Mario Enzler and three other Swiss Guards played cards at an outdoor table, enjoying an Easter break at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer retreat. Then Enzler tossed down a bad card, and his partner uttered a mild curse. Almost simultaneously, the Holy Father’s skullcap landed in the center of their table.

The four startled men looked up to see Pope John Paul II peering down at them from a balcony.

“Oops!” the Pontiff said.

Enzler related this incident and other fond memories of the saint on May 6, the anniversary of the Swiss Guards, when he spoke at a benefit gala for The Lyceum, an independent Catholic school in the Cleveland diocese.

“He was a very special person with an enormous ability to communicate and a brilliant intellect,” Enzler said of the Pope he served for more than three years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Enzler described the teasing relationship he maintained with the Pope’s butler and a prank that prompted a flash of Papal humor. After each general audience, the butler toted two heavy bags of rosaries as he led the Pontiff out of the auditorium. Enzler was already standing at attention and saluting when his friend passed. With no warning, the man elbowed the Swiss Guard at the bottom of his sternum, causing Enzler to double over in pain just as Pope John Paul II reached him. Tipping forward, the Guard almost toppled into the Pope.  The Holy Father paused and said in his sonorous voice, “Mario, there is no need to bow.”

Enzler cherishes a rosary the saint gave him at a moment when the Guard felt discouraged. It was Enzler’s seventh consecutive day on duty in the palace. His feet ached, he suffered in the hot weather, and his spirits plummeted as he stood alone hour after hour. He longed for the Pope to notice him.

He finally heard the tell-tale shuffle — caused by Parkinson’s disease — that announced the Pontiff’s approach. When the Holy Father passed Enzler without glancing at him, the weary, disappointed Guard briefly closed his eyes.  He opened them a moment later to gaze into Pope John Paul II’s face.  Enzler marvels that the Pope had returned to him without making a sound.

The saint pulled a simple rosary from his pocket and handed it to the Swiss Guard, advising him to make it his “most powerful weapon.”

The Pope identified the Rosary as his favorite prayer, and Enzler also came to treasure it. Today he keeps the Pope’s gift with him always.

“A man should carry the most powerful weapon with him,” he said.

At Castel Gandolfo, the Swiss Guards attended daily Mass celebrated by St. John Paul II.  Enzler had often seen the Holy Father absorbed in prayer after Mass, but he was especially moved when he stumbled upon the Holy Father alone in his chapel one afternoon. A package had arrived, but no household staff appeared to carry it upstairs, and so Enzler assumed the task. He noisily mounted the stairs and strode down the hall.

As he passed the chapel, the Swiss Guard glanced inside. The Pope was kneeling on the granite floor, with his head resting against the hand he pressed to the altar.  

Enzler was providing security that evening when the Pope strolled in his garden. Spotting him, the Holy Father approached and asked, “Mario, why don’t you join me next time?”

“How did he know it was me?” Enzler wondered.

In the years since he left the Swiss Guards, Enzler built a successful career in banking and finance. He is happily married and raising five children. He and his wife eventually founded an independent Catholic school much like The Lyceum, and Enzler also teaches at The Catholic University of America.

He recalled that St. John Paul II frequently showed the Swiss Guards his gratitude for their service. For his part, Enzler is grateful to have been part of this force that has protected popes for more than 500 years.  He had not internalized his faith until his experience as a Swiss Guard and his ongoing contact with Pope John Paul II. The saint’s humility, prayerfulness,  and deep spirituality made a lasting impact on Enzler.

“It was his example that inspired me,” Enzler said. “His words that give me hope and his ideas that gave direction to my life.”