Saturday, January 21, 2006

Happy Birthday, Dear Swiss Guard....

"[O]n that day, towards the evening, a group of one hundred and fifty Swiss soldiers commanded by Captain Kasparvon Silenen, of Canton Uri, passed through the Porta del Popolo and entered for the first time the Vatican, where they were blessed by Pope Julius II."
Tomorrow marks the 500th anniversary of that day, 22 January 1506, when the Pontifical Swiss Guard was founded. And the Vatican is prepared to throw them a party of a kind unseen in a long time.

Of course, this is due to the thanks which the Holy See owes the Guard for keeping Popes safe and sound for half a millennium -- the Corps also guards the pontiffs on the road, in plainclothes.
But there's an even more practical reason for the lovefest which begins tomorrow when the Guard takes the spotlight at the Angelus (which is looking to be quite a full event), after a big morning Mass celebrated by Cardinal Sodano in the Sistina.

It's quite simple: The Guard Knows All.

The Swiss Guards know where the bones are buried in the Vatican. They know what's doing, who's doing, who's doing what and who's doing who. So it makes sense to lavish the people who keep the secrets of the place -- well, most of them....

I was talking with one of our top ops on the morning of the press conference back in November at which the Corps was laying out its anniversary plans. Usually, with few exceptions (like the impending encyclical press conference -- complete with flowers from Ottawa -- this coming Wednesday noon), pressers in the John Paul II Hall at Sala Stampa are relatively ho-hum affairs.

Ten people show up, all Italians screaming at each other. And John Allen.

But when the Guard let loose its plans, the source said, "You wouldn't believe it -- everyone was there. Everyone." Because, of course, you don't want to run afoul of the all-seeing eye.

From this side of the Pond, the Guard's former Chaplain and devoted patron, Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia, will be celebrating from a distance. Members of the Guard even crossed the Atlantic to help Rigali settle in when he set up shop in St. Louis in 1994, such was the loyalty which marked his enduring closeness with the Corps.

Though they begin in the morning, the milestone celebrations hit their peak at the blossom of Roman Spring: the days surrounding 6 May, when the Guard annually inducts its new members and has its annual papal audience on the anniversary of the 1527 Sack of Rome.

PHOTO: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi/File