Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Swiss Guard, the pope’s personal bodyguard and an unusual relic of Europe’s troubled, war-torn past, is about to celebrate its 500th anniversary.

It will be a birthday party to remember: a cascade of ceremonies over the next few months, culminating in a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI on May 6, the day each year when new recruits are admitted to the world’s most exclusive standing army.

The festivities begin in the Sistine Chapel today with a Mass for the 110 members of the pontiff’s guard, with the Vatican’s secretary of state, Angelo Sodano, presiding.

Later, a 70-member honor guard, decked out in medieval military costumes of blue, red and yellow, will receive the pope’s blessing in St. Peter’s Square. They will re-enact the moment five centuries ago when the first contingent of 150 Helvetian soldiers — renowned for their fighting prowess — passed through the Porto del Popolo and into the Vatican, where Julius II blessed them.

Since then, the requirements for joining this elite force have been almost the same: “I am a Swiss citizen, a Roman Catholic faithful, of good moral ethical background, between 19 [and] 30, at least 174 centimeters tall, and not married,” reads a partial list addressed to potential applicants.

On April 7, a contingent of ex-guards from Switzerland will begin a four-week “march toward Rome” along the same route taken by their military forebears and will arrive in time for the swearing-in ceremony Benedict will conduct.

The attendant parade usually occurs in the San Damasco Courtyard, but this year, it will be in St. Peter’s Square for the first time.

Driven from their impoverished, Alpine cantons in the 15th and 16th centuries, thousands of young Swiss mercenaries enrolled in the armies of the fiefdoms, kingdoms and city states that were constantly at war in France, Italy and Germany during the early Renaissance.

The Swiss Guard’s greatest moment of glory probably was on May 6, 1527, when all but 42 of 189 soldiers died fighting off the armies of Charles V, which attacked and overran the Vatican. The surviving guardsmen ushered Pope Clement VII to safety via a hidden passageway.

Famous for their Renaissance uniforms and medieval weapons, guards don civilian clothes as part of the pope’s security detail when he travels.

Two events have marred the recent history of this storied, elite unit.

The 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor, resulted in more emphasis on the guards’ training in unarmed combat, pistols and submachine guns, and in May 1988, the head of the guards and his wife were killed by a young recruit, who then committed suicide, a tragedy that remains clouded in mystery to this day.

The Swiss guards work side-by-side with another security force, the pontifical police, but it is not always an easy relationship. The police, charged with protecting the Vatican state, are Italian and know the place inside out. Although the Swiss guards serve for a minimum of two years, renewable up to 25 years, most do not speak Italian because of strict regulations of their movements.

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