Action Alert!
Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Blessed Innocent XI

by Joseph F. X. Cevetello


Joseph Cevetello provided this brief biography of Pope Innocent XI in celebration of the Holy Father's beatification (October 7, 1956). Among the holiest of popes, Benedetto Odescalchi courageously faced many obstacles during his pontificate (1676-1689) while successfully guarding the rights of the Church against formidable foes including King Louis XIV of France.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


331 – 339

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, January 1957

On October 7th of this past year Pope Innocent XI, who reigned as Supreme Pontiff from 1676 to 1689, was beatified. Not too much is known about this Pope, who has been described in the Encyclopedia Britannica as one of the holiest popes ever to grace the Chair of Peter and whose virtues and works have been extolled by men who were far from friendly toward the Catholic Church.

From Youth to Cardinal

Benedetto Odescalchi, otherwise known as Pope Innocent XI, was born on May 19, 1611, in the City of Como, which stands on beautiful Lake Como, in Lombardy, Italy. His father was Livio Odescalchi and his mother, Paola Castelli. His was an old family which had become rich from trading and which could boast of a number of distinguished members in the service of the Church.

Benedetto began his studies with the Jesuits in Como and in 1636 he departed for Genoa and Rome to continue them. His first ambition was to embrace a military career. This, however, never materialized, for the Spanish Cardinal, Cueva, persuaded him to study law. Benedetto received his doctorate in Law at Naples. At about the same time, and as a result of his association with two Capuchins, he began to consider the ecclesiastical state, but he was not to be ordained a priest until after his appointment as Bishop of Navara.

He was recommended to Pope Urban VIII by the Cardinals Barberini and Pamfili. That Pontiff then made Odescalchi a Prothonotary Apostolic and appointed him a Commissary General in the Marshes of the Papal States where the young prelate discharged his duties of collecting taxes for the war against the Duke of Ferraro with the greatest consideration.

After he had fulfilled his next appointment — Governor of Macerata — efficiently and satisfactorily, Monsignor Odescalchi was made president of the Apostolic Camera, the former and important central board of finance in the papal administrative system. The young prelate's ability did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

On March 6, 1645, Benedetto Odescalchi, at the age of thirty-four, was created Cardinal-Deacon, being given the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian as his titular Church. Somewhat later he was made Cardinal-Priest of Saint Onofrio.

Pope Innocent X sent the newly created Cardinal to Ferraro when that city was stricken by severe famine. The Pope introduced him to that city as "the father of the poor." The people soon learned to love the generous and sympathetic young Cardinal.

Innocent next appointed Cardinal Odescalchi Bishop of Navara in Piedmont. The Cardinal governed the see until 1656, proving to be one of the most zealous of the many bishops who governed that diocese. When the climate of Navara proved harmful to his health, Odescalchi requested the newly elected Pope, Alexander VII, to bestow the See of Navara on his brother, Giulio Mario Odescalchi. This the Pope did.

In 1656 Cardinal Odesealchi went to Rome where he led a quiet and retired life at the Curia, taking a prominent part in the work of the various congregations of which he was a member. His piety and other remarkable virtues, as well as his great love for the poor, edified the clergy as well as the people of Rome.

Elected Pope

Pope Clement X, who reigned for six years and was already a very old man of eighty years when he was elected, died on July 22, 1676. Because of the interference of secular rulers in the affairs of the Conclave, not very many cardinals could be considered as candidates for the chair of Peter. Among the few who were papabili were Cardinals Cibo and Odescalchi, both men of merit and ability. The latter was called the "Charles Borromeo of the Sacred College." He enjoyed the reputation of a saint and it was commonly known that he had no aspirations to the papal throne.

For more than a month the voting took place with none of the cardinals receiving the required number of votes. When Benedetto Odescalchi was proposed, he refused the nomination. On the evening of September 20th, the Cardinals, paying no attention to his entreaties, gathered in the chapel, and without a single exception insisted upon kissing his hand, which was sufficient to make him the legitimately elected Head of the Church.

Cardinal Odescalchi, taken by surprise, burst into sobs and entreated the cardinals to elect someone else. Only when he was told that the prolongation of the conclave would be detrimental to the Church did Odescalchi acquiesce. He demanded, however, that there be a scrutiny in order that everything should be in order. All the cardinals, except himself, voted for him. He was elected September 21, 1676 and took the name Innocent XI in memory of Innocent X who had created him cardinal.

The newly elected Pope was crowned on October 4th, and on November 8th, he took possession of St. John Lateran.

