22 December 401

Pope Innocent I is elected.

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.

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.

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.