For 500 years the Swiss Guard has defended the
Pontiff in Rome. Fr Paul Hurley looks at the history
of one of the oldest armies in the world
4 H Ow many divisions has the pope'?" Stalin
once asked, sarcastically. The Soviet dictator knew well, of course, that popes don't have big armies. But they do have the Swiss Guard, a unique force of 100 men — six officers, 18 non-commissioned officers, 73 halberdiers, two drummers and a chaplain. It is one of the smallest, oldest, most colourful and most photographed "armies" in the world.
For centuries national armies were largely cornposed of mercenaries: soldiers of fortune from many countries. Swiss soldiers, for example, served in the army of the Papal States from the 14th century and it was therefore no surprise when, in June 1505, Pope Julius II made an agreement with the cantons of Lucerne and Zurich to provide him with a permanent security corps of soldiers. After marching south for seven months, 150 Swiss Catholic soldiers, under the command of Captain Caspar von Silenen, arrived in Rome on January 22,1506 and were blessed by Julius in St Peter's Square. This year marks their 500th anniversary.
The guards were given quarters in barracks near the Palace of Sixtus V, which they still occupy today. Here they have their chapel, dedicated to the warrior saints Sebastian and Martin, and their canteen, where they eat Swiss food with, of course, Italian wine. They also have their own cemetery, one of only two above ground in the Vatican.
The Swiss Guards went into battle on at least three memorable occasions. First, during the sack of Rome on May 6,1527, when the city was attacked by 16,000 soldiers of Emperor Charles V of Spain. One hundred and forty-seven guardsmen with their leader, Caspar Roist, were killed while defending Pope Clement VII. That day the guards fought for six hours as they covered the retreat of the Pontiff from the Vatican to the nearby Castel Sant'Angelo, where 42 guardsmen held out for a further 40 days.
In 1571 12 Swiss Guards fought as the bodyguard of Admiral Colonna, commander of the papal fleet.
The third occasion was rather less heroic. In 1859 Blessed Pius IX sent some Swiss Guards to suppress a revolt in Perugia, in the Papal States. Ten of his troops were killed.
Pius had, in fact, considered disbanding the guards.
"The Swiss Guards cost so much money, should we get rid of them'?" he asked his prime minister. Pellegrino Rossi.
On another occasion, in 1913. some of the guardsmen mutinied against what they regarded as too severe treatment by their commander.
Guards must be unmarried Catholic Swiss men, aged 19 to 30 and at least 5ft gin tall, who have already done their military service in Switzerland. They are sworn in each year on May 6, the anniversary of their defence of Clement VII. Holding up three fingers. symbolising the Trinity, they swear to "faithfully, loyally and honourably serve the reigning pope and his legitimate successors".
This means they are responsible for guarding the 108-acre Vatican City, the security of the Apostolic Palace and especially the safety of the pope — and of the cardinals during a conclave. They must serve for at least two years and the maximum term is 20 years.
During training they learn karate and how to wield the halberd. their 500-year-old lance; the labyrinthine layout of the Apostolic Palace; and how to stand still for hours when on sentry duty. They must also learn Italian; a few may know it or French already, but most Swiss Catholics speak German. If they fail a test in these requirements they are sent home.
Guards are on duty round the clock and work shifts alternating between two days on and one off. They wear a simple blue uniform and a beret set at a jaunty angle while guarding the Porta Sant'Anna, the Vatican's main entrance. But when on dtit\ at the bronze door of St Peter's and in the Apostolic Palace they don their colourful Renaissance uniforms of red, blue and gold, designed by Michelangelo striped overvest, knee breeches, neck ruffs, helmet and halberd. The first time they wore these in Italy was when they went with Pope Benedict to Bari last summer. On foreign trips they wear civilian clothes.
For five centuries member ship of the Guards gave many young Swiss men an opportunity to study art and to nurture their faith in Rome. Among them were the portrait painters Moos and Wiederkehr. Today there arc also many Swiss priests and professional men who served as Guards in early life. But Col Elmar Mader, their current and 34th commander, says there are no plans to allow women to join the papal army, though guardsmen from the rank of corporal are now five to marry.
Their anniversary celebra tions this year will begin on May 4, when 100 former Guards will arrive in Rome alter marching from Switzerland for 26 days. But the high point will be on May 6, starting with Mass in St Peter's and ending with a fireworks display over Castel Sant'Angelo.