The Men Who Guard The Pope

swiss guardsHe’s a young man, just twenty-one.  A soldier in his country’s army, he enjoys the life of a military man.  But now three years out of high school, he’s ready for something more.  He wants to be challenged, to
be called out of himself and into a greater purpose for his life.  He wants to serve something bigger, something more meaningful.  Born in Lucerne, Switzerland, his Catholic faith is important to him.  He feels called to serve in the Pontifical Swiss Guards and put his life and his vocation in service of his Pope.  We’ll call him Luke.

Luke knows that the Swiss Guards have a proud and rich history and
have served the Popes since the 16th century.  Kings and princes had
long-recruited soldiers from Switzerland to employ as mercenaries in
their armies.  The Swiss were a poor nation and young men seeking
their fortune (and maybe a little bit of fame) were known for their
discipline and loyalty. There were considered exceptional military
tacticians and viewed as some of the best soldiers and military
leaders in the world.  Over the centuries, there were several Swiss
Guard units who served in France, Belgium and Germany as well as the
various city-states of Italy.  When Pope Julius II took office in
1503, he asked the Swiss government to provide him with a small army
of 200 soldiers.  They finally arrived in Rome on January 22, 1506
which is recognized now as the anniversary date of their founding. One
of te Guard’s most famous battles is a great source of pride for Luke.
 On May 6, 1527 the city of Rome was attacked by Emperor Charles V.
The Swiss Guard stood between the attackers and the Pope at the gates
of St. Peter’s Basilica.  While 42 of their number helped the Pope
escape via a secret tunnel to nearby Castel San Angelo, 147 Swiss
Guards were massacred on the steps of the church’s high altar.  Luke
knows that each Guardsman is courageous even unto death in defense of
the Holy Father.  He hopes to become one of them.

Approved as a new recruit, Luke, like all Swiss Guards, is a Swiss
citizen and a Catholic in good standing.  He has a high school diploma
and has served in the Swiss military with exemplary conduct.  At 6
feet tall, he meets the minimum height requirement of 5 feet, 8.5
inches.  And he’s unmarried.  Luke knows that after 2 years of service
and if he’s risen to the rank of corporal, he’ll be free to marry.
If, and it’s a big “if” he and his bride-to-be can find an available
apartment within the confines of Vatican City.  He’ll serve the Guard
for at least 2 years, but his career can span up to 25 years.  New
Swiss Guards are formally sworn-in each May 6th (the anniversary of
the sack of Rome) in the San Damaso Courtyard in the Vatican.  In a
moving ceremony attended by his family and the Pope, Luke and his
classmen swear to serve and protect the Holy Father, even if that
means sacrificing his own life in the process.  Luke’s salary will be
a tax-free 5000 Euros per month (about $6500), with overtime as well.
And that could amount to a lot of extra pay since most workweeks are
in excess of 90-100 hours on duty.  Of course his room and board are
free.  Luke’s dress uniform, the red, blue and yellow-striped one that
we all recognize was designed (not by Michelangelo) but  by one of the
Guard commanders in 1914.  Tailors hand sew each one which has 154
pieces and takes about 32 hours to complete.  Each Guard is trained in
the use of their signature halberds and swords as well as in
hand-to-hand combat and the use of various sidearms.  More than just
colorful Vatican icons, the Guards are well-trained, well-armed modern
soldiers who are experts in protecting the Pope at all times.  The
Holy Father is surrounded by Guards wearing plain clothes whenever he
travels outside the Apostolic Palace.

Luke and his fellow Swiss Guards are examples of personal sacrifice
and faith.  They leave their family and home to dedicate themselves to
serving the Pope.  Their faith leads them to choose a career open to
only a few men each year.  They serve the Pope so that Pope may serve
the people of God and they’re willing to lay down their lives in his
protection.  The presence of each man, standing guard and doing his
duty, should challenge each of us in our own service to Christ.  What
are we willing to sacrifice?  Do we follow the call of service
wherever it leads us?  Are we willing to lay down our lives for what
(and for Who) we say we believe?

“Among the many expressions of lay people in the Catholic Church there is also the particular one of the Pontifical Swiss Guards, young men who motivated by love for Christ and Church, put themselves at the service of the successor of Peter.”
                                                         —Pope Benedict XVI

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