Pope Innocent XI

Innocent was determined to live the simple life he had led as a cardinal. He allowed himself the minimum of luxuries. His quarters were small and simply furnished. He permitted very little to be spent on his table, being quite satisfied with simple food. He himself remarked that as a cardinal he had been rich; as Pope he wished to live in poverty.

His confessor relates many touching examples of the Pontiff's profound humility. Innocent discouraged public demonstrations in his honor because the acclaim and cheers of the people were extremely painful to him. To escape them, he showed himself to the public as little as possible.

In appearance Innocent was tall and spare with stern features that revealed the ascetic. He had a lofty forehead, an aquiline nose and a prominent chin. According to the custom of the time he grew a beard and a mustache.

Because of the self-seeking and rapaciousness of many persons around him, the Pontiff was unwilling to trust anyone or to take advice. He wished as much as possible to do everything himself. Nor would he be influenced by pressure or recommendations in the appointments which he made.

In his dealings with others, Innocent was ever courteous and kind, notwithstanding his gravity. He was most considerate in his audiences, observing, however, a prudent reserve with diplomats. To those who worked with him he showed the utmost consideration. In return he expected his workers to be conscientious and morally above reproach.

Innocent and Church Reforms

As cardinal, Innocent saw what harm nepotism inflicted upon the Church. The prestige of the Church and the treasury of the Papal States suffered drastically from the intrigues and greed of "cardinal nephews." He was determined that such would not be the case during his reign. On the very evening of his election, he sent for his nephew, Louis Odescalchi, the twenty-two year old son of his brother, Carlo, and told him that he was in no way to alter his present condition and was to expect no special honors or to interfere in the government of the Church. Throughout his pontificate, Innocent held to this rule, helping his relatives, when necessary, from his own private patrimony.

So determined was this Pontiff against nepotism in any form that as early as May, 1677, he began preparing a Bull which would put a stop to it once and for all. When the final draft of the Bull was submitted to the cardinals, many objections were presented against its opportuneness and against its practicality, since, they thought, it was not possible to tie the hands of a future pope. Seeing that he could not secure a majority in the Sacred College, Innocent gave up his praiseworthy plan. Twice more (1681, 1688) the Pontiff made efforts to abolish the practice for future years, but his plans never materialized.

Innocent's zeal for reform was modelled on that of Pope Adrian VI. No one was spared, not even cardinals. In a secret consistory he made some general remarks about sumptuous carriages and gorgeous liveries, and he begged the cardinals to live in a less luxurious manner, since such was incompatible with the ecclesiastical state. His admonitions had a salutary effect on the College of Cardinals. Innocent did not hesitate to take to task those cardinals who discredited their sacred calling.

In the very first year of his pontificate, Innocent showed what importance he attached to the bishop's duty of residence. He instituted a Commission of Cardinals and Bishops whose duty it was to examine the fitness of candidates for the episcopate in Italy.

He saw to it that benefices and dignities were conferred upon men who were capable and deserving, and recommendations of the greatest rulers could not sway him from this.

He reformed the tribunals and congregations of the Roman Curia and Cancellaria. He insisted that the Roman clergy avoid every form of luxury and especially wear the cassock. He renewed Pope Alexander VII's decree to the effect that everyone who was to be ordained a priest must first make the Spiritual Exercises. Ordination to private titles was not allowed except in cases of necessity. Innocent preferred fewer priests and religious, but good ones.

The Pope repeatedly impressed upon the clergy of Rome their duties as pastors of souls, particularly stressing the need of preaching the Gospel in a simple and practical manner. He insisted that the parish priests of Rome give adequate religious instructions to the youth. He charged parents, under pain of excommunication, to send their children to catechism classes. Innocent was anxious that catechetical instructions be extended to adults, and even to soldiers.

He was particularly insistent that the religious orders live up to the high standards of their founders and rules. He did not hesitate to send visitators to the monasteries of Rome to see that their rules and constitutions were observed, and in June 1677 he forbade all religious in Rome to live outside their monasteries. His efforts in this regard were not limited to Rome; they extended throughout the Church. If he attached so much importance to the reform of the orders, it was because he realized the important place they held in the life of the Church.

He legislated against the evils of mendicancy and usury in Rome; usury had been practiced for centuries, especially by the Jews of the Ghetto. However, when these same Jews were threatened by the Roman populace in 1688, Innocent energetically protected them.

He insisted that justice be administered not only in the Papal Kingdom, but in all nations of the world, reminding rulers that God appointed sovereigns for the people and not the people for sovereigns.

