Date of birth unknown; died 12 March, 417. Before his elevation to the Chair of Peter, very little is known concerning the life of this energetic pope, so zealous for the welfare of the whole Church. According to the “Liber Pontificalis” he was a native of Albano; his father was called Innocentius. He grew up among the Roman clergy and in the service of the Roman Church. After the death of Anastasius (Dec., 401) he was unanimously chosen Bishop of Rome by the clergy and people. Not much has come down to us concerning his ecclesiastical activities in Rome. Nevertheless one or two instances of his zeal for the purity of the Catholic Faith and for church discipline are well attested. He took several churches in Rome from the Novatians and caused the Photinian Marcus to be banished from the city. A drastic decree, which the Emperor Honorius issued from Rome (22 February 407) against the Manicheans, the Montanists, and the Priscillianists, was very probably not issued without his concurrence. Through the munificence of Vestina, a rich Roman matron, Innocent was enabled to build and richly endow a church dedicated to Saints Gervasius and Protasius; this was the old Titulus Vestin? which still stands under the name of San Vitale. The siege and capture of Rome by the Goths under Alaric (408-10) occurred in his pontificate. When, at the time of the first siege, the barbarian leader had declared that he would withdraw only on condition that the Romans should arrange a peace favourable to him, an embassy of the Romans went to Honorius, at Ravenna, to try, if possible, to make peace between him and the Goths. Pope Innocent also joined this embassy. But all his endeavours to bring about peace failed. The Goths then recommenced the siege of Rome, so that the pope and the envoys were not able to return to the city, which was taken and sacked in 410. From the beginning of his pontificate, Innocent often acted as head of the whole Church, both East and West.
In his letter to Archbishop Anysius of Thessalonica, in which he informed the latter of his own election to the See of Rome, he also confirmed the privileges which had been bestowed upon the archbishop by previous popes. When Eastern Illyria fell to the Eastern Empire (379) Pope Damasus had asserted and preserved the ancient 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, and by a later letter the pope entrusted the supreme administration of the dioceses of Eastern Illyria to Archbishop Rufus of Thessalonica, as representative of the Holy See. By this means the papal vicariate of Illyria was put on a sound basis, and the archbishops of Thessalonica became vicars of the popes. On 15 February 404, Innocent sent an important decretal to Bishop Victricius of Rouen, who had laid before the pope a list of disciplinary matters for decision. The points at issue concerned the consecration of bishops, admissions into the ranks of the clergy, the disputes of clerics, whereby important matters were to be brought from the episcopal tribunal to the Apostolic See, also the ordinations of the clergy, celibacy, the reception of converted Novatians or Donatists into the Church, monks, and nuns. In general, the pope indicated the discipline of the Roman Church as being the norm for the other bishops to follow. Innocent directed a similar decretal to the Spanish bishops among whom difficulties had arisen, especially regarding the Priscillianist bishops. The pope regulated this matter and at the same time settled other questions of ecclesiastical discipline.
Similar letters, disciplinary in content, or decisions of important cases, were sent to Bishop Exuperius of Toulouse, to the bishops of Macedonia (Ep. xvii), to Decentius, Bishop of Gubbio, to Felix, Bishop of Nocera. Innocent also addressed shorter letters to several other bishops, among them a letter to two British bishops, Maximus and Severus, in which he decided that those priests who, while priests, had begotten children should be dismissed from their sacred office. Envoys were sent by the Synod of Carthage (404) to the Bishop of Rome, or the bishop of the city where the emperor was staying, in order to provide for severer treatment of the Montanists. The envoys came to Rome, and Pope Innocent obtained from the Emperor Honorius a strong decree against those African sectaries, by which many adherents of Montanism were induced to be reconciled with the Church. The Christian East also claimed a share of the pope’s energy. Saint John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, who was persecuted by the Empress Eudoxia and the Alexandrian patriarch Theophilus, threw himself on the protection of Innocent. Theophilus had already informed the latter of the deposition of John, following on the illegal Synod of the Oak (ad quercum). But the pope did not recognize the sentence of the synod, summoned Theophilus to a new synod at Rome, consoled the exiled Patriarch of Byzantium, and wrote a letter to the clergy and people of Constantinople in which he animadverted severely on their conduct towards their bishop (John), and announced his intention of calling a general synod, at which the matter would be sifted and decided. Thessalonica was suggested as the place of assembly. The pope informed Honorius, Emperor of the West, of these proceedings, whereupon the latter wrote three letters to his brother, the Eastern Emperor Arcadius, and besought Arcadius to summon the Eastern bishops to a synod at Thessalonica, before which the Patriarch Theophilus was to appear. The messengers who brought these three letters were ill received, Arcadius being quite favourable to Theophilus. In spite of the efforts of the pope and the Western emperor, the synod never took place. Innocent remained in correspondence with the exiled John; when, from his place of banishment the latter thanked him for his kind solicitude, the pope answered with another comforting letter, which the exiled bishop received only a short time before his death (407) (Epp. xi, xii). The pope did not recognize Arsacius and Atticus, who had been raised to the See of Constantinople instead of the unlawfully deposed John.
