The Pope’s Private Army
The fascinating tradition of the Swiss guards and the swearing-in ceremony
In January 1506, the first Swiss Guards entered Vatican City to receive the blessing of Pope Julius II and begin their tenure as the Pope’s Guard and “Defenders of the Church’s freedom”, a tradition which has endured over five centuries.
They marched from Switzerland over the Alps into Italy in response to the Pope’s call to protect him and the Vatican, unto death if necessary.
Only 20 years later, on 6 May 1527, they suffered their greatest loss of life when the commander and 146 of the 189 guards fell while defending and saving the life of Pope Clement VII in the Sack of Rome led by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Their sacrifice is commemorated each year on May 6 when each Swiss Guard recruit takes a solemn oath to serve and protect the Pope and his Successors.
This year, following a period of intense training in Switzerland and in the Vatican, twenty-three Swiss Guard recruits followed in their compatriots’ footsteps to officially become members of the Pope’s private army.
In the late afternoon of 6 May 2019, preceded by the official Swiss Guard band and flag-bearing formation, the recruits marched into the Courtyard of San Damaso regaled in metal armor from head to foot. Not even the gleaming armor could obscure the Renaissance-inspired red, gold and blue gala uniform - widely and incorrectly believed to be designed by Michelangelo. With left hand grasping the flag of the Corps and right held high with three fingers extended (symbolizing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), they loudly and unflinchingly swore allegiance - in one of the four official languages of Switzerland - before God and thousands of onlookers, including the highest echelons of Vatican City and Switzerland.
The wives of the Swiss Guard officers also took a front row seat at the deeply moving ceremony that involved most of their husbands, either in the flag-bearing formation and band, or in the organization and security for the grand occasion.
The Swearing-in Ceremony was the pinnacle event of three days of military and religious celebrations hosted by the Swiss Canton of Ticino.
Events inside the Vatican included Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vespers in the Church of Our Lady of Mercy in the Teutonic Cemetery, and a wreath-laying commemorative ceremony in which service medals were awarded to long-serving guards, in the exact spot the guards died in battle in 1527. As is tradition, a private audience with Pope Francis was also granted to the new recruits, their families and the families of Swiss Guard officers.
In an age that calls the Church to reform and renewal, this institution recently celebrated the 513th anniversary of its founding.
What exactly draws tall, young, single Swiss men to the world’s smallest and oldest military unit that insists on their Catholicity? Two recruits who began their service in the Vatican in January and swore in on May 6 offer some insight. According to Halberdier Patrick Strassman from St. Gallen, coming to Rome to join the Swiss Guard means many things; an opportunity to study the Italian language and culture, and how Italian men dress – “with more style, and more suits,” he adds.
He loves to put on the gala uniform and is in awe when service calls him to accompany heads of state to meet the Pope. His own heart was racing when he met Pope Francis for the first time and says he feels the same “indescribable emotions” every time he sees him. Patrick’s decision to join the Guard was also greatly influenced by his uncle and Godfather, Sergeant Anton Kappler, who is a career guard with 18 years of service under his belt.
Another young man who is making the Guard “not just a Swiss tradition but now also a family tradition” is Timothée Gaillard from Valais. He is proud to follow the example of his older brother Théophane and their father Bruno who served 25 years ago. Théophane is currently in his third year in Rome and considering his vocation to remain in the Guard longer.
The minimum term for a Swiss Guard is 25 months. Théophane says that they grew up in a very Catholic and patriotic family, his father recounting them bedtime stories about the Swiss Guard. “So, it was only natural for us to want to come here and serve,” he says. After two and a half years, wearing the uniform for Théophane is akin to donning “a second skin.” He emphasizes, “For me, it’s like carrying the history of the Guard on my back.”