The Vatican Swiss Guard


The Swiss constitution of 1874 prohibited all military capitulations and the recruitment of Swiss forces by foreign powers with one exception: the Swiss Guard of the papacy. While Swiss soldiers had been used by the popes since the late 14th century, it was not until the pontificate of JULIUS II (1503–13) that the Papal Swiss Guard was officially formed. Through Cardinal Matthäus SCHINER, Julius II negotiated a treaty with the cantons of Zurich and Lucenne, and on June 21, 1505, he requested that 200 soldiers be sent to Rome with Peter von Hertenstein as condottiere [captain] and Caspar von Silenen as commander. On Jan. 21, 1506, they arrived in Rome and were received by Julius II who extended a solemn blessing upon them in the Piazza S. Pietro. This was the beginning of the Pontifical Swiss Guard (Schweizergarde, Guardia Svizzera), a stable and disciplined corps of Swiss soldiers, entrusted with the protection of the Roman Pontiff and the Apostolic Palaces.

Over the centuries, the Pontifical Swiss Guard has shared in the vicissitudes of the papacy itself, and there have been times of suspension and decline, especially during periods when the popes have suffered exile and captivity. During the tragic sack of Rome, on May 6, 1527, 147 members of the Swiss Guard died while the other 42 were successful in saving Pope Clement VII who made his way along a secret corridor to Castel Sant’Angelo. In commemoration of this historic sacrifice, on May 6 of each year, there is a solemn ceremony which includes the swearing in of the new members of the Swiss Guard. In an oath taken in one of four different Swiss languages—German, French, Italian and Ladino— the soldiers raise three fingers of their right hand in honor of the Trinity and place their left hand on the flag of the Swiss Guard Corps. This flag is made up of a large white Swiss cross and three shields representing the coat of arms of the present pope, Pope Julius II, the founder of the Guard, and the current commander. Traditionally, the commander of the Guard has been a member of the Swiss nobility, but in recent years this tradition has not been fol- lowed. The oath taken on May 6 pledges fidelity to the pope, his successors and to the College of Cardinals when the See of Peter is vacant. The members of the Guard likewise pledge to dedicate themselves to the service and defense of the popes even, if necessary, by the sacrifice of their lives.

Following the trials of the papacy under the French Revolution and Napoleon I, the Pontifical Swiss Guard became more stable during the 19th and 20th centuries. Contracts were established between the Holy See and the canton of Lucerne by Leo XII in 1825, and by Pius IX in 1850. A reorganization of the corps was effected by Pius X on March 13, 1914, and again by John XXIII on Aug. 6, 1959. On Sept. 15, 1970, Pope Paul VI decreed that the Swiss Guard would become the only pontifical military corps, and it would fall directly under the Holy Father’s supervision. Thus, he abolished all other Vatican military units, including the Noble Guard and the Palatine Guard. By this decision, the protection of the Apostolic Palace was confided exclusively to the Swiss Guard, but Vatican City State would also have its own police force The Swiss Guard is presently composed of 110 men. There is one commander, one chaplain, three officers, 25 lesser officers (Unteroffizieren) and 80 guards or halbardiers. For acceptance into the Guard, the men must be un- married, between 19 and 30 years of age and at least 5 feet, 8 inches tall (174 cm). They must be Swiss citizens, Catholic, possessed of a good reputation and have graduated from either an apprenticeship or secondary school to the second degree. In addition, they must have completed their military training in a ‘‘recruitment school’’ (Rekrutenschule) and show signs of the physical and psychological requisites of the military profession. There is a minimum commitment of two years of service, and during these initial years, the guards must remain celibate. Those who commit themselves for extended service can marry, but since all the guards reside within the Vatican, permission is contingent on whether there are enough apartments for the married available. During their first years of service, the guards study Italian, receive training in firearms and self-defense and familiarize themselves with the organizational structure and residents of the Vatican. They also participate in sports on the athletic fields of the various foreign seminaries outside the Vatican. The Swiss Guard is under the patronage of Saints Nicholas of Flüe, Martin and Sebastian. They have their own chapel of Saints Martin and Sebastian within the Vatican, which was remodeled and dedicated by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State, on Nov. 11, 1999.

The principal function of the Swiss Guard is the protection of the person of the Holy Father. Hence, they are given the title, Cohors pedestris Helvetiorum a sacra custodia Pontificis [Infantry guard of the Swiss for the sacred protection of the Pontiff]. The members of the Guard are responsible for the custody of the entrances of the apostolic palaces, the papal apartments and the pope’s sum- mer residence of Castelgandolfo when he resides there. They protect the pope during solemn pontifical ceremonies, during which they also guard the chapels. In years past, six members of the Guard would flank the Pope as he was carried on the sedia gestatoria. Today, when the Roman pontiff travels abroad, several plain-clothed members of the Swiss Guard accompany him, along with members of the Vatican police. The ceremonial weapon of the Guardsmen is the seven-foot-long medieval board- ing pike or halberd. However, when they are with the pope during his foreign visits, they often carry a personal revolver.

The Renaissance uniform of the Swiss Guard consists of dark blue, red and yellow colors with a white collar. Traditionally, Michelangelo is credited with the design, but some dispute this claim. Tourists frequently wish to have their photographs taken with members of the Guard. However, Guardsmen are instructed to allow this only when security risks are minimal.

One of the most recent tragic events of the Swiss Guard’s history occurred on the evening of May 4, 1998. Colonel Alois Estermann and his wife, Gladys Meza Romero, were killed by Cedric Tournay, a vice-corporal of the Guard, who then committed suicide. The murders and suicide took place within the Vatican apartment of the couple.

Efforts to restore morale and confidence in the Swiss Guard following the murder-suicide of 1998 include the establishment in 1999 of ‘‘The Foundation for the Pontifical Swiss Guard at the Vatican.’’ This Foundation seeks to provide material and social assistance to the Guard by help in recruitment, public relations and efforts towards the improvement of the infrastructure of the Guard itself. The Foundation’s council is made up of numerous Swiss personalities from the Church, the military, higher education and public life. On May 5, 1999, Pope John Paul II spoke to members of the Swiss Guard, including the new members who would be sworn in the next day. He reminded them of the importance of their spiritual life and of their commitment ‘‘to a very honorable and responsible task in the very heart of the universal Church.’’


E. HAMPOOLE , ‘‘The Papal Swiss Guards,’’ American Catholic Quarterly Review 37 (1912) 286–309, 369–387. L. VON MATT , Die päpstliche Schweizergarde, text, P. KRIEG (Zurich 1948). J. REPOND , Le Costume de la Garde Suisse Pontificale et la Renaissance italienne (Rome 1917). ‘‘Murder and Suicide, and. . . ,’’ The Catholic World Report (June 1998) 6–7. D. WILEY , ‘‘The Pope’s Private Army,’’ The Tablet (June 20, 1998) 809–810. The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed. New York 2001). JOHN PAUL II , ‘‘Use Time in Rome for Christian Growth,’’ L’Osservatore Ro- mano, Eng. ed. (May 19, 1999):7,. ‘‘The Drama and Drudgery of a Swiss Guard’s Life,’’ L’Osservatore Romano (April 30, 1990) 6–7.

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