Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Changing of the Guard

On this 481st anniversary of the Sack of Rome -- when 147 Swiss Guards gave their lives on the steps of St Peter's to protect Pope Clement VII from the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V -- the corps initiated this year's crop of 34 recruits this morning at the traditional ceremony in San Damaso, the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace.

A Vatican mainstay since 1506, the guard remains a highly-coveted assignment for young Swiss men; among other qualities, aspiring members must be between 19 and 30, unmarried, at least 174cm (5'9"), sterling in character and their practice of the faith. In return for remaining ramrod through papal ceremonies and being photographed by tourists and media almost as much as the Pope himself, each gets the experience of a lifetime, from duty inside the papal apartment and plainclothes service in the pontiff's retinue on the road, to lifelong friendships of every sort and all the perks of living behind the walls without the burdens of the clerical state.

These, however, are merely the peripherals of committed service. At their induction ceremony, the new recruits are administered the following oath:
I swear I will faithfully, loyally and honorably serve the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI and his legitimate successors, and also dedicate myself to them with all my strength, sacrificing if necessary also my life to defend them. I assume this same commitment with regard to the Sacred College of Cardinals whenever the See is vacant.

Furthermore I promise to the Commanding Captain and my other superiors, respect, fidelity and obedience. This I swear! May God and our Holy Patrons assist me!
Each new guard then approaches the regiment's banner -- bearing the shields of both the reigning pontiff and its founder Pope Julius II. Holding the flag with his left hand and lifting his right "with three fingers open, as a symbol of the Trinity," he says aloud his name, swearing that he "will observe faithfully, loyally and honorably all that has now been read out to me! May God and his saints assist me!" While each guard is free to take his oath in any of Switzerland's four official languages: German, French, Italian or Romansch, the majority of recruits are usually German-speaking.

In advance of today's celebrations, B16 -- a staunch supporter of the corps -- received the guard yesterday, using its uniform to remind the community not just of its mission, but the importance of its members' example:
[The Pope] pointed out how, five centuries after the foundation of the corps, "the spirit of faith that encourages young Swiss to leave their beautiful land to come and serve the Pope in the Vatican remains unchanged."

"The love for the Catholic Church remains the same, to which you bear witness, rather than with words, with your bodies, which -- thanks to the characteristic uniforms -- are easily recognizable at the entrance to the Vatican and to pontifical audiences," he added. "Your historic uniforms speak [...] of your commitment to serve God by serving the 'servant of his servants.'"

Benedict XVI called on the new recruits "above all to assimilate this Christian and ecclesial spirit, which is the foundation and the motor of all the activities you will undertake."

"Always cultivate prayer and spiritual life, also by taking advantage of the crucial presence of your chaplain," he encouraged them. "Be open, straightforward and loyal. Learn how to appreciate the differences of personality and character that exist among you, because under the uniform each one is a unique and irreplaceable person called by God to serve his Kingdom of love and peace."

The Swiss Guard, the Pope affirmed, "is also a school of life," and he noted how during their period of service in the Vatican "many of your predecessors were able to discover their own vocation: to Christian marriage, to the priesthood, to consecrated life. This is a reason to praise God, but also to appreciate your corps."
PHOTO: AP/Alessandra Tarantino(1), Pier Paolo Cito(2); Reuters(3)