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The Swiss Guard of the Vatican, the story of the smallest army in the world

2024-01-26 15:15:00, Blog CNA

The Swiss Guard of the Vatican, the story of the smallest army in the world

"With courage and faith", this is the motto that accompanies the duties of each member of the famous Swiss Guard throughout the time of service. To serve in this corps, the smallest army in the world that guarantees the security of the smallest city-state, is to serve the Roman Catholic Church, and this requires dedication and a deep will to work for the protection of the Holy See and the Pope, for at least 26 months. This is the minimum term of service of the military force, which until 2018 numbered only 110 members, while by the decision of Pope Francis it was increased to 135, which is still valid to this day.

To make the job announcement even more attractive, officials in Switzerland announced on behalf of the Holy See that a press office and a communications consultant would be added to the military corps, while a multimillion-dollar program would look after the renovation of aging barracks. And it is these 135 members who have been charged with the task of increased vigilance to the millions of faithful, even more than usual, who will flock to the Vatican next year for the jubilee of 2025. Next year has been declared by Pope Francis "Year of holy" with the theme "Pilgrims of hope", inviting the faithful from every corner of the earth to pray to Saint Peter, passing through the Holy Door that is opened only during holy years.

A five-century tradition that lives on to this day

Most tourists who come to the Vatican to admire the priceless treasures of the Musei Vaticani, Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, the vast St. Peter's Square with Bernini's dramatic colonnades and the world's largest church designed by Bramante, are also drawn by the presence of guards with spears and ornate uniforms, as they seem to belong to another era. And they are the ones who oversee the observance of the strict dress code of those who enter St. Peter's Basilica, while at the same time they are the permanent subject of photos and posts in the form of memories on social networks from vacations in Rome. But their role is far more essential and their history as old as their uniforms suggest.

The first brigade, which would later be called the Guardia Svizzera Pontificia, arrived in Rome in 1506 following the order and blessing of Pope Julius II, the same year he ordered the construction of St. Peter's. At the time it was common for Swiss military battalions to serve as bodyguards at European royal courts, demonstrating particular discipline and loyalty. In the Papal States, in 1527 and having lost most of its members in the sack of Rome, the Swiss army was temporarily replaced by 200 German mercenaries. Ten years later, Pope Julius III ordered the reinstatement of the Swiss Guard, only for anti-papal sentiment in Switzerland to prevent candidates from participating there. By the end of the 16th century, relations had been restored and eventually the Swiss Guard returned to the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope. With the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929 and the declaration of Vatican City as an independent state under the sovereignty of the Holy See, the Swiss Guard was transformed from a foreign military force into an exclusive police, protection and guard force of the Vatican.

Nowadays, 500 years after that first corps, the main role of these guards, the only Swiss guard still in existence, is still the security of the Pope, whether he is in the Vatican or traveling the world.

Swiss guards take part in the swearing-in ceremony at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. The annual swearing in of the Swiss Young Guard usually takes place on May 6.

Becoming a guard is not an easy task

The criteria and conditions for someone to be able to wear the famous yellow-blue-red uniform are not few. Applicants must be unmarried graduates, aged 19-30, Swiss citizens and of course Catholic. In terms of physical characteristics, the minimum height is 1.72 m, while they should be distinguished for the clean "moral" record. Although there have been talks over time of recruiting women into the world's smallest army, the existing barracks where guardsmen live make that impossible, at least for the foreseeable future. Finally, in case a guard marries – for this to happen he must have reached the age of 25 – the minimum term is increased by three years, but for all it cannot exceed 25 years.

Beyond the basic prerequisites, there are a series of physical and fitness tests, followed by a two-phase training program, one in Switzerland and one in Rome. Those who are able to make it are honored to finally wear the glorious uniform and silver helmet with red, yellow, black or purple ostrich feathers. Their swearing-in ceremony takes place every year in the Vatican's Cortile di San Damaso courtyard on May 6 – commemorating the fateful 1527 battle in which 147 members of King Charles V's troops lost their lives.

They are undoubtedly the most famous military uniforms in the world. They are simply in the Renaissance style. Although the Romans like to claim that they were designed by Da Vinci or Michelangelo, their design is attributed to Guard Commander Jules Repond (1910-1921).

Officially called "Uniforme di gala", these impressive uniforms are complemented by plumed berets or helmets. They are nothing but official, traditionally worn in parades, celebrations and occasions of honor. At Christmas, Easter and swearing-in ceremonies, the uniform is complemented by 17th-century elements, such as the white pleated collar, white gloves and of course the helmet with the colors of the feathers indicating the rank: you will recognize the commanders. from the dark purple plume and the sergeants or commanders from the white feathers. In all, on either side, is an oak tree in relief, the coat of arms of the della Rovere family to which the Pope, the founder of the order, belonged.

For official receptions there is a black uniform, the corps drummers have their yellow black uniform with matching feathers on their black helmet, while blue is the training uniform which is also worn on night shifts and constantly by the Gate guards of St. Anne, so that passing motorists are not distracted by the ornate tricolor uniforms. As for the traditional weaponry, it consists of spears and swords, without missing the most modern weapons, which were given a greater emphasis after the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981.

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