Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bodyguards of the Pope: The Swiss Guards

Swiss Guards
On Sunday, April 28, 2014, Pope Francis would unveil the two new saints of the Catholic Church – Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. The St. Peter’s Basilica would surely be crowded by the by thousands of faithful, waiting to see personally the announcement of the two new saints. Pope Francis would be the head of this ritual. And when the Pope expose himself to the crowds of people in the Vatican City, a group of colorfully dressed men with morions for a head gear with feathers would be seen standing near to the Pope.

The Swiss Guards are the famous body guards of many Popes for centuries. They began during the Renaissance Period and at the height of the papacy’s power and influence. They honor their devotion to the papacy with their lives by protecting the most powerful man of the Catholic faith during the most perilous times. With their skills and the history they uphold, they continue to amaze and be admired many.

The story of the Swiss Guards began during the papacy of Julius II. In 1506, Pope Julius needed a new group of body guards that he could trust and relay upon. He then looked upon to the Helvetians (Swiss Cantons) who were famous for being good warriors. For many centuries, during the Middle Ages, the Swiss pikemen proved their battle skills time and again. They became renowned and thought to be invincible. Under the command of the first Captain Commandant of the Vatican Swiss guards, Kasparvon Silenen, and 150 men arrived in Vatican on January 22, 1506. They were blessed by the Pope and started the long track record of loyal service to the papacy.

Their loyal service was then tested during when the Pope came under attack from his enemies. During May 6, 1527, the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, marched and pillaged the city of Rome. Troops of the emperor threatened to capture the Pope in the St. Peter’s Basilica. As hundreds of well-armed men marched towards the doors of the Basilica, 147 Swiss guards stood bravely and steadily in front of the Basilica. They tried to hold the attackers, serving as rear guards, while Pope Clement VII along with a small contingent of 42 Swiss Guards ran to the Passetto di Borgo which was an escape passage to the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo. Unfortunately for those who stand and fight at the doors of St. Peter’s, they were slaughtered by the Emperor’s troops. Their bravery and gallantry allowed the Pope to escape in a safe haven and attempted to launch a strong defense against Charles V. The stand of the hundred Swiss Guards on May 6, 1527 is commemorated with the ceremony of the pledging of the new Swiss Guards being done every year on the same date.

Another interesting thing about the Swiss Guards are their uniforms. They wore a uniform field with blue and yellow stripes with a morion with feathers as the head gear. The uniform of the Swiss Guards also had a long history. Many said that the uniform of the Swiss Guards was designed by Michelangelo, but some says that he had nothing to do with it. Much of the design of the modern uniform of the Swiss Guards was credited to Raphael. In 1920, Captain-Commandant Jules Repond changed the uniform of the Swiss Guards. He based the new uniform on the fresco, Mass of Bolsena, painted by Raphael. 

The feather plumes on the headgear of the Swiss Guard proved to be the indication of the rank of the guard. The highest rank in the Swiss Guards, the Captain Commandant, which has a white feather.  The lieutenants have the purple feathers; red feathers for the halberds; and yellow or black for the drummers.

Today, to be a Swiss guard, one must have the following requirements. He must be a Swiss citizen and a Catholic. He must be 19-30 years old. Also, he must be single and remain single even if he is accepted and reached the rank of corporal. The height must be at least 5’9. Finally, he must have the endorsement of a parish priest and former Swiss Guards. He should also finish training on the Swiss Army. These are needed to become a Swiss Guards.
Nickerson, Angela. Angels and Demons' Rome: The Insider's Guide to the Locations Featured in the Book and Movie. California: Roaring Fortress Press, 2009.

Pham, John-Peter, Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession. New York: Oxford university Press, 2004. 

"The Uniform of the Swiss Guards." The Roman Curia. Accessed April 26, 2014.


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