Benedetto Odescalchi was born in 1611 into an Italian family of wealthy merchants in Como, a town in the Lombardy region in the north of Italy. His early studies in human sciences were with the Jesuits at his local college. Benedetto’s father died when he was fifteen years of age and he, himself, nearly died of the plague that killed his mother several years later. Benedetto was apprenticed to the bank founded by his older brother and uncles in Genoa, learning skills that would be invaluable as pope.
He studied law in Rome and in Naples, earning a doctorate in 1639. Upon entering the papal service, Urban VIII appointed him to several positions, including protonatory, president of the Apostolic Chamber, governor of Macerata and financial commissary in the Marches. Benedetto refused the court fees he earned in these positions not wanting, he said, to contaminate his soul. Innocent X named him cardinal-deacon in 1645 and legate to Ferrara in 1648. This was a time of terrible famine there. The pope was convinced of the young cardinal’s pure spirit and introduced him by saying, We are sending the father of the poor people. He did all he could to combat the famine affecting the people.
Benedetto served as bishop of Novara from 1650 – 1656. He spent the revenues of his diocese aiding the poor and sick while at the same time demonstrating the strictness of a Pius V or Sixtus V.
He served the diocese for six years before requesting permission of the pope to be relieved of his duties and to return to Rome. He became absorbed in curial business.
Upon the death of Clement X in 1689, a conclave deliberated for two months before unanimously electing the surprised Odescalchi. At this time monarchs still held vetoing rights and Louis XIV was unwilling to lift his veto until he saw that the cardinals and people of Rome were of one mind in wanting Odescalchi as their pontiff. Odescalchi was unwilling to accept the nomination unless the cardinals agreed to accept his fourteen-point program of reform. It is said he pleaded with the cardinals to choose someone else, but in September of 1676, Odescalchi accepted the nomination and chose the name of Innocent XI. He was sixty-five years of age and would reign for nearly thirteen years.
Innocent’s pontificate is said to be the greatest of the 17th century. His personal life was exemplary, marked by austerity and frugality, qualities he brought to the papacy. His initial efforts went towards reducing the expenses of the Curia. When he was elected, the annual deficit had reached 170,000 scudi but within a few years papal income was in excess of expenditures. Not only did he not practice nepotism but he also passed ordinances to encourage the cardinals to follow his lead. This measure in itself aided the balancing of—indeed the surplus of–the budget. He went so far as to prohibit cardinals from keeping horses and carriages and liveried servants which he considered inappropriate to a priestly life style. To his friend, Cardinal Cibo, he assigned the role of Secretary of State and together they attacked all the abuses and scandals at court. His reform continued by both declaring and personally manifesting his zeal as a reformer of manners and as a corrector of administrative abuses. Both clergy and laity were exhorted to have higher moral standards. He closed theaters in Rome because of his suspicion of vice and immorality there. Opera houses were also closed for a time. A series of measures known as the Innocentine laws were enacted that lowered the fees of tribunals to cleanse them of any appearance of corruption.
He promoted policies of solidarity offering extensive assistance to the poor, support for childhood education and physical and spiritual assistance to the ill. In his apostolate he fought for the simple preaching of the Gospel, the teaching of the catechism, and the observance of the rules by the clergy. He promoted more frequent reception of the Eucharist.
Innocent XI who was deeply committed to reform and personal piety is unfortunately remembered chiefly for his disputes with King Louis XIV of France. Innocent remained inflexible regarding encroachments on the Church’s rights by this hegemonic king. Louis’s reign (1643 – 1715) overlapped the reigns of nine popes and caused serious havoc during many of them, including that of Innocent XI. During Clement X’s reign, Louis XIV had extended the right of regale over several provinces in France where it had not previously been exercised. This ‘right’ enabled him to administer both the temporalities and spirtualites of vacant sees, which, of course, involved a lot of money. Clement’s conciliatory behavior had been construed as acquiescence, and the French clergy submitted. The Gallican Articles were then drafted. Not only did the articles deny the pope authority in temporal affairs and over kings, they reaffirmed the ancient liberties of the Gallican church. Innocent rejected the Articles in 1682. Since he refused to ratify the appointments of bishops, by 1688, thirty-five bishoprics were vacant in France. The gulf between France and the papacy widened.
In 1685, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, which cancelled rights accorded to the Protestant Huguenots and opened their communities to renewed persecution and bloodshed. Louis’ intentions were anything but honorable and in no way were they connected to papal interests. Innocent denounced the measure the king had taken, deploring the violence unleashed on the Protestants.
Innocent ended the rights of asylum enjoyed and abused by embassies in Rome, which essentially allowed them to house any criminals wanted in papal courts. Innocent refused to recognize France’s new ambassador unless they renounced this right. Louis’ response was to send an armed force of 800 to forcibly take possession of their embassy. Innocent excommunicated their new ambassador.
Still further contentions arose over the appointment of the archbishopric of Cologne. When a deadlock ensued and Innocent appointed his candidate, Louis’ response was to take possession of Avignon, arrest the nuncio and make clear his intention to separate the French Church from Rome.
The pope stood firm. It was only the fall of the Catholic King of England, James II in 1688, a military ally of Louis XIV, which prevented France from absolute domination in Europe. So great was the grudge born by the French against Innocent XI that they virtually stopped his process of canonization in 1744.
Satisfactory foreign relations prevailed elsewhere. In 1683, John III Sobieski of Poland pushed the Ottoman Turks back from Vienna with generous financial encouragement and subsidies from the pope. An imperial league drove them from Hungary and liberated Belgrade as well.
Innocent died in August of 1689 after a long illness. He was seventy-eight years of age. His body lies with those of St. Pius X (1903 – 1914), Blessed John XXIII (1958 – 1963), and, eventually, with Blessed John Paul II (1978 – 2005) in the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome.
In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV introduced Innocent’s beatification but French influence and the accusation of the pope’s Jansenist leanings caused it to be suspended. Pope Pius XII (1939 – 1958) announced his beatification in 1956. Blessed Innocent’s feast day is August 12th. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes states that, Historians of all schools recognize him as the outstanding 17th century pope. Although the Romans found his austerity oppressive in his lifetime, they soon began venerating him after his death.
His body today lies with the bodies of Saint Pius X and Saint John XXIII (195863) at the Vatican. The face and hands are lined with silver coating. His monument (1697-1704) in Saint Peter’s was designed and sculpted by Pierre-Étienne Monnot.