500 Years and Beyond

December 29 2005 | by

THEY ARE MUCH loved in Rome. People find them unique and attractive. And no tourist or pilgrim in the Vatican can fail to notice them, for they stand motionless like lifeless statues in their outlandish, but imposing uniforms, guarding every entrance to the Vatican: they are the famous Pontifical Swiss Guard.
The Guard are a military body composed of tall, handsome young men. With their picturesque, Renaissance-style uniforms, feathered helmets and ancient halberds, they give the enchanting impression of retuning to a glorious past. But, however charming and gentle they may appear, they are not to be trifled with, for they actually form a well trained army - that of the State of Vatican City.
The Holy See resides in the Vatican, one of the smallest states in the world. It has a surface areas of just 44 hectares (about half a square kilometre), yet it represents, in the spiritual sense, the most important place on earth. This state does not base its power on military force or on political or economic influence, but on moral authority, on its ideals of equality, human rights and the search for peace among all men.
The army of this singular state consists of just110 men. By tradition, these men are levied exclusively from the cantons of the Swiss Federation. It is the smallest, but also the most ancient army in the world. In fact, it can already boast a tradition of 500 years, having first arrived in Rome on January 21, 1506. But why are these men drafted only from among the Swiss? How did they become the pope's army? What are their tasks today? Living as we are in a world of sophisticated, technological warfare, aren't these men a little anachronistic with their ancient uniforms and weapons?

Captain Frowin Bachmann

We turned theses questions over to a high-ranking Swiss Guard, Captain Frowin Bachmann, quartermaster. Captain Bachmann  is in charge of all the administrative and financial matters. He organises the swearing-in ceremony, which takes place once a year, as well as the most important celebrations.
'The reason why we are so different from any other army in the world is because our ideals and tasks are truly unique,' says Captain Bachmann, who has been in the Swiss Guard since 1985. 'Our most important task is to defend the Holy Father, who is himself a man of peace, and is therefore never at war with anyone. Thus, it would be a contradiction for us to handle weapons.'

But it was not always so. There was a time when the Vatican was a state like any other, and the pope would lead armies out into battle like any other general...
This is true. In fact Julius II, the pope who chose the Swiss Guard as his own personal guard, was at the same time a bold general. But times have changed. The Church is no longer a temporal power. The papacy no longer maintains standing armies in the usual sense of the word.Today, our primary task is the personal security of the Holy Father, and to guard all entry points into the Vatican City and the Apostolic Palace, the place where the Pope's personal apartments are.

You are now celebrating 500 years of history. Why did Julius II choose the Swiss as his personal guards in 1506?
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Switzerland was a very poor country. Most able-bodied men could only find work as mercenaries, and the Swiss had a reputation for valour, loyalty, and noble sentiments. They were regarded as invincible. They were the best fighters of the age, and were therefore much in demand. They had no cavalry and very little artillery, but had developed a series of military manoeuvres and techniques which proved very effective in battle. They were able to form mobile impenetrable walls of steel armoury. In the 13th and 14th  centuries they were already serving many local armies across Germany and Italy. Then, at the end of the 15th century, they descended into Italy en masse with the army of Charles VIII, who had waged war against Naples. One of the generals in this army was Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere, a valorous commander, who was much impressed by these mercenaries. Upon becoming pope with the name of Julius II, he brought a handful of these mercenaries with him to the Vatican as his own personal bodyguards.

Is that how the Swiss Guard began?
Exactly. On July 21, 1505, Pope Julius II forwarded a request to the Swiss Federation for 200 of these mercenaries for his own personal protection. The request was accepted, and in December of that year, 150 Swiss soldiers began their march to Rome, They entered the 'eternal city' on January 21, 1506, and put up quarters in the pope's own stables. They effectively began service on the following day, January 22. This second date is thus the official beginning of the Pontifical Swiss Guard.

And this year you are celebrating this anniversary in all pomp. I have read that the celebrations will last for the whole year.
500 years of almost continuous service is a great anniversary. We therefore decided to spread the various celebrations throughout the whole year, in order to capture the media's and people's attention in more than one occasion.
The first celebrations started in Switzerland last year, on June 21. They began with a press conference at the Palazzo Federale, in which Pope Julius II's request, which had taken place exactly 500 years before, was remembered. Then there was another event in Lucern, Switzeralnd, on September 24 and 25, because the first 150 soldiers were drafted precisely in Lucern and Zurich.
One should bear in mind that these celebrations involve all of the Swiss Guard, that is, even those who are no longer in active duty, but who are still alive. This is why the celebrations started in Switzerland, because that's where most of the old guardsmen reside.

How many of them are there?
That's hard to say exactly. There is an association of ex-Guardsmen which counts about 800 members. But there are another 5-600 ex-Guardsmen who are not in the association, but are still in close contact with us, and share our spirit.

