Protecting a Future Blessed

Pope John Paul II’s bodyguard from 1995 to 1999 gives an inside view of the beloved Pope who will be beatified on Divine Mercy Sunday.

What was it like to be the bodyguard of soon-to-be Blessed John Paul II? What security preparation went into his many foreign visits? And how feasible was it to control crowds of faithful which could number millions?

Former Swiss Guard Capt. Roman Fringeli answers these questions and shares his fond memories of accompanying the Holy Father. During 12 years of service, Capt. Fringeli traveled with John Paul II to 15 countries and was in charge of the Pope’s Swiss Guard bodyguard protection unit from 1995-1999.

What preparations go into providing security for a visit?

I can only speak for what happened in my time. We received the program just one day before the visit started, a program from Vatican Radio. We didn’t have any other preparation: just the training, but not especially for trips. At that time, it was a special experience. We had to learn by doing. Of course, before I started, I asked other officers for advice. On my first trip, in 1987 to the United States and Canada, I asked what I had to do and what preparation had to be done. Once there, the problem was always that you had to know the room of the Pope, that of his secretary, his aides, his doctor, those closest to him.

Did you always escort him?

Yes, but we never went into the room of the Holy Father. Never. We did guard duty outside the door of his bedroom. Outside and around his residence were the military. They were guarding, but we were inside, with the Vatican police.

Were you nervous about the unexpected?

My thoughts were: If the circumstances were such, I would sacrifice myself for the Pope. This was always my thinking during the trips. As you can see here [he shows a photograph], when I was walking with the Pope in Romania in 1990 — my last trip and duty — you’ll notice that I am a certain distance away, because the people are far away, but when the Pope walked closer to the people, I, or the head of the Vatican police, would be much closer to the Pope. If the circumstances arose, I would be able to make an intervention. I was on one side, the Vatican police on the other.

You were ultimately responsible if anything went wrong?

Together with the others, because there was the Vatican police and an officer of the Swiss Guard. We have the same function, and we have to divide it.

What are you looking for?

Special movements — if someone is jumping over the barriers, running.

John Paul II liked to improvise and walk among the crowds. Was this a problem?

During the early years, of course, as he was moving much more easily. But when he had [health] problems, he couldn’t do some of the things he wanted, so he was forced, normally, to take the shortest route.

How much cooperation was there with local security forces?

They always had a car ready for us, and we could jump in and out of it when the Pope stopped. Normally, it’s said the host country is responsible for the Pope’s security, but we also felt responsible. If someone came out with a knife, I would have to put myself in front of the Pope. If someone ran in front of him, I would have to block him, but not put oneself on the person, because when you do that, you don’t know if a second person might attack the Pope.

Did that happen a lot?

Sometimes, when the Pope was greeting the crowd, I had to hold them back, but it wasn’t such a dangerous situation, and I never experienced a person coming at him with a weapon. When I was on duty, I had to be ready.

Is it possible to control a whole crowd?

It’s much better than it was before, but it’s difficult to control it 100%. You do what you can. I remember in Kigali the Pope had his room on the ground floor. That’s dangerous because of the window, so we had to leave the door open to hear if anyone was going to the window. I remember hearing a noise in the garden, a rustling in the trees, and it was the military. The whole residence was surrounded by the military — and also police. At the end of every trip, before he left, he always went to thank all the security.

I always hoped each country’s police would control the people. At some Masses, there could be 400,000 people. In Manila there were millions, and the last place I visited, Seoul, had over one and a half million. But you just do your best. ... You learn from the others.

For me, John Paul II was a holy Pope — as all the popes of the last two or three centuries have been. He was a messenger of peace. Somebody said it would have been better if the Pope had spent more time at the Vatican, not traveling all the time, but for the Pope, these trips weren’t exciting. They had an intense schedule [that] lasted the whole day.

What the Pope did was also for the people — for those who couldn’t come to Rome to see him, especially poor people from Africa. I remember the first trip to Zimbabwe: There were groups from Zambia and other countries who had been walking for days and days to see him. Can you imagine?

When you found out you were to go on another trip, how did you react? Did you view it as a major ordeal?

No, it was strange. During the trip, you’d get tired, but at the end of it, I’d always be thinking: What could be the next one? There was great satisfaction when it was over, because you could say: “Thank you, God, that everything went well.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.