Pope thanks Swiss Guards for long service

The Pope paid tribute to the Swiss Guards during a special mass Keystone

Pope Benedict XVI has thanked the Swiss Papal Guards for 500 years of service as papal protectors at a special mass in St Peter's Basilica in Rome on Saturday.

This content was published on May 6, 2006 - 18:45

The mass was also attended by Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger, who was later received by the Pontiff.

The Pope led the mass to remember the 147 guards who died on May 6, 1527, while protecting Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome.

This was the biggest loss of life in the history of the army. The surviving members saved the life of Pope Clement.

In his speech, Pope Benedict praised the world's smallest army for their dedication, courage and loyalty, as well as for their faith.

"To be a Swiss Guard means to adhere without reservation to Christ and the Church and be ready to offer your life for this," said the Pontiff, as the present guards in their traditional crimson-plumed helmets and striped gold and blue uniforms stood to attention.

"I express a deserved and deeply felt thank you and I call on your to carry on with courage and loyalty," he said. "Be above all men of prayer, so that the divine wisdom can make you true friends of God."

Pope Benedict also praised the guards as young men who could serve as a model for others.

There are currently 110 guards, who are aged between 19 and 30 years of age. They must be Catholic and have completed Swiss military service.

The mass - a highlight in the celebrations marking the 500th anniversary - was followed later on Saturday by the annual swearing-in ceremony for 33 new members of the corps.

Papal audience

Swiss President Mortiz Leuenberger attended both events and also had an audience with the Pope.

Speaking after the meeting, Leuenberger said they had discussed the importance of inter-faith dialogue and talked about the relationship between the state and religion.

Both men agreed that dialogue between the faiths allowed for peaceful cohabitation. Leuenberger, the son of a Protestant pastor, said he had highlighted the importance of relations between different Christian faiths.

He added that he had also underlined the importance of the state in guaranteeing religious freedom.

None of the more controversial issues, such as abortion or registered partnerships for homosexual couples, were discussed, said Leuenberger.

Saturday's events followed a busy week of anniversary ceremonies honouring the Vatican Guard. On Thursday around 70 former guardsmen marched into St Peter's Square, ending a 27-day trek from Switzerland.

This was meant to retrace the steps of the first guards, Swiss mercenaries who were summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II - the warrior Pope - in 1506 to protect him and the Vatican.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Mercenaries were one of Switzerland's most important exports from the late Middle Ages up until the 19th century.

It is estimated that as many as two million Swiss men swore their loyalty to foreign heads of state between 1250 and 1850.

There are currently 110 Swiss Guards on duty at the Vatican, where they must serve at least two years.

Guard recruits must be Roman Catholic Swiss nationals, 19-30 years of age, single, high school graduates and at least 174cm tall. They must have completed Swiss military service.

Guards on duty carry lances and either a halberd or lance, but are also armed with pepper spray, tear gas and – depending on the situation – automatic weapons.

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