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Swiss Papal Guard preserves its tradition

A Swiss papal guard stands on duty at the Vatican

(Keystone Archive)

The Swiss Papal Guard continues its original mission and defends the ideas of courage and faith, a conference in Rome has heard.

The one-day event in the Italian capital marked the end of celebrations for the 500th anniversary of what is popularly known as the oldest army in the world.

"The Swiss Papal Guard is one of the rare institutions in Europe that has remained intact over the centuries," commented Gerhard Schuwey, former director of the Swiss Federal Office for Education and Science, who opened the event.

Experts from Switzerland, Germany and Italy attended the conference at the Swiss Institute in Rome, which organised the event in collaboration with authorities from the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.

The history of the papal army dates from January 22 when 150 Swiss guards, commanded by Kaspar von Silenen from canton Uri, entered Rome's Piazza del Popolo and were welcomed by Pope Julius II.

"The holy father wanted them for his personal defence. He knew their reputation as loyal soldiers, but also they were particularly ferocious and did not know the meaning of danger," commented historian Marco Venato.

"They had qualities which made them effective on the battlefield," he added.

Trust

Swiss guards showed that this trust was well placed. The conference participants were reminded of the sack of Rome on May 6, 1527 when 147 guards out of 189 died in a battle against 20,000 German and Spanish mercenaries to save the life of Pope Clement VII.

Since then the Swiss Papal has adopted the words of courage and loyalty (in Latin "acriter et fideliter") and May 6 has become the date when new guards traditionally take their oath.

The conference also touched on a certain number of political and religious anecdotes.

For example, it is remarkable that the Swiss Papal Guard, which continues the long tradition of Swiss mercenaries, is not considered in Switzerland as an army.

"The constitution of 1848 forbids it and legally it is considered simply as a police force," commented theologian Alois Odermatt.

Its political importance is also not to be underestimated, as demonstrated by the attendance of Swiss cabinet ministers at this year's jubilee celebrations.

"All the cabinet members, apart from [Swiss Finance Minister] Hans-Rudolf Merz, insisted in taking part in the festivities," Odermatt noted.

"And during these occasions each of them, Catholic or not, praised the commitment and faithfulness of the Swiss Papal Guard, not forgetting their role as Swiss ambassadors abroad."

swissinfo, Anna Passera in Rome

In brief

Swiss Papal Guard recruits must be of Swiss nationality, male, aged 19 to 30, at least 1.74m tall, and Catholic.

They must have done military service in Switzerland and hold a vocational qualification or high school leaving certificate.

When recruited they must be single, though they may marry at a later stage. The minimum period of service is two years.

Their monthly salary is SFr1,800 ($1,463) tax free. Board and lodging is included.

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500th anniversary

There have been celebrations throughout the year both in Switzerland and Italy marking the anniversary of the Swiss Papal Guard.

On April 7, about 100 former guards marched from Bellinzona in canton Ticino to Rome. It took them a month to complete the 723 kms, a journey taken by the first 150 Swiss guards in 1506.

The climax of the celebrations was on May 6 when 33 new guards were sworn in on St Peter's Square. Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger and about 1,000 Swiss from all over the country attended the event.

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