Papal Swiss Guards - Vatican

Gavin Poh

Murrumbeena, Australia

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He is a Swiss Guard. He stands at least 5 feet 8 inches tall, is an ironclad Catholic of “irreproachable” character, young and single, has clocked in at least 19 birthdays and usually no more than 30, and he is Swiss.

He also has completed rigorous entrance requirements and Swiss army training, making him a member of an elite guard who is ready at any moment to sacrifice his life for the pope.

The papal Swiss Guard tradition has been marching on for nearly 500 years — making it the oldest, continually active military corps in history.

On May 5, the corps unveiled plans for its 2006 jubilee celebration. Events will include a commemorative march from Switzerland to Rome to re-enact the Guard’s entry into Rome half a millennium ago and to reaffirm that the corps’ spirit and dedication to protect the pope have never dimmed.

Many people, however, do not see that side of the guards as they stand duty at one of the Vatican’s entrances. Most tourists see them as the perfect setup for a souvenir snapshot.

“They’re not just buttoned up, ready for show; they’re very highly trained for any emergency,” said Msgr. Charles Burns, a church historian who spent more than 25 years as an official of the Vatican archives.

“And they’re not sloppy guards. You won’t see them slouching or hanging around smoking a cigarette like the carabinieri,” he said, referring to the Italian military police.

The Swiss Guards “take their job very seriously and bring great commitment to it,” he said.

Pope John Paul paid tribute to that centuries-old commitment in a May 6 address to 33 new recruits before they took their oath of allegiance later that day in the Vatican.

“Thank you for your service to the successor of Peter and his collaborators here in the Vatican. It is a demanding commitment and perhaps sometimes tiresome, but God will reward you,” he said.

Enduring 24-hour shifts, most Swiss Guards find their greatest battle is putting up with thousands of tourists asking the same questions: “Is there a bathroom?” “Which way to the museum?” and “Why can’t I see the pope?”

The Swiss Guards attend to the same questions day after day with poise and sometimes even a smile.

The pope’s speech to the new recruits came on the day the Vatican honored the 147 Swiss Guards who lost their lives defending Pope Clement VII in the sack of Rome in 1527. Only 42 guards survived. On this anniversary the Vatican holds a swearing-in of all new guards to help remind them of the seriousness of their commitment.

The sack of Rome marked the bloodiest day in Swiss Guard history. After that, no other combat deaths have been recorded.

Wielding nothing but Renaissance weaponry, this tiny army kept Nazi soldiers out of Vatican City as Germany occupied Rome during World War II.

The last time the Swiss Guard ever lost to an invader was in 1798 when Napoleon swept through, disarmed and disbanded the corps and abducted two popes in two years. One of those popes, Pius VI, died in captivity.

After that, the guard’s record is impeccable, keeping popes and papal territory safe and protected since their troops regrouped in 1800.

It was an undercover Swiss Guard who helped shield Pope John Paul II during the assassination attempt against his life May 13, 1981, in St. Peter’s Square.

Perhaps the darkest moment in the Guard’s history occurred in 1998 when its former commander, Col. Alois Estermann, and his wife, were murdered by a disgruntled corpsman, Cedric Tornay, who then turned the gun on himself.

Today, numbering 110 men, the Swiss Guard may still be the world’s smallest army.

Pope Julius II formally requested the service of Swiss mercenaries — famed for their courage and loyalty — in June 1505. Just three months later, a regiment left Switzerland and headed on foot for Rome. One hundred and fifty Swiss soldiers arrived at the Vatican Jan. 22, 1506, the day that marks the official founding of the corps.

Now, nearly 500 years later, the Swiss Guard is gearing up for a full year-and-a-half of jubilee celebrations.

Lt. Gen. Beat Fischer, commander of the Swiss Army Corps and president of the Swiss Guard jubilee committee, said at a Vatican press conference May 5 that at least 100 former guards will leave from Bellinzona, Switzerland, in early April 2006 and head to Rome on foot. After Milan, Italy, they will follow the historical pilgrims’ route, the Via Francigena.

By leaving in April, the modern-day marchers will avoid trekking across the Alps in the winter. They will also make just 26 stops along the way — representing Switzerland’s 26 cantons — to arrive in Rome a month later in time for the annual swearing-in ceremony for new guards May 6, 2006, in the Vatican

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