VATICAN CITY — When military leaders told Joseph Stalin that he should appease Catholics, he scoffed. “How many divisions has the Pope?” he asked.

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 Switzerland, so they know how to handle standard issue Swiss Army weapons,” said Robert Royal, author of the new book The Pope’s Army: Five Hundred Years of the Papal Swiss Guard. “Few people know it, but target shooting is one of the most popular sports in Switzerland. Some guards complain that they don’t do more of it in Rome, but they do shoot regularly at Italian police ranges, they study martial arts and get training on modern security techniques from Swiss and other officials.”

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.”

“However, Raffaello certainly did influence its development, as he indeed influenced fashion in general in Italy in the Renaissance, through his painting,” the website said.

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.”

Colorful History

The guard was founded in 1506 after Pope Julius II made an agreement with the cantons of Lucerne and Zurich to provide him with a permanent security corps of military advisers. At the time, the soldiers were mercenaries, fighting in foreign wars for money because of extreme poverty at home.

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 Vatican ones during their tour of duty.

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 (Perugia).

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 Papal States. Today, they have three main areas of responsibility: to bring order and security to Vatican ceremonies, to control access to the Vatican, and to provide protection within the apostolic palace when the Pope appears publicly and during papal trips. While their duties have altered (there is now no possibility of invasion though the threat existed until as recently as World War II), the risk of personal attack remains high, mainly because of the close proximity that now exists between the people and the pope.

Life-Changing Work

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 Vatican; I didn’t really understand the faith,” he recalled. “But John Paul had this loving expectation, this great trust in me which turned into trust in myself. It touched me deeply.”

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 in Switzerland to the Vatican, following the route taken by their predecessors half a millennium ago. The men will arrive in time for a major celebration in Rome on May 6. A large Vatican exhibition is also planned.

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.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.