What are the most important forthcoming celebrations?
The next celebration is on January 21 and 22, which is the Swiss Guard's true birthday, because that's when we actually started service back in 1506. That is the most important day for us. It is of such an intimate spiritual significance, that we decided to celebrate it privately within the walls of the Vatican. There will be a private Mass for us in the Sistine Chapel, and the Guard of Honour of the Swiss Guard will have a special place during the Angelus in St. Peter's Square.
The climax of the celebrations will be in May. The swearing-in ceremony of the new recruits takes place every year on May 6. That is a very important recurrence for us. Thus the various public events of the Jubilee will take place during that month. The celebrations will last a whole week, from May 2, which is a Tuesday, to Sunday, May 7.

I heard that there will also be a march?
Yes. That event will re-create the historic march undertaken by the first Swiss Guard in 1506 when they left Switzerland to serve the pope in Rome. They travelled the whole journey to Rome on foot. Our Some of our ex-Guardsmen have decided to repeat that experience in exactly the same way as 500 years ago - on foot. However, instead of doing it in the actual months when it really took place, that is in December and January, when it is really cold, we decided to shift it to April, so that it will end precisely in the first days of May, to coincide with the great celebrations in Rome. The march will start from Bellinzona, Switzerland, on April 7. The arrival in Piazza del Popolo in Rome is scheduled for May 3.

How many ex-Guardsmen will there be?
About 80 of them will participate in the march from beginning to end. Others will participate in it for only a week or so. About 150 ex-Guardsmen will actually enter Rome. They will be travelling along the famous Via Francigena, the road linking France to Rome used by pilgrims during the middle ages. There will be 27 legs to the journey, for a total of 723 kilometres. Obviously, at every leg there will be smaller celebrations.

Captain Bachmann, the Swiss Guard are much loved and admired by tourists and pilgrims. However, few people are aware of the high ideals which motivate them. Could you tell us something about your spirit?
Anyone wishing to become a Pontifical Swiss Guard must first of all experience a strong religious motivation for this type of service, because our job is not like any other job - it is a service, a mission. It is not enough to believe in God and be Catholic, one also needs to have a strong desire to serve the pope as the representative of Christ on earth. At first this may not be clear to those who apply, especially because most Swiss people are Protestants, with little or no sympathy for the figure of the pope. However, once you're in Rome, you begin to understand and to love your faith and the Holy Father.

What are the ranks through which Guardsmen may progress?
The command structure of the Swiss Guards consists of its Officers, the Commandant and the Chaplain. Under the guidance of the Commandant there are three Officers and a group of Under-Officers. All the Officers carry out guard duties every day as well as on occasions such as Masses, audiences, receptions, etc. In addition, all Officers are assigned to duties that they carry out autonomously.
The Officers and the Sergeant Major generally wear civilian clothes when on duty. The uniform is worn only on formal occasions and in exercises. The Chaplain has the equivalent title of Lieutenant Colonel, but in fact he has no military rank at all. The lowest rank is that of the halberdiers.

How long does the service last?
At least two years. Applicants must first have completed the normal course for recruits in the Swiss army. This means that, when they arrive here, they already know the basics. Then they receive more specific training with us which lasts about a month. In this course they are instructed about the rules they are to observe, and the spirit guiding our work. After this they start service. 80 percent of all Swiss Guard remain for two years, and then go home. About 15 to 20 percent ask to remain. When this happens, those in the higher ranks determine whether the applicant has the required capacities. If he passes this evaluation he can continue for a further 25 years.

Do the Swiss Guard receive a salary for their work?
Of course they do. Their wage is roughly similar to that of an ordinary policeman in Italy. However, one should bear in mind that board and lodging are free. Salaries must remain low because otherwise people might be tempted to apply for material and not spiritual reasons.

What specific tasks do the Swiss Guard have?
Our mandate consists in seeing to the security of the Holy Father and to guarding his residence. Our other duties are to accompany the Holy Father in his movements; to guard the entry points to the State of the Vatican City; and to provide a guard of honour and security services as indicated in the regulations.

Can you describe a typical day in the life of a Swiss Guard?
We have no fixed timetable. Being an army, we are actually on service 24 hours a day. This means that each section has its own timetable. However, generally each Guard works between 8 to 10 hours a day, but extraordinary events can change all this. For example, one day someone might have to do six hours during the daytime, and four at night. Or three hours in the morning, three in the afternoon and four at night. Ideally, we work 2 days in a row and then rest the third day. That day off, however, is cancelled during emergencies.

Are you allowed to talk to the Holy Father?
When on duty we must remain still like statues. Obviously, if the pope says something to us, we reply. However, our relationship with the Holy Father is very warm. This Summer, when Benedict XVI was in Castelgandolfo, we invited him to dinner. He accepted, and came downstairs to dine with us. It was a truly enjoyable and memorable evening!

Updated on October 06 2016