Guarding the Pope

He’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 ofthe 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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