Don’t let the puffy harlequin uniforms and the feathered headgear fool you. The Swiss Guard is an elite military force that has been defending the papacy for centuries. The soldiers are in fact trained to protect the Pope, even take a bullet for him if they have to. And while we see them mostly as handsome Swiss men in multicolored tunics standing guard at Vatican checkpoints and appearing at celebratory masses as symbols of tradition—they are highly skilled marksmen, trained by the Swiss Military to use weapons like the traditional spear-axe, pistols, and submachine guns. Their lives are a lot more than just standing guard and posing for tourist photos.
When Pope John Paul II was shot at close range in the Vatican City in 1981 during an assassination attempt, it was a Swiss Guard who first acted out for his safety. And in 1527, in an event that is remembered as the Sack of Rome, the hundred-plus Swiss Guard army fought against the 16,000- man army of Emperor Charles V. Only 42 of the 189 Swiss Guards survived as they escort the Pontiff through a secret passage. The rest were slaughtered defending the holy palace, a true sacrifice that has become commemorated today. Every May 6th of the year, the new recruits of the Swiss Guard are welcomed via a sacred ritual and blessed by the Pope himself.
THE CHOSEN FEW
The Swiss Guards are, of course, Swiss. They have to be. Their costumes and weaponry may have changed through the years, but the integrity of the Swiss Guard has remained.
One must apply to be part of the army but very specific requirements have to be met. He must be Swiss, Catholic, male, and single. He must at least have a high school diploma, be between 19 to 30 years old, and stand at least 5 feet, 8.5 inches in height.
He has to pass a series of tests that include training with the Swiss Military and interviews with the Pontifical office. It was in the 15th century that the Swiss Guard was chosen to be the personal protectors of the Pope.
It’s been said that Pope Julius II was so impressed with the Swiss soldiers that when he became Pope, he requested they be hired as the official Pontifical security force. On January 22, 1506, a group of about 150 Swiss soldiers went to the Vatican for the first time and were blessed by Pope Julius II. That was the beginning of a long-lived tradition. Today, there are only 110 Swiss Guards.
On a normal day, the men are expected to mount guard at the various entrances of the palace. They also do briefings, marches, and shooting practice.
When they aren’t reporting for duty, they try to lead pretty normal lives. Sports and music are some of the group activities they partake in, and surprisingly, food too. A couple of years ago, the Swiss Guard released a cookbook inspired by the Pope. Buon Appetito is titled after Pope Francis, who was known to drop the line often (it is said that he can also cook a mean paella).
David Geisser, the author of the book, joined the elite Vatican security corps and was inspired to release the cookbook. It includes some of Pope Francis’ favorite meals like Argentinean empanadas on pepper salad, a beef sirloin dish called Colita de
The Swiss Guard’s duty is to be both a guard of honor and a protector of peace, to ensure order when the Pope is in public. There have been countless anecdotes about Swiss Guards’ interaction with the Pope. One story shares that Pope Francis once offered food and a chair to a tired soldier, who was hesitant to accept because it was against the rules. But he happily complied when Pope Francis ordered it.
These soldiers are men of courage and strength, serving in a land away from their homes. Their duty comes with a long history of tradition, practice, and honor. This is something that should be known about the Swiss Guards—apart from their ceremonial dress and dashing looks.
THE SWISS GUARD UNIFORMS
This article originally appeared in Our Pope magazine, published by Summit Media.