500 YEARS AT PETER’S SIDE
He may not have as many as Stalin did, but the Pope does have an army. It’s one of the oldest in the world. It’s called the Swiss Guard, and the force of just 100 men is celebrating 500 years of service in protecting the Successors of Peter.
“The challenges in protecting the Pope today are now much more complex and intense” than ever, said Andreas Widmer, who served as a guard under John Paul II from 1986 to 1988. Widmer, who currently has a nephew serving in the guard, believes that “more happens than people know.” Terrorists threaten the Pope — but so do mentally unstable attackers like the one who took the life of Brother Roger Schutz of Taizé last year.
Yet despite these fears and the small number of guards available, said Widmer, the means used to protect the Pope are “very sophisticated and they make use of the latest, standard equipment.”
“Like all Swiss, the guards do compulsory
military service in
For ceremonies and highly visible guard duties, the soldiers are required to wear the flamboyant Renaissance uniforms of red, blue and gold; a simple blue uniform is worn at other times.
Many people believe the basic uniform design came from Michelangelo, but, according to the Holy See’s website, “It would seem rather that he had nothing to do with it.”
certainly did influence its development, as he indeed influenced fashion in
Like those protecting any head of state, a number of personnel wear plain clothes and go largely unnoticed.
“The job demands sacrifice but it’s very satisfying and a great privilege to work for the Pope,” said Cpl. Tiziano Guarnerri, who has served in the guard for 12 years. The greatest rewards of the work, he said, “are simply to be there for the Pope and to serve him as head of the Church.”
The guard was founded in 1506
after Pope Julius II made an agreement with the cantons of
Today, Swiss guards must be
unmarried men, between 19 and 30 years old and at least 5 feet 8 1/2 inches
tall. They must be Catholic (though after Pope John Paul II’s
death, many Swiss Protestants saw the service as distinguished Christian
commitment and inquired about joining). To this day, they remain mercenaries
and exchange their Swiss passports for
Every guard is sworn in each year
on May 6, the anniversary of the “sack of Rome” when the army lost 147 men
defending Pope Julius against the massive army of Emperor Charles V of Spain in
1527. They fought at least two other battles for the pope, in 1571 (Lepanto) and 1859 (
But over the centuries, the
guards’ role has changed as they have had to adapt to a changing papacy. In the
16th century, their duty was essentially to protect the
For others, it can be life-changing: Working in close proximity to John Paul II brought Andreas Widmer back to the faith.
“I am a cradle Catholic and didn’t
have a conversion before coming to the
He remembers the “immensely humbling” way the Pope would take a keen interest in the lives of those protecting him.
“I look back and see the seeds of wisdom he planted in me which he must have known,” he said.
The guards have already been
honored by Pope Benedict XVI, who held a Mass in the Sistine Chapel for them on
Jan. 22, the anniversary of their formation. And there are more celebrations
planned: Eighty former guards will walk from Bellinzona
As to the future of the army, Royal believes it would be better if the corps grew slightly as current shift routines with such a small force can be very strenuous and exhausting. There is also a suggestion circulating that the Swiss government take more of a direct responsibility for the Holy Father’s security, but that would require increased resources and training. What no one doubts, though, is that the oldest and most photographed army in the world will be around for some time yet.
- February 19-25, 2006