Swiss Guard recruits prepare to serve the Pope through hard work and listening

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VATICAN CITY (RNS) – With a determined gaze, Renato Peter clutched the flag of the Swiss Guard in his fist and raised three fingers of his other hand in salute to the Holy Trinity. When called, the 24-year-old from a small Swiss town near Lake Constance shouted an oath vowing to protect the Pope and his rightful successors with his life.

Peter was one of 34 young Catholics who became members of the Swiss Guard in a ceremony held in the Vatican’s San Damaso courtyard on Monday (May 6). These young men, all Swiss in fact, are undertaking a grand mission to protect the spiritual leadership of the world’s 1.5 billion Catholics, but being a member of the Swiss Guard today is not about combat, it’s about empathy, charity, and It means listening.

A few days ago, on a sunny afternoon outside the Guards barracks in Vatican City, scores of new recruits were training for Monday’s ceremony, clicking their heels to the beat of battle drums. The officers watched their every move as they turned and marched, ordering the recruits to repeat the motion endlessly despite the weight of their heavy iron armor and helmets.

Peter smiled nervously, thinking about the upcoming ceremony, which would also include a trumpet fanfare. “Everyone’s eyes are on you,” he told Religion News Agency. He said he had dreamed of wearing the colorful uniform of the Swiss Guard since he was a child. When he visited the Vatican on a parish visit in 2012, he said he was awed by the Swiss Guard barracks.

Related:Priests prepare to bring synods from the Vatican to parishes around the world

“I told my mother that I wanted to be a Swiss Guard one day.” And she said, “Well, you’re just a little boy, so wait a minute.” After she went to school she joined the army and also had a girlfriend. Time passed quickly, but my desire was endless,” he said.

Renato Peter stands during practice. RNS Photo credit: Claire Giangrave

Peter started training to become a member of the Swiss Guard in January. The first month will be spent learning the Vatican study protocols, arranging a small city-state, and learning the Italian language. The second month will be devoted to military and tactical training by the Swiss Cantonal Police, including self-defense, psychological preparation and firearms training.

New employees are required to serve for two years, but around 80% leave after six months to take up jobs in Switzerland’s police and security services. Some found their calling in Rome and decided to enroll in seminaries.

The job is demanding, typically lasting six to 12 hours, and involves guarding the gates of Vatican City, patrolling the halls of the Papal Palace, and traveling abroad with the Pope. However, some shifts can extend to 16 hours, and many of them wear heavy armor and helmets, often wearing medieval halberds, not to mention traditional yellow, red and blue uniforms. I carried it with me.

Giacomo Porcini, one of two Italian-speaking Swiss Guards who were sworn in on Monday, said he was “a little bit scared” when he first entered the Vatican, but gradually came to appreciate the friendships and experience. He said that he has learned. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that not everyone gets to experience,” he told RNS during practice for the May 2 ceremony. “This is a chance to continue a thousand-year-old tradition. I felt I had an obligation to contribute.”

The Swiss Guards were created by Pope Julius II in 1506, when the Pope welcomed 150 Swiss mercenaries to protect the Vatican and himself. Julius proved to be a visionary. In 1527, the Landsknechts, German mercenaries hired by Charles V, the Habsburg monarch of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, invaded Rome. The Guards suffered 147 casualties, but were able to escort then-Pope Clement VII to safety in nearby Castel Sant’Angelo.

The swearing-in ceremony, held every year on May 6, commemorates the sacrifice made by the Swiss Guards.

Swiss Guard recruits don armor as they prepare for final exercises ahead of their oath-taking ceremony on March 10, 2024. RNS Photo credit: Claire Giangrave

It’s hard to imagine that the recruits taking the oath in 2024 will have to shed blood for the Pope and their faith, but the Guard is adapting to face modern challenges. “We are the world’s smallest military,” Peter said, adding that “we are not training to fight wars” but “play a representative role.”

The millions of pilgrims and tourists who visit the Vatican each year cannot avoid encounters with the colorfully costumed papal bodyguards. “For these people, it is not necessarily possible to talk to the Pope, but it is possible to talk to us,” Peter said.

As Pope Francis has said, the Swiss Guard is the Vatican’s “business card.”

This role requires an instinct to distinguish between real threats and encounters with people who just need a word of comfort. Many people come to the gates of the Vatican in search of work, while others insist on seeing the Pope. Many more believe they are St. Peter and Jesus Christ and demand to be heard. Some people have attempted suicide.

“We experience social realities on the ground every day,” said Elia Cinotti, a corporal and spokesperson for the Guard. “This is a heavy thing. We are young and even with our training and friendship, it is not easy to understand certain situations. But today, thank God, with our training and faith, , we can deal with these situations.”

Elia Cinotti represents the portrait. RNS Photo credit: Claire Giangrave

Since the coronavirus pandemic, “the number of people who are alone seeking solace and seeking it from the Vatican has increased,” Cinotti said. For these people, the Swiss Guard acts as the pope’s ear. “It’s part of our Christian formation,” Cinotti said. “We are the messengers of the gospel on earth. We take great pride in this.”

When people come seeking help or favors, the guards often refer them to Catholic charities or to the Papal Almoner, the official executor of papal charity. “But sometimes it helps to say a kind word or put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Listening helps,” Cinotti said.

But their primary responsibility remains to defend the pope, Sinotti explained. As Francis meets with thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square, civilian-clothed security guards armed with guns and Tasers are never far away. Protecting Francis, who prefers to be surrounded by large crowds, whether in Rome or the Democratic Republic of Congo, poses unique challenges.

The Pope’s desire to be easily accessible means last-minute schedule changes and consistently long hours, meaning security guards must be prepared for anything.

Related:Despair in the Holy Land

“Every pope has his own style,” Cinotti said. “If he wants to get closer to God’s people, we need to make sure everything goes smoothly, but we can’t stop him. He’s the Pope, don’t forget.”

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