After John’s death, Innocent desired that the name of the deceased patriarch should be restored to the diptychs, but it was not until after Theophilus was dead (412) that Atticus yielded. The pope obtained from many other Eastern bishops a similar recognition of the wrong done to St. John Chrysostom. The schism at Antioch, dating from the Arian conflicts, was finally settled in Innocent’s time. Alexander, Patriarch of Antioch, succeeded, about 413-15, in gaining over to his cause the adherents of the former Bishop Eustathius; he also received into the ranks of his clergy the followers of Paulinus, who had fled to Italy and had been ordained there. Innocent informed Alexander of these proceedings, and as Alexander restored the name of John Chrysostom to the diptychs, the pope entered into communion with the Antiochene patriarch, and wrote him two letters, one in the name of a Roman synod of twenty Italian bishops, and one in his own name. Acacius, Bishop of Ber?a, one of the most zealous opponents of Chrysostom, had sought to obtain re-admittance to communion with the Roman Church through the aforesaid Alexander of Antioch. The pope informed him, though Alexander, of the conditions under which he would resume communion with him. In a later letter Innocent decided several questions of church discipline.
The pope also informed the Macedonian bishop Maximian and the priest Bonifatius, who had interceded with him for the recognition of Atticus, Patriarch of Constantinople, of the conditions, which were similar to those required of the above-mentioned Patriarch of Antioch (Epp. xxii and xxiii). In the Origenist and Pelagian controversies, also, the pope’s authority was invoked from several quarters. St. Jerome and the nuns of Bethlehem were attacked in their convents by brutal followers of Pelagius, a deacon was killed, and a part of the buildings was set on fire. John, Bishop of Jerusalem, who was on bad terms with Jerome, owing to the Origenist controversy, did nothing to prevent these outrages. Through Aurelius, Bishop of Carthage, Innocent sent St. Jerome a letter of condolence, in which he informed him that he would employ the influence of the Holy See to repress such crimes; and if Jerome would give the names of the guilty ones, he would proceed further in the matter. The pope at once wrote an earnest letter of exhortation to the Bishop of Jerusalem, and reproached him with negligence of his pastoral duty. The pope was also compelled to take part in the Pelagian controversy. In 415, on the proposal of Orosius, the Synod of Jerusalem brought the matter of the orthodoxy of Pelagius before the Holy See. The synod of Eastern bishops held at Diospolis (December 415), which had been deceived by Pelagitis with regard to his actual teaching and had acquitted him, approached Innocent on behalf of the heretic. On the report of Orosius concerning the proceedings at Diospolis, the African bishops assembled in synod at Carthage, in 416, and confirmed the condemnation which had been pronounced in 411 against Caelestius, who shared the views of Pelagius. The bishops of Numidia did likewise in the same year in the Synod of Mileve. Both synods reported their transactions to the pope and asked him to confirm their decisions. Soon after this, five African bishops, among them Saint Augustine, wrote a personal letter to Innocent regarding their own position in the matter of Pelagianism. Innocent in his reply praised the African bishops, because, mindful of the authority of the Apostolic See, they had appealed to the Chair of Peter; he rejected the teachings of Pelagius and confirmed the decisions drawn up by the African Synods (Epp. xxvii-xxxiii). The decisions of the Synod of Diospolis were rejected by the pope. Pelagius now sent a confession of faith to Innocent, which, however, was only delivered to his successor, for Innocent died before the document reached the Holy See. He was buried in a basilica above the catacomb of Pontianus, and was venerated as a saint. He was a very energetic and active man, and a highly gifted ruler, who fulfilled admirably the duties of his office.