Diospolis were thus rejected by the pope, and Pelagius was now declared to be a heretic.

Pelagius himself, stung by this condemnation in abstentia, now sent his personal confession of faith to Innocent. However Innocent died before the document reached Rome and were received by his successor, Zosimus, who would reopen the controversy by judging it to be orthodox.


The church of San Vitale in Rome

Innocent was buried in a basilica above the catacomb of Pontianus and was venerated as a saint. He was succeeded by Pope Zosimus.

The energy and competence which he brought to his office promoted the role of Rome as Christendom's administrative center and bolstered the papacy's claim to be the ultimate arbiter of orthodoxy as the representative of Saint Peter. On the other hand, Innocent's aggressive interventions left some parties, especially in the east, feeling that Rome was more concerned about exercising its own authority than with acting as a healing and unifying influence. He also continued the papacy's tradition of using the power of the state to repress its theological competition. Innocent thus typifies both great potential of the papacy as a force for orthodoxy and order, and its tendency to deal harshly with sincere believers who happened to find themselves on the "wrong" side of a controversy.

The church which Innocent dedicated in Rome still stands, known today as the church of San Vitale in Rome. His feast day is celebrated on March 12.

Roman Catholic Popes
Preceded by:
Anastasius I
Bishop of Rome
Succeeded by:

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Eno, Robert B. The Rise of the Papacy. Theology and life series, v. 32. Wilmington, Del: M. Glazier, 1990. ISBN 9780814658024
  • Farley, Lawrence R. A Daily Calendar of Saints. Minneapolis, Minn: Light & Life Pub, 1997. ISBN 9781880971246
  • Fortescue, Adrian. Early Papacy: To the Synod of Calcedon in 451. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008. ISBN 9781586171766
  • Loomis, Louise Ropes. The Book of the Popes: To the Pontificate of Gregory I. Merchantville N.J.: Evolution Pub, 2006. ISBN 9781889758862
  • Maxwell-Stuart, P.G. Chronicle of the Popes: The reign-by-reign record of the papacy from St. Peter to the present. Thames and Hudson, 1997. ISBN 0500017980


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