He legislated against immodest and unbecoming dress and public immorality. He tried to raise the moral level of Rome by dealing with the vice of gambling and by taking measures against abuses that arose in the entertainment field. For a time he forbade the popular carnivals and then, when he finally permitted them, he took successful measures to prevent abuses.

He issued special decrees concerning devotions to and custody of the Most Blessed Sacrament and he was most anxious that the sick be afforded the opportunity of receiving the sacraments. His solicitude for the sick extended also to their material well-being.

When Innocent took possession of the Chair of Peter, the financial condition of the Papal States was in sorry condition. He insisted on a wise economy in every department of the administration and suppressed unnecessary offices and posts, thus eliminating unnecessary expense. By the end of his reign the papal finances were on a solid footing.

Innocent and the Regale

Innocent once remarked that he would suffer anything rather than relinquish one right of the Church. He proved this when he dared to oppose the powerful, but spoiled, Louis XIV of France.

His first conflict with Louis had to do with the question of the regale, i.e., the right claimed by the kings of enjoying the revenues of a vacant bishopric, and of appointing, during the vacancy of a see, to certain benefices. In its fifth session, the Second Council of Lyons (1274) sanctioned the right of the regale in those places where custom had permitted it, but the Council forbade, under pain of excommunication, any extension of it to other places.

The French kings gradually extended the right until Louis XIV, by his edict of 1673 and its explanation of 1675, declared it to exist in all the territories subject to the French crown. Only the Bishops of Pamiers and Aleth, both sympathetic toward Jansenism, dared to oppose this innovation. When they met with opposition from the crown they appealed to their metropolitans. The latter took the side of the King, so Pope Innocent XI was appealed to.

Innocent would brook no interference with the rights of the Church. The Pope received the appeal of the two bishops since a question of principle was at stake. Because of this, Innocent has been unjustly accused of favoring Jansenism.

The Pope appointed a special congregation to consider the question of the regale. In a brief of March 12, 1678, Innocent gently brought to Louis' attention the decrees of the Council of Lyons concerning the extension of the "regale" and when Louis turned a deaf ear to his exhortation, the Pope addressed another brief in which he forcibly, and even threateningly, repeated his previous exhortations. When Louis did not even reply to the second brief, Innocent sent a third brief (March 13, 1680) which was considerably stronger than the two previous ones and in which the king was told to beware of the anger of heaven.

This brief, in which the most powerful ruler in Europe was fearlessly taken to task, amazed its recipient. However much he desired to do so, Louis could not ignore the brief since he feared the Pope might proceed against him with the censures of the Church. Accordingly, he sent a most courteous reply, without considering the question of the regale.

When matters became worse, instead of better, Innocent seriously considered the publication of a papal constitution which would condemn the extension, by the King of France, of the right of the regale. However, he was counselled to use gentler methods.

In the spring of 1681, the bishops of France met in Paris ("Small Assembly") and, in a memorandum submitted to the king, recommended, among other things, a convocation by the king of a national assembly or a "General Assembly" of the French clergy.

In October, 1681, thirty-four bishops and thirty-seven other prelates from the dioceses of France assembled in Paris under the presidentship of Francois de Harlay, Archbishop of Paris, an unpriestly individual who slavishly worked only for the interests of the King. The Assembly granted the King an extension of the regale and approved the following four articles (Gallican Articles — March 19, 1682): 1) kings are subject to the Pope only in spiritual matters; nor can he depose them; 2) the third and fourth sessions of the Council of Constance, which declared that the Pope's authority is inferior to a General Council, still apply; 3) the exercise of the Apostolic authority should be regulated by the canons, and the Pope must respect the rules, customs and institutions of the Church of France; 4) the Pope's judgment, even in matters of faith, is not unchangeable, unless it is confirmed by the consent of the universal Church.

King Louis approved the "Articles" on March 22nd and he gave orders that they should be taught in all schools and seminaries. These "Articles" were violently attacked in many places outside of France, and even in France they met with strong opposition.

In the meantime, the Assembly of the French Clergy had sent a letter (dated February 3, 1682) to the Pope in which they dared to instruct him on the boundaries of the ecclesiastical and secular powers. This letter, together with the Declaration of the Assembly of the Clergy approving the extension of the right of regale to the whole of France, convinced Innocent that something definite must be done to rectify matters. Accordingly, after consulting with the members of the Congregation of the "Regale" which had been reconvened for this purpose, the Holy Father sent a severe letter to the Assembly of the Clergy in which he told them that he solemnly condemned all that the French clergy had done or decided concerning the regale.

