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Swiss Guards: New crop prepares to serve the Pope through hard work and listening

Swiss Guards may not have to go to battle for the Pope, but they engage in spiritual war to help hopefuls coming to the Vatican. CLAIRE GIANGRAVÉ, of Religion News Service, reports from Vatican City…

Vatican City

With a determined gaze, Renato Peter clenched the flag of the Swiss Guard in his fist while holding up three fingers of his other hand in a salute to the Holy Trinity. When called upon, the 24-year-old from a tiny Swiss town near Lake Constance yelled his oath to protect the Pope and his legitimate successors with his life. 

Peter is one of 34 young Catholic men who became members of the Swiss Guard on Monday at a ceremony held in St Damaso courtyard at the Vatican. Though the young men, all actually Swiss, committed to the imposing task of defending the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.5 billion Catholics, becoming a Swiss Guard today is less about combat and more about empathy, charity and listening.

New recruits of Swiss Guards line up in formation to practice the march and routine of the swearing in ceremony on May 6th, 2024, commemorating the sacrifice of 147 guards who died protecting the Pope in 1526. PICTURE: RNS/Claire Giangrave

Renato Peter stands during practice exercises. PICTURE: RNS/Claire Giangrave


“I said to my mother, one day I want to be a Swiss guard. Then my mother said: ‘Yeah you are just a little boy, wait a bit.’ After I went to school, I did the military, had a girlfriend. Time flew, but the desire never ended.”

– Renato Peter

A few days before, on a sunny afternoon outside the guards’ Vatican barracks, a number of the new recruits trained for Monday’s ceremony, clicking their heels to the sound of battle drums. Officers watched their every move as they turned and marched, ordering the recruits to repeat the gestures seemingly endlessly, despite the weight of their heavy iron armour and helmets.

Peter smiled nervously thinking about the upcoming ceremony, where he would also play the trumpet fanfare.

“All eyes are on you,” he told Religion News Service. He has dreamed of donning the colorful uniform of the Swiss Guards, he said, since he was a child, when, on a 2012 diocesan trip to see the Vatican, he was awed by the barracks of the Swiss Guards.

“I said to my mother, one day I want to be a Swiss guard. Then my mother said: ‘Yeah you are just a little boy, wait a bit.’ After I went to school, I did the military, had a girlfriend. Time flew, but the desire never ended,” he said.

Peter started training to become a Swiss Guard in January. The first month is spent at the Vatican learning protocol, the layout of the small city-state and the Italian language. A second month is dedicated to military and tactical training with the Swiss Cantonal police, which includes self-defence, psychological preparation and firearms training.

The new recruits are asked to devote two years to the service, but roughly 80 per cent leave after six months for police or security-sector careers in Switzerland. Others have decided to join the seminary after finding their vocation in Rome.

Recruits of the Swiss Guards don their armour on 10th March, 2024, as they prepare for the final exercises ahead of the swearing in ceremony. PICTURE: RNS/Claire Giangrave

The job is demanding, with shifts normally ranging from six to 12 hours, guarding the gates of Vatican City, patrolling the halls of the papal palace or traveling abroad with the pope. But some shifts extend to 16 hours, much of it spent in the heavy armor and helmet and often carrying a medieval halberd, not to mention draped in the traditional yellow, red and blue uniform.

Giacomo Porcini, one of two Italian-speaking Swiss Guards who took their oath Monday, said he “felt a little scared” when he first entered the Vatican, but he said he’s slowly learned to appreciate the camaraderie and experience.

“It’s an experience that not everyone can have, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he told RNS at the practice for the ceremony on 2nd May. “It’s a chance to continue in a millenary tradition. I felt that I had the duty to contribute.”

The Swiss Guards were created in 1506 by Pope Julius II, when the Pope welcomed 150 Swiss mercenaries to protect the Vatican states and the pontiff himself. Julius proved prescient: In 1527 the Landsknechts, German mercenaries hired by Charles V, the Habsburg monarch of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, invaded Rome. The guard suffered 147 casualties, but not before escorting then Pope Clement VII to safety at the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo.

The swearing-in ceremony, which occurs every year on 6th May, commemorates that sacrifice by the Swiss Guards.

It’s unlikely that the recruits making their oath in 2024 will have to spill blood for the pope and their faith, but the guards have adapted to face modern challenges. “We are the smallest military in the world,” Peter said, adding, “We are not training to make war,” but in a “representational role.”

The millions of pilgrims and tourists who come to the Vatican every year can’t avoid running into the colorfully clad papal bodyguards. “For these people it’s not always possible to talk to the pope, but it’s possible to talk to us,” Peter said.

As Pope Francis puts it, the Swiss Guards are “the business card” of the Vatican.

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The role requires an instinct for distinguishing real threats from encounters with people who just need a word of consolation – many come to the Vatican gates looking for work, others insist on meeting the Pope. More still believe themselves to be St Peter or Jesus Christ in person and demand to be listened to. A few attempt suicide.

Eliah Cinotti stands for a portrait. PICTURE: RNS/Claire Giangrave

“We experience the reality of society every day on the ground,” said Eliah Cinotti, a corporal in the guards and their spokesperson. “It’s heavy, because we are young, even with our training and camaraderie it’s not easy to see certain situations. But today, thank God, with our training and our faith we can handle these situations.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Cinotti said, “there is a higher number of people who are alone and seek comfort and look for it at the Vatican. For these people, the Swiss Guards act as the Pope’s ears.

“It’s part of our Christian formation,” said Cinotti. “We are messengers of the Gospels on the ground. We do this with great pride.”

When people come asking for help or favours, the guards often refer them to Catholic charitable organisations or to the papal almoner, the official dispenser of the Pope’s charitable work.

“But in the moment, saying a kind word or putting ourselves in their shoes, can be a help. Listening can help,” Cinotti said.

But their first responsibility is still to defend the Pope, Cinotti explained. When Francis is meeting with thousands of people in St Peter’s Square, the guards, in civilian clothes and armed with guns and tasers, are never far away. Protecting Francis, who enjoys being surrounded by large crowds, be it in Rome or in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, presents unique challenges.

The Pope’s desire to be accessible can mean last-minute schedule changes and always longer shifts, forcing the guards to be prepared for anything.

“Every pope has his style,” Cinotti said. “If he wants to be close to the people of God, we need to ensure everything goes smoothly, but we can’t stop him. He’s the Pope, don’t forget.”


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