Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 17 News List

Minding the Pope's business

The Swiss Guard has been guarding the Pope for over 500 years and is presently 'in very excellent condition'


In late 1505, Pope Julius II asked the Swiss, an impoverished people at that time before bank secrecy, whose exports consisted mainly of their own sons, to dispatch 200 soldiers to Rome to serve as his personal palace guard.

Swiss mercenaries once served in a number of European countries, most notably as the guard of the French kings, but the papal guard is the only one to have survived.

So this year the veterans of the guard throughout the valleys and mountains of Switzerland are celebrating its 500th anniversary. Pins and baseball caps with the distinctive guard helmet, T-shirts, watches, ties and Swiss Army knives are on sale.

The celebrations began in September with a mass and rally of veterans in Lucerne, in central Switzerland. But the main event will be a march to Rome, from Bellinzona in southern Switzerland, by 80 or so veterans, to recall the march of the original 200 in 1505.

The swearing in of new recruits usually takes place in the privacy of the Vatican's Cortile di San Damaso. But this time it was to happen in full public view on St. Peter's Square. The event is as much a celebration as an anniversary, since the guard, which now numbers 110 guardsmen, has survived a series of crises in recent years.

In 1998, the guard commander and his wife were murdered in their apartment in the Vatican by a young guardsman, who then killed himself. And in 1981, the guard was unable to prevent a Turkish would-be assassin from shooting Pope John Paul II, even though their members rode with him in civilian clothes in his open vehicle.

Of course, that all pales in comparison with the day in 1527 when the troops of Emperor Charles V invaded Rome and massacred 147 guardsmen in front of St. Peter's Basilica as they defended Pope Clement VII, who escaped unhurt.

And in 1970, for less brutal reasons, the guard appeared to be on the verge of extinction, after Pope Paul VI announced that he was abolishing the papal military orders, including the Noble Guard and the papal Gendarmes.

The uncertainty tapped morale, and the number of guardsmen shrunk to only 42. Few young Swiss men had any interest in joining up. At the last minute, though, the pope said the Swiss Guard would be excepted.

These days, the guard seems to have put its troubles behind it. "The guard is in very excellent condition," said Jacques Babey, a biochemist who is the president of the veterans' organization, which is responsible for the commemorative events.

After the murder of the commander, stricter conditions for entry were introduced. Recent publicity surrounding the anniversary has aroused interest among many young Swiss. "And of course," Babey said with a laugh, "the fact that guardsmen are now paid in euros rather than Italian lire."

Babey, 65, recalled his days as a guardsman from 1960 to 1964. He signed up at 19, he said, principally to see another country and learn other languages and customs, and served under Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI at the time of the Second Vatican Council, which aimed to bring the church into the modern world. Like Babey, Karl-Heinz Fruh said he signed up to live in another country, learn languages and "to see the church backstage." He served for more than a decade, from 1968 to 1979, and experienced two conclaves, or papal elections, and three popes.

"I liked Rome, Rome became my second homeland," said Fruh, 59. "But most of all, I found love in Rome."

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