Innocent XI agreed to an armistice on condition that the Assembly of the Clergy be dissolved, which condition Louis fulfilled. The Pope refrained from condemning the right of regale and the four "Articles" for sake of preserving peace. However, matters were far from settled. When Louis presented some nominees for certain vacant dioceses, Innocent refused his approval until they should first disavow the four "Articles." The King would not consent to this.

When Louis did not live up to his agreements, Innocent realized that the armistice was a mistake. He felt that a decisive step must be taken since there was grave danger that the doctrinal errors contained in the four "Articles" might take root in France. Accordingly, the Holy Office was instructed to draw up a Bull of condemnation. By August 15, 1688, the Bull Cum Primum was completed, but it's publication was prevented because of new measures of violence on the part of Louis XIV.

Louis Revokes the Edict of Nantes

In the course of his quarrels Louis tried to impress the intrepid Innocent by repeatedly drawing his attention to what was being done in France to repress and "convert" the Huguenots. The aged Pontiff was not very impressed and did not hesitate to let Louis know that it ill agreed with his fight against an older heresy to substitute new errors in its place.

When Louis XIV became ruler of France, he was convinced that religious unity was important for a well-ordered state. Accordingly, he decided that the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted the Huguenots certain liberties, would accomplish such unity. The revocation took place in October, 1685.

The King was extremely disappointed when Innocent assumed a very reserved attitude toward this forced conversion of the Huguenots. When the Pontiff was informed that many Protestants had returned to the Catholic Church, he exclaimed: "What is the good of it, if all the French bishops are schismatics?"

After much persuasion, Innocent was prevailed upon to send a congratulatory brief to the King. In his courteous letter of thanks the latter could not completely disguise his disappointment. He had expected more from Innocent; he thought Innocent might yield in the matter of the regale. The Pope remained firm in this point, insisting that the King look to Almighty God for a full reward.

To satisfy certain factions, Innocent praised Louis at the consistory of March 18, 1686, and he permitted the Te Deum to be sung to commemorate the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, but he also let it be known to certain important individuals that persecution of heretics helped only to spread heresy, and that this particular affair in France might have disastrous effects upon the Catholics in Protestant countries, especially in England. His reserved attitude toward the entire matter was revealed when he raised to the cardinalate (1686) Archbishop Le Camus of Grenoble who had publicly protested against the persecution of Huguenots.

The Problem of the Franchises

In the course of time the ambassadors of foreign countries in Rome had permitted themselves the greatest liberties in their ambassadorial quarters. Not content with their own personal immunity and privileges, they extended the "franchises" to the areas that constituted their ambassadorial quarters. They disclaimed the right of the papal police to enter within the quarter. The administration of justice was exclusively the right of the ambassadors. As a result, these "quarters" became the refuge of wanted criminals who paid well for the "protection" of the ambassadors. The claims of the ambassadors led to other serious abuses in Rome.

Innocent justly protested. He could not allow these "kingdoms" within his kingdom. At the very beginning of his pontificate he announced that he would not admit to his court any ambassador who did not renounce the "right of franchise." He renewed the penalty of excommunication which was pronounced against all who pretended in the future to possess any such right.

Eventually all the countries but France renounced the right of franchise. Louis sent Henry Charles, Marquis of Lavardin, to uphold his pretensions. Lavardin entered Rome with a large following and fully equipped soldiers, and he proceeded to make his quarters a miniature fortress.

Innocent refused to recognize the Marquis and let him know that he had incurred excommunication. When, despite his excommunication, Lavardin attended Midnight Mass and received Holy Communion in the French national church of St. Louis, the Pontiff ordered his Cardinal Vicar to lay an interdict on that church.

The French Parliament was so incensed that it called for a General Council, and Lavardin's insolence toward the Holy Father increased.

Relations with France became considerably more strained when Innocent would not agree to the election of a pro-French prelate to the Archbishopric of Cologne. The Pontiff very bluntly told Louis that he had no right to interfere in an affair which concerned the Emperor in Vienna, if it concerned any secular ruler.

Louis was furious when his candidate did not receive the archbishopric. He had made the affair of Cologne a trial of strength and had been thwarted by an old man in Rome, and at a time when all the other rulers of Europe feared him.

On September 27, 1688, Louis, before the Parliament, appealed to a General Council for consideration of his conflict with Rome. He ordered the invasion of Avignon, which was papal territory, kept the Pope's nuncio, Monsignor Ranuzzi, a virtual prisoner in Paris, and did other things to show his dislike for the aged Pontiff.

