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The Pope's Army: Five Hundred Years of the Papal Swiss Guard

Interview With Robert Royal on the Papal Bodyguards

WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 30, 2006 (Zenit) - A leading Catholic intellectual has released a new book on the Vatican's fabled Swiss Guard.

"The Pope's Army: Five Hundred Years of the Papal Swiss Guard," a popular narrative of the history of the military unit, has been published by a New York firm, Crossroads. An Italian-language edition will be published by Ancora in March.

Author Robert Royal, the founder of the Faith and Reason Institute, shared with us a preview of the purpose and content of the book.

Q: What have you discovered in writing this book and what do you hope your audience will learn?

Royal: Well, it's the old story -- until you sit down and look carefully at something, you don't know how rich the subject is.

I knew very little about the guards when I began writing, but immediately became intrigued by the way in which two very different parts of Europe -- Switzerland and Rome -- collaborated in a way that is still strong after 500 years.

During that time the modern states of Europe emerged, the threat from Islam subsided -- Swiss Guards were sent by the Pope to fight at the Battle of Lepanto; the Holy See gave up all its territory except for the Leonine City and a few small possessions; and the new kind of papacy of the past 50 years placed new demands on everyone connected with the Holy Father.

I think a typical reader will be surprised by this history and rather inspired by the idealism, despite some serious lapses, that has all along been a central feature of the Swiss Guard tradition.

This is the only real popular history of the Swiss Guard in existence. There are scholarly tomes and picture books, but this lays out in about 240 pages a readable narrative of the last 500 years.

Q: What exactly do the Swiss Guards do? Could you give us a brief description of their role today?

Royal: The Guard actually fulfills several different functions. Most people only see the Swiss Guards in their more ceremonial aspects, when they appear at a papal event in their distinctive uniforms.

Lots of people who have visited Rome have also encountered them at one of the several main entrances of the Vatican, including the Bronze Doors, over which they have control.

Since September 11, 2001, the guards have re-evaluated the security at these checkpoints and feel sure that they have the proper force structures. Since Paul VI, however, they have not been allowed to carry firearms openly, but they do have modern weapons at the various gates, which they do not like to discuss in much detail.

Within the Apostolic Palace, the Swiss provide extensive security, including electronic systems, so that the closer you approach to the Holy Father, the more checkpoints you pass. They also, of course, still maintain security at the papal conclaves, which has become more complex with the advent of modern surveillance devices.

Swiss Guards also travel everywhere with the Holy Father; the plainclothes bodyguards you see around the pope can consist of various agents, depending on what country the pope is visiting, but there are always two Swiss Guard officers among them.

Q: What was the historical meaning of Julius II's decision to invite the Swiss to be his personal guards?

Royal: In 1506, when the first guards arrived in Rome, the Swiss had a reputation in Europe as a virtually unbeatable military force.

The Swiss infantry were the first foot soldiers since the fall of ancient Rome to be able to defeat mounted cavalry and were especially good at defensive formations.

Julius II was a man who personally embarked on military campaigns to secure the Papal States and restore the prestige of the Renaissance papacy. He had seen the effectiveness of the Swiss soldiers before he became Pope during a campaign against Naples.

Given all this, it's no wonder why he chose the Swiss when he decided that he needed a contingent of personal bodyguards.

Q: How has the Swiss Guard evolved over these 500 years?

Royal: Some military men have been known to criticize the Swiss Guard for not being the formidable force today that they were at their founding.

But this is to misunderstand the nature of the Swiss force, which historically has had to serve the role best suited to help the pope carry out his mission at any particular moment. That means the Swiss Guard mirrored changes in the papacy.

In the early 16th century, much of Europe was embroiled in war and the Swiss had to face the prospect of direct military assault.

During the 1527 Sack of Rome, for example, three-quarters of the nearly 200 men guarding the Pope died in a single day. The Pope retreated with the survivors and they found themselves under siege in Castel Sant'Angelo.

Just a few decades later, the commandant of the Swiss Guard performed important diplomatic services for the Counter-Reformation papacy, which began a period in which popes were not as directly involved in European politics and conflicts.

Though the Swiss continued to be the central security force for the popes over the next few centuries, they only rarely confronted armed opposition, but notably so from Napoleon, the force of Italian unification, and the Nazi occupiers of Rome in World War II.

Since Paul VI began to make the papacy a more purely pastoral office, the guards have had the difficult task of providing gentle control over visitors to the Vatican and close security for a figure who wants to be in close contact with the people.

The current commandant says, with good humor, that John Paul II used to talk about being protected by Divine Providence: "We believe that, too, but we also believe we are part of that Providence."

Q: What does it take to become a Swiss Guard? What is the oath of loyalty?

Royal: As in the past, there are some straightforward requirements. Guards must be of a certain height, have already completed the compulsory military service in Switzerland, be single -- if they are not officers -- and be Catholics with a good reputation in their parishes.

After John Paul II's funeral and Benedict XVI's election, as often happens after a papal transition, they received a large number of applications, some of them, interestingly, from Protestants who see in the guards a rare tradition of idealism and service, and who are not at all troubled about joining a force that serves the pope of Rome.

Every year on May 6, the date when three-quarters of the Swiss forces were slaughtered during the Sack of Rome, new guards are sworn in and repeat an old formula in the particular language of their own region of Switzerland:

"I swear I will faithfully, loyally and honorably serve the Supreme Pontiff, and his legitimate successors, and also devote myself to them with all my strength, sacrificing my life to defend them if necessary. I take on these same duties with regard to the Sacred College of Cardinals whenever the See is vacant. Furthermore, I promise to the Captain Commander and to my other superiors respect, fidelity and obedience. This I swear! May God and our Holy Patrons assist me!"

Even though you may have watched film of the swearing in, to see it live impresses on you the reality of five centuries of continuous service to the pope and the Holy See. There's very little, if anything, comparable to it in the modern world.

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