August 12 – Alexander of Comana; Pope Innocent XI

Alexander of Comana (d. ca. 250) studied philosophy, and finding it about as useful in the third century as it is today, made a midlife career change to fool-for-Christ and charcoal manufacturer. When the bishop died, the locals were unable to agree on a successor, so (St.) Gregory Thaumaturgos, bishop of nearby Neocaesarea, was brought in to help. When Gregory didn’t approve of any of their candidates, some wag shouted out, “Why not Alexander the charcoal burner?” Everybody laughed, but Gregory said, “Bring him here,” guessing that his name being mentioned was an act of divine providence. As Alexander was brought in, black with soot, the crowd erupted once more into guffawification, but Gregory wasn’t laughing. He took Alexander to his lodgings, asked about his former life, got him all cleaned up (the hotel staff were decidedly not pleased about the bathtub ring), brought him back, and quizzed him in the scriptures. Alexander’s wise answers shut everybody up, and they unanimously voted him their bishop. He ruled his diocese faithfully, and was a powerful preacher. He was ultimately martyred by immolation under either Diocletian or Decius.

Pope Innocent XI (1611–1689) was born Benedetto Odesalchi, but he was after all Italian. He studied under the Jesuits, worked for his family’s bank, studied law, was made a Cardinal-deacon, and served as legate to Ferrara, where he was introduced as “the father of the poor.” This proved an apt moniker, and when he became bishop of Novara, he blew the see’s budget serving the poor. Having lost one papal vote (in 1670) due to Louis XIV’s veto (a now defunct practice (wonder why)), he was made pope the next time around, in 1676.

His first act as pope was to clean up the Vatican. He forbade Cardinalic nepotism, and austerified his own and the Cardinals’ lives to the point that within a few years the Vatican was running a budget surplus (as opposed to a surplice). He also forbade the practice of “mental reservation” by which one could ostensibly lie about something but claim they were telling the truth (by mentally adding a qualifying statement to what was said out loud). He made Venice release its Jewish prisoners, and tried unsuccessfully to abolish the practice of involuntary baptism (of Jews), although under his reign it was greatly reduced. On the other hand he forbade Jews from lending money (which kinda sorta helped his banking relatives), although on the third hand, he was lax in enforcing it, realizing (perhaps too late) it would make life miserable for many people.

When the Sun King interfered with the primacy of the papacy, Innocent was not pleased. Louis gathered a conclave of French clergy and bade them approve his nefarious plot; Innocent responded by withdrawing any future bishopification from those attending. Louis tried to get back in Innocent’s good graces by persecuting the Huguenots, but the compassionate pope deplored his severity (as he did that of James II’s attempt to reestablish Catholicism in England). Innocent then angered Louis by spurning his preferred candidate for the Archbishopric of Cologne; the king countered by conquering Avignon, imprisoning the papal nuncio (envoy), and threatening to withdraw the Church in France from submission to the papacy (it worked for Henry VIII, right?). But when James II died, France’s “preponderance” in Europe died with him. (If you find that confusing, there’s no need.)

Innocent himself died after a long illness, and the first attempt to beatify him (in the 1740s) was defeated by “French influence.” (Sounds like a disease, doesn’t it?) It was tried again in the 1950s (the French having become less uppity in the meantime), and succeeded. When his body was exhumed, it was found to be incorrupt, and he is accounted the first pope to be such. (We make no jokes about corruption and the papacy.)