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The Swiss Guards of Vatican

We few, we proud”: The Swiss Guards of the Vatican

The Swiss Guards of Vatican, in the Italian language known as Guardia Svizzera, is the corps of Swiss-born specially trained soldiers who are responsible for the safety of the Pope inside the walls of Vatican City.

Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit. Called or not called, God is present.

– Erasmus

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They are often called “the world’s smallest army” and they serve as the personal escorts to the pontiff, as well as watchmen for Vatican City and the villa of Castel Gandolfo where the Pope resides. These guards are independent of the official Swiss army and are employed by the Roman Catholic Church. Since it is under the leadership of the Pope, they are as well, and they swear fealty to him in a special ceremony at Belvedere Court.

The guards are also called the Vatican City police, however, there is a separate police force charged with the overall security of the small state, while St. Peter’s Square is under the jurisdiction of the Italian police.

Competition can be intense for the inclusion in the Swiss Guards, as it is a prestigious position. All new recruits must be unmarried Roman Catholic males who have Swiss citizenship. Next, they have to be between 19 and 30 years old, and at least 1.74 meters tall. Education wise, they must own a professional diploma or at least a high school degree. They must also have completed basic training as members of the Swiss military.

In previous centuries, all new recruits had to prove they did not have any physical deformities, while the commanding officers were of noble lineage.

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These guards have a very special uniform. Normally, they wear blue doublets and blue berets. However, during the many ceremonial occasions, they change into a colorful Renaissance-era uniform that they are famous around the world. These some of the oldest uniforms still in use. It is thought Michelangelo designed them, which is very questionable and probably made up. Their tunics are striped in Medici family colors of red, dark blue, and yellow, and they also white ruffs, as well as high plumed helmets with ostrich feathers colored t in different colors that reflect different ranks. On some occasions, they also have armor. Traditional dress style means the guards carry pikes and swords, however, all of them are also trained in modern weaponry and counterterrorism tactics.

The mercenaries from Switzerland were thought of as some of the best soldiers in the world. One of the proofs for this is a statement from the ancient Roman scholar Tacitus: “The Helvetians are a people of warriors, famous for the valor of their soldiers”. They served various ruling powers of many European countries and were in highest of demands in France and Spain. They started serving the Papal States in during the 14th and 15th centuries, as in 1505, the Swiss bishop and later cardinal Matthäus Schiner, who was acting on behalf of Pope Julius II, proposed that a permanent Swiss contingent be made, under the direct control of the Pope himself. On January 22 of 1506, the first group of 150 Swiss guardsmen that was led by Captain Kaspar von Silenen came to the Vatican.

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This small army quickly earned a reputation for bravery and self-sacrifice, which was demonstrated during the sack of Rome in 1527, when just 42 of the then 189 guardsmen died while defending Pope Clement VII. They prepared for similar sacrifices during World War II, when they were vastly outnumbered while defending their positions while German forces entered Rome. They did not have to act, however, as Hitler never attacked their state.

In 1914, the Swiss Guards was changed to consist of a commandant who holds the rank of a colonel, five other ranking officers, 15 lesser officers, one chaplain, and 110 pikemen. Then in 1959 and 1976, new changes were made, while in 1979 their number was set to 100. They had a commandant, three other high officers, one chaplain, 23 lesser officers, two drummers, and 70 pikemen.

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The swearing-ceremony of each recruit is held each year on May 6 because it’s the anniversary of the Sack of Rome in 1527, when only 42 of 189 Swiss Guards survived a ferocious attack on the Vatican by mutinous troops of the Holy Roman Emperor. Despite the carnage, the remaining Swiss Guards were able to spirit Pope Clement VII to safety using a secret passage connecting the Apostolic Palace with the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo.

According to the custom of the Swiss Guards, the new recruits would swear their oaths in the four official languages of Switzerland: German, French, Italian and Romansh, a language spoken by roughly 50,000-70,000 people in the canton of Grisons. Earlier in the day, the guards would also lay a wreath in the Vatican’s small Piazza of the Roman Protomartyrs in commemoration of the 147 members of the corps who died in 1527.

St. Martin of Tours , St. Sebastian, and St. Niklaus von Flüe are the patron saints of the Swiss Guard.

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For at least the past six centuries, there’s always been a spirit of “We Few, We Proud,” about the Swiss Guards, the small but elite military force, with their signature multi-coloured uniforms and timeless halberds, responsible for the personal security of the pope.

Yet for 2019 in-take of new recruits of the annual swearing-in ceremony, the word “few” took on a new, and more literal, meaning. The 23 Swiss Catholic males between 19 and 30 who entered the corps represent a drop-off of nine new members from 2018. It’s a worrying trend that the Vatican is tasked to address.

Finding young and qualified Swiss Catholic men that are ready to spend several years in the service of the Pope is not straightforward, and for the past five years now, fewer and fewer candidates have been applying.

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The reason may be related to the current positive economic situation in Switzerland; it’s also due to the fact that new recruits are coming from a period of low birth rates. This the view of Ruth Metzler-Arnold, a form Christian Democrat politician and current President of the Papal Swiss Guard foundation, which provides financial support for the institution.

As for finances, recruits receive board and lodging, as well as a monthly salary of some €1,500 (CHF1,711). It’s a decent basic income in Italy, but paltry by Swiss standards.

In Switzerland, the Papal Swiss Guards foundation now pays the tuition fees for children of Swiss Guard soldiers. It also tries to help reintegration in the Swiss or Italian labour markets, once the mandate has ended. It also plans to cover half of the contributions of guards to voluntary pension schemes in the future.

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Five years ago, a decisive measure was taken by the Pope to allow guards who have served for five years, irrespective of their grade, to marry. Before, only officers and long-serving guards could marry.  

Now, a guard who wishes to become engaged must be 25 years old and must pledge to remain in service for another three years.

In response to the drop in applications a fierce public relations drive has been undertaken by the Vatican to boost awareness of recruitment on social media and other communication media. The Pontifical Swiss Guards were present for the first time at the Job Fair of central Switzerland (ZEBI), held in Lucerne in November 2019.

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In addition €50 million has been estimated for the planned construction of new, modern living quarters for the Swiss Guard. Currently Swiss Guards and officers are housed in three crumbling 19th century buildings. A specially established foundation is currently drumming up funds for the development of the planned new living quarters which have been designed by Swiss architects Durisch+Nolli.

Whether a public recruitment drive or the construction of the new, modern barracks will make signing up as a Swiss Guard more attractive remains to be seen. The Swiss Guards have a storied and rich legacy and it would be a shame if that tradition became harder to continue.

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