Considerable space has been given Innocent's relation with France since it clearly demonstrates the Pontiff's intrepid determination to safeguard the Church's rights. If the questions of the regale and the "franchises" were finally settled by later Popes, fullest credit must be given to Innocent who paved the way by daring to withstand, by moral force alone, the encroachments of a vain and dictatorial king.

The Holy League

For centuries the Turks had enslaved certain sections of Eastern Europe. Innocent was determined to unite the Christian nations against this menace and to destroy, once and for all, the power of the crescent. He was greatly helped by the Emperor and his allies, and considerably hindered and worried by the obstacles placed in the way by Louis XIV, who was fearful of the power such a league might give to his enemy, Emperor Leopold I.

The Pontiff sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to the nations of the Holy League, encouraging cardinals, churches and nations to do likewise.

It was the army of John Sobieski, King of Poland, which finally defeated the armies of the Turks and broke their power in Europe.

If it were not for Innocent's financial aid and his encouragement and determination to unite Christendom against a common foe, the Holy League could hardly have succeeded. The Feast of the Holy Name of Mary, which the universal Church celebrates on September 12th, was instituted by this Pontiff to commemorate the liberation of Vienna from the attacking Turks.

True Shepherd of His Flock

Soon after his election, Innocent instructed his ambassadors to convey to the respective sovereigns his willingness to do all in his Power for the attainment of world peace.

When a conference took place at Nymeguen, Holland, for the purpose of bringing peace to Europe, Innocent sent Archbishop Luigi Bevilacqua as his representative with instructions to do all in his power to help bring peace to Christian nations. However, the Archbishop was not to meddle in the affairs of Protestant countries since it would be unseemly for the Pope's nuncio openly and directly to act in the interest of heretical princes. The work of the nuncio impressed Protestant representatives as well as Catholic.

Ever mindful of his position as Vicar of Christ, Innocent made every effort to defend the Faith against pernicious doctrines. In the decree of August 28, 1687, he condemned sixty-eight Quietistic propositions of Miguel de Molinos. Time and again he condemned books containing false doctrines and on several occasions he proscribed certain dangerous moral teachings.

Innocent tried to alleviate the sad conditions of Catholics in Protestant countries and he encouraged his priests to seek the conversion of Protestant rulers and their subjects. He established missions in pagan lands and helped in every way toward their continuation.

Saintly Pontiff Dies

Innocent was a robust man of sixty-six when he ascended the throne of Peter, though as early as 1676 he seemed to have had symptoms of kidney trouble. His health was affected by his excessive fasting and the cares of his office, which caused sleepless nights, thus seriously taxing his strength. The attacks of gout, which began in 1682 and continued until his death, often confined him to his bed and still oftener to his room.

In July, 1689, the Pontiff's health was in serious condition and the seventy-nine year old man saw that the end was at hand. In order to prepare for it, he refused to have anything to do with official affairs.

Few were admitted to his sickroom. His personal physician, Lancise, and his confessor were the only ones who had frequent access to him. He was completely resigned to God's will and his constant prayer was: "O God, increase my pains, but give me patience."

As the Pontiff's condition became more serious, Holy Viaticum was given on August 8th and, two days later, Extreme Unction was administered. Pope Innocent XI breathed his last on August 12, 1689, after having governed the Church twelve years, ten months and twenty-three days.

During his lifetime Innocent was considered a holy Pontiff. Even the Romans who resented his reforms and who saw so little of him could not help but admit that the Holy Father was one of the Church's holiest men. The Swiss Guard had great difficulty in restraining the thousands who visited the dead Pope from snatching pieces of his garments for relics.

Innocent was finally laid to rest in St. Peter's Basilica where his remains now repose beneath a worthy monument erected by his nephew, Livio Odescalchi.

Steps for the beatification of this holy Pontiff were begun during the pontificate of Clement XI and continued under Clement XII and Benedict XIV. Strong opposition from the French government caused the discontinuance of his cause.

With all obstacles removed, the Holy See finally renewed the cause of this great Vicar of Christ, and now, he who faithfully fulfilled the duties of his great office despite many obstacles, who removed many abuses and instituted important reforms, who thought of the poor and the sick but not of himself, who was parsimonious as far as his own person was concerned, yet liberal and generous for the common good, who would suffer death rather than relinquish one right of the Church, who despite the many cares of his office could advance in sanctity, he, Innocent XI has received the deserved title and honor of "Blessed."

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

This item 7912 digitally provided courtesy of