The Thinking 

The Renowned Swiss Guard

May 17, 2012


VINCENT C. writes:

On May 6, the anniversary of the barbaric sack of Rome in 1527 by the forces of Charles V, the Swiss Guard took their annual oath of fealty to the pontiff, with an extended three fingers – signifying the Trinity – inside the Vatican walls.

Whenever one enters through the portals into the Vatican from the street, two halberd-bearing Swiss Guard are there to check who enters. The Swiss Guard has a certain personal meaning for me, for while I was assigned to the U.S. Embassy to The Holy See, I dealt personally with its head and his staff whenever there was a high level U.S. official who would visit  the  pope.

While assigned there, I would present my tessera – (I still have it) or diplomatic identification, and the two Guards would salute by bringing up their halberds to a vertical position. (N.B.: The Holy See will not recognize a diplomat who is also accredited to the Italian government; one must be accredited only to one of the two.) The Swiss Guard is also given training not only in handling the halberd, but with rifles and other more modern means of defense.

It has been twenty years since I left that position, but I retain fond memories of the men of the Swiss Guard. (The guard remains exclusively male.) After they finish their two year tour, most return to their native land, but several, and the numbers have grown, marry Italian women and live on in Rome. These are also smart chaps, are they not?

Swiss soldiers were  once  renowned throughout Europe for their discipline and  loyalty. They have guarded European royalty ever since Louis XI of France commissioned a unit to be his palace guard in 1480.  During the French Revolution, 600 Swiss soldiers were killed defending the Tuileries Palace. The Pontifical Swiss Guard is the only remaining unit. During the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s attack, the other mercenary units cut and ran; only the Swiss held their ground to defend Clement VII, and they paid the price. Of the 189 Guards,  147 died fighting Charles V’s troops. The survivors escorted Clement through the Passetto di Borgo to his escape.

Only Catholic, single  males with Swiss citizenship who have completed basic training with the Swiss military are eligible to join the Papal Swiss Guard. Daniel Anrig, the Swiss Guard commandant, said in 2009 that opening the guard to women is a possibility in the distant future.

Two years after I left Rome, I was dragooned by the Department of State into returning to be part of the advance team before the visit of President William Jefferson Clinton to Rome and his visit with Pope John Paul II. I did not wish to go on that trip, for I was not a fan of President Clinton, or the people who surrounded him, including the current newscaster, George Stephanopoulos, but I spoke the language, knew the city, and the players at the Vatican. I was ordered to go.

After the first round of discussions, it became apparent to me that I was a third wheel, for the White House staff decided they would proceed with the negotiations, with little input from non-political sources. What Stephanopoulos sought was a press release that indicated that President Clinton’s papal discussions were “productive,” as if there were little or no ethical and/or moral differences between him and the pope. To my knowledge no such release was forthcoming.

When the cars came to take the group to the Vatican, I was in the last one, and when we arrived, I hung back as the group left their autos and entered a guarded papal building. As they did, the Swiss Guard kept their halberds in the “at ease” position, but when I passed them, they drew themselves to attention: they had remembered who I was. I have never forgotten that moment, and I suspect I never will.

           —- Comments —-

Kevin writes:

I very much liked Vincent’s memories of the Swiss Guard, particularly the bit about how they raised their halberds for him but not the Arkansas crowd. It’s much more flattering to be formally recognized by the SG rather than the Secret Service (with whom I have unpleasant memories from the mid-80s…long story, and funny but not pleasant). The SG guard “The Man,” and the SS usually guard dweebs.

Hurricane Betsy writes:

I really enjoyed reading Vincent’s story, not knowing anything about the Swiss Guard at all. The ending was wonderful.

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