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Faithful Swiss Guard stands the test of time

Commander Maeder at the headquarters of the Papal Guards

"Why fix something if it isn't broken?" asks the Swiss Vatican Guard commander in an interview with swissinfo on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his troops.

Elmar Theodor Maeder, head of the papal security force, reveals some of the inner workings of the “smallest army in the world”, its longstanding traditions and the difficulties of guarding the head of the Catholic Church.

The commander’s telephone and mobile phone go off simultaneously in the middle of our interview. Maeder apologises and manages to remain calm and collected despite the hustle and bustle around him.

He is overseeing the plans for Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger’s trip to Rome on Saturday and official audience with Pope Benedict XVI as part of events to mark the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Swiss Vatican Guard.

swissinfo: You are one of the few Swiss Guards who live in Rome with your family. Does the fact that most young guardsmen are here alone create any tension?

E.M.: No, the younger ones do not feel they need to be married to be an officer. Many of them come here to spend a few years serving with other recruits of the same age.

Our contingent includes 15 families and 17 children. People need to be quite tolerant. We exercise all day long in the courtyard and the children also play there in the evening. It is our very own village square.

swissinfo: The unmarried troops are sworn to celibacy. How much do you have to keep an eye on them?

E.M.: I ask each guard to abide by the teachings of the church. I am well aware that this is not easy in this day and age, especially now that sexuality has become such an issue. But I think they manage to cope well.

I do not want to have to check up on them. I can only work if there is trust between us. If someone lets me down, then I have to speak to the person.

During their training I remind them that they are Swiss Guards 24 hours a day – wherever they are.

swissinfo: To what extent must a Swiss Guard endorse the religious positions taken by the Vatican?

E.M.: Every business requires its staff to identify themselves with the organisation to a certain degree. Our mandate is that of the Catholic faith. A guardsman must therefore already be a committed believer.

I am sure that there are people in Switzerland who are critical of the Vatican. But basically I ask each troop member to keep a positive attitude.

Criticism is permitted among colleagues but it should not take place during working hours.

swissinfo: The troops are also responsible for the pope’s security. How seriously do people take you?

E.M.: Obviously everyone assumes that we are simply there to offer some “colour” and to serve the pope as a guard of honour. But statistics show that 80 per cent of our time is spent on guard duty and only eight per cent on ceremonial affairs.

Wearing our [Renaissance] uniforms during guard duty creates a friendly atmosphere. I think that we would have more problems if we simply wore military uniforms; we would look more threatening.

We only recruit specialists for the pope’s personal protection. It is very important that they have plenty of experience and are able to correctly evaluate different situations.

Then there are the technical aspects of working as a bodyguard, which we practise in Switzerland with the army. In international terms, we provide an extremely modern bodyguard service.

swissinfo: The pope is a very public person. How much does this complicate your work?

E.M.: When someone is elected pope, I imagine that the person has great faith in God. The pope is certainly not the easiest person to protect. The United States president is probably more straightforward.

But the pope must be able to assume his official functions. The worst image of a pope is the one behind bulletproof glass: you can see him, but he is not as charismatic. The pope needs to be able to shake people’s hands and speak to them.

Certain security concessions therefore need to be made. But it is also not possible to guarantee the pope’s safety 100 per cent.

swissinfo: You have said that women are unlikely to ever serve as Swiss Guards during your term of office. You mentioned that accommodation was limited, but are there any other explanations?

E.M.: Accommodation is problematic, but the main reason is the difficulty commanding a mixed force of men and women.

I am not the only person to have raised this issue. Mixed forces have been set up for political reasons in many situations but not because they make sense.

Conflict exists wherever young men and women are together. The question is not who is responsible; conflicts just happen. The thing is, why I should saddle our little barracks with such problems, especially as we are able to recruit enough guardsmen.

swissinfo: And why are there no foreign guards in your contingent?

E.M.: That kind of Swiss Guard would probably be even harder to command than one with women. We are a small contingent but we already speak four languages.

There would also probably be differences of approach, as we would not speak the same military language. The Swiss Guard has stood the test of time for 500 years, so why should we change anything?

swissinfo-interview: Andreas Keiser

Elmar Theodor Maeder has been commanding officer of the Swiss Guard since November 2002. He was deputy commanding officer from 1998-2002.
Born in eastern Switzerland in 1963, he received a law degree from Fribourg University.
Before joining the Swiss Guards he worked as a law clerk and also had his own trust company.
He lives with his wife and three children, aged eight to 14 years old, in the Swiss Vatican Guard accommodation.

The Swiss Guard is honoured every year on May 6. New guardsmen are sworn in on that day in St Peter’s Square.

A mass also takes place in memory of the 147 Swiss Guards who died in 1527 defending Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome.

This year, May 6 was also the highlight of the 500-year anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Swiss Vatican Guard.

The Swiss Vatican Guard, which is known as the smallest army in the world, comprises 110 men. It reports to the Pope and is financed by the Vatican.

The Vatican City gendarmerie, under the orders of the Vatican, is also responsible for the Pope’s security and law and order matters, as are the Italian police outside the Vatican City walls.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR