The Papal Swiss Guards: Living history

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Ivo Sieber (The Philippine Star) - January 8, 2015 - 12:00am

The New Year starts with a momentous event for the country: a week from today Pope Francis will arrive in Manila for the fourth visit of a pontiff to the Philippines.

When he lands at NAIA, his entourage will not only be composed of clergy members, advisors and a sizable number of media representatives, it will also comprise a small contingent of Swiss Guards. While they are much photographed and admired by visitors to Rome, much less is known of their history and their role as modern-day guardians and as a Vatican institution.

Founded in 1506, its roots date back well into the 15th century. At the time, the Holy See was a realm actively engaged in European politics with its shifting alliances and frequent warfare. Mercenaries were commonplace in the different continental armies. Among these soldiers for hire, the Swiss were particularly famous for their skills, bravery and loyalty. The demand of frequent military campaigns rendered soldiering an increasingly important occupation. But even more significantly, it was the poverty and lack of economic opportunities that made many of the Swiss men leave their barren Alpine hamlets to serve as mercenaries in foreign armies and to send money back to their families.

When the Italian wars broke out in the early 16th century, the Swiss mercenaries became a fixture in the front lines of the warring factions, sometimes for France, for the Holy See or for other European powers. In 1505, Pope Julius II hired a contingent of 150 Swiss guards to protect the Vatican. Taking their oath on Jan. 22, 1506, they committed their lives to defend “the Pope, the Church of God and the Mother of Christianity.”

Their commitment was tragically tested on May 6, 1527 when renegade troops of Emperor Charles V ravaged the city of Rome. Defending Pope Clement VII to allow him to escape from St. Peter’s Basilica to the Castel of Sant’Angelo, 147 of the 189 serving Swiss guards perished. This act of heroism has further bolstered their reputation. Ever since, the new Swiss Guard recruits pledge their oath of loyalty on May 6.

Today, the Swiss Guards’ main task is not to defend the Vatican against intruding marauders. Recognizable by their yellow and blue striped uniforms (legend has it that they were designed by Michelangelo), they are best known as the men who stand watch throughout the Apostolic Palace, including at the doors to the pope’s private apartments and the exterior gates of the Vatican. They accompany and protect the pope on his trips abroad — like next week on his travels to Sri Lanka and the Philippines — and fulfill other official duties.

The Guard is currently composed of 110 members. All recruits must be single Swiss Catholic males, younger than 30 years of age, stand at least 172 cm tall, and have completed military training in the Swiss army. Once joined, they learn to handle swords and halberds, just as their predecessors did. Additionally, they are required a mastery of modern weapons and to develop skills in close-quarters fighting, tactical movement and counterterrorism techniques.

Clearly their assignments are not just ceremonial, as the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II dramatically showed. After being shot at while riding in an open vehicle through St. Peter’s Square, a plainclothes Swiss Guard instantly rushed to the wounded pontiff’s aid and protected him with his own body as the vehicle sped to the hospital.

Throughout their more than five centuries of service, the Swiss Guards have demonstrated their skills and dedication to protect the Vatican and the Papacy. During Pope Francis’ forthcoming historic Philippine visit, they will also assure that he is safe when he meets with the people and delivers his message of mercy and compassion.

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