JERUSALEM — The first organized Holy Land pilgrimage in Pontifical Swiss Guard history quietly took place last month, with none of the attention the Pope’s foot soldiers ordinarily attract.
Dressed in their civilian clothes and not their distinctive orange-purple-and-red uniforms, 12 of the 110 guardsmen who protect the Pope toured Christian holy sites throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories Feb. 13-19.
“The main purpose of the trip was to learn more about the places where Jesus lived, where he preached, where he died and was resurrected,” said Father Thomas Widmer, the group’s chaplain, during a visit to the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame in Jerusalem. “For most of us, it is our first time here, and we are full of impressions.”
The pilgrimage included visits to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and the Galilean sites of Nazareth, Tabgha and Capernaum.
Father Widmer said the young men chosen to serve in the Swiss Guards “are young, motivated Christians who come to serve the Pope. They are protecting him. Here [in the Holy Land] they have had the opportunity to grow in their faith, to grow closer to the apostles.”
Considered the world’s smallest army, the Swiss Guard was founded in 1506 by Pope Julius II.
To serve as a Swiss Guard, a candidate must be Swiss, Catholic, single and have completed at least basic training in the Swiss Army. He must also be under age 30 and at least 5-foot-8.5 inches tall. Swiss Guards serve a minimum of two years, but some decide to serve longer. That’s no small feat, given the demands of the job, which include standing completely still, in a uniform with leggings, gloves and stiff collars, in the ferocious summertime heat of Rome.
During the group’s only encounter with the media Feb. 17, they wore black suits, blazers and ties — a rare sight in notoriously laid-back Jerusalem. They sat with their backs ramrod straight as the Catholic leadership in the Holy Land thanked them for coming and being role models for would-be pilgrims.
“Maybe you didn’t realize it, but Christians today comprise between 1.5% to 2% of the population in the Holy Land,” said Franciscan Father David Grenier from the Custody of the Holy Land.
Father Grenier, who addressed the group in lieu of Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, the custos of the Holy Land, who could not attend the event, said the guards were following in the footsteps of the “millions” of pilgrims who have come before them, adding that pilgrims provide local Christians — whom he called “biblical Christians” — as well as Muslims, hope and a livelihood. Pilgrimages, Father Grenier said, tell “biblical Christians they’re not alone, that they are part of a much bigger family. It helps them affirm their faith and that they are Christians among Muslims and Jews.”
Holy Land Christians, Father Grenier said, “need to know they still have a lot to give to the Christians of the world. When pilgrims come from China, from South Africa, from Rome, it affirms that this place is special and that they are special.”
Father Grenier said most Christians in the Bethlehem area of the West Bank earn their livelihoods from pilgrimages because they work in everything from hotels to restaurants near Jesus’ birthplace or drive tour buses and taxis.
Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, the papal nuncio in Israel, told the guards that Jesus “gave up his life for us” and expressed the hope that they would “discover many new dimensions” of themselves and their Christian faith during their visit. “We wish you discover a deeper, more profound way of being Christian and being in the service of St. Peter.” A Holy Land pilgrimage, Archbishop Lazzarotto said, “is something that marks your life forever.”
Pierre Gottofrey, a 23-year-old Swiss Guard, said the leaders’ words resonated with him deeply.
“I came on this pilgrimage because I wanted to grow deeper in my faith. My mother has been here, and she really encouraged me to come on a pilgrimage. My family wasn’t worried about my safety,” he said, despite news reports about what goes on between Israelis and Palestinians.
Gottofrey said the pilgrimage has been “really special.”
“It has brought me to the places where Jesus spent his life. Suddenly, when I read the Gospels, I can see them in my mind’s eye: I’ve been to this place,” he said.
One of Gottofrey’s most spiritual experiences took place while praying with the group at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the ancient Jerusalem church built on the traditional site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
The group of guards arrived in the church at 5am, when it was empty of other pilgrims.
“The atmosphere during our Mass was unique,” Gottofrey said. “To be in such an important place — where Jesus was buried and resurrected — was such a moving experience.”
It was also the first visit to the Holy Land for Michael Glaus, who, at age 26, has spent three years in the Swiss Guard. The pilgrimage, he said, helped him make the passages about Jesus he has read in the Bible since he was a child a reality.
“Serving in the Vatican in Rome has given me proximity to the Pope, but, for me, the Holy Land remained abstract. But here it is, all around me. A few streets away from here is the tomb where Jesus was buried. That proximity has added a dimension to my faith,” Glaus said.
The young guard recalled how he and the other guards woke early and quietly entered the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional place of Jesus’ birth, for Mass at 5 in the morning.
“There were just two other people in the grotto at the time. To say Mass in this silent, sacred place, the birthplace of Christ, was an experience I will never forget.”
Michele Chabin is the Middle East correspondent for the Register.