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Vatican struggles to replenish Pope's Swiss guard

Low wages may be taking the shine off being the Pope's personal bodyguard (picture: www.vatican.va)

(Low wages may be taking the shine off being the Pope's personal bodyguard (picture: www.vatican.va))

The world's smallest army, the Pope's Swiss Guard, is facing a severe shortage of staff and having trouble finding new recruits.

May 6 is the day when the Vatican swears in new recruits for the Pope's personal retinue of protectors. The pontiff greeted the newest members of his Guard on Monday, urging them to make the most of their time at the Vatican.

"I hope, that despite the difficulties and heaviness of your service, that you fully live this time of mission as a deepening of your faith and your attachment to the Church,and as an experience of fraternity among you," John Paul II told the new guards.

Although 28 new recruits are joining the ranks, the Guard is still understaffed by some 27 men. Under normal circumstances, the Guard would be composed of 120 officers and soldiers, but today has just 93.

The commander, Colonel Pius Segmüller, admitted that recently there had been little interest in his corps, although he said the problem was being addressed. "There is a foundation that has been set up to find recruits."

Low pay

Some observers say the low salaries may have something to do with the empty ranks. Colourful uniforms and the glory of serving the Pope in the world's last official mercenary army are no longer enough to entice young Swiss Catholics.

A recruit can expect to earn just over SFr1,500 ($942) a month - a seemingly paltry sum. However, Segmüller said the salary has to be seen alongside the other benefits of the job.

"The guards pay no taxes or health insurance," he said. "They have almost no living or food costs and they have two duty-free shops at their disposal. They can save up to 75 per cent of their salary."

Segmüller is also optimistic that the Guard will be able to fill its ranks once again. "We have noticed a renewed interest in Swiss Guard careers," he said. "It is probably due to the current unfavourable economic climate in Switzerland."

Medici garb

The Swiss Guard was created by Pope Julius II in 1506, and is most recognisable for its Renaissance-style garb in the colours of the Medici family. Visitors to the Vatican can see the Pope's soldiers guarding various entrances carrying their halberds, a sort of combined spear and battleaxe.

The guards also carry out plainclothes security duties around the Pope whenever he moves in public. Members of the Swiss Guard are trained in self-defence and the use of firearms.

Recruits must be Swiss, Catholic, under the age of 30, measure at least 173 centimetres and have completed their compulsory military service. They also need a certificate of good conduct from their local authorities and church.

The guards serve a minimum of two years, and can extend their service up to 25.

Murder

The Swiss Guard made headlines around the world in 1998 when its commander, Alois Estermann, and his wife were found shot dead. A Vatican investigation found that they had been murdered by a young corporal, Cédric Tornay, who went mad and then shot himself.

There have been lingering doubts about the thoroughness of the investigation. Tornay's mother, represented by two French celebrity lawyers, requested a new inquiry into her son's death last month. One of the lawyers is Jacques Vergès, better known for defending the Nazi Gestapo officer, Klaus Barbie.

The Vatican turned down the request for a new probe, saying there were no new elements to warrant reopening the investigation.

swissinfo with agencies


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