Swiss Guard, Not Just a Photo-op; Birthday Book

An Old Papal Corps and Its Modern Challenges

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MAY 20, 2004 ( Chivalry is not dead. Earlier this month, 33 new Swiss Guards stepped forward to swear their fealty to the Pope in Paul VI Hall.

For the first time in 30 years and only the second time in the history of the Guard, the ceremony had to be held inside, due to a torrential rainstorm that pelted Rome.

Traditionally, the swearing-in ceremony has taken place in the courtyard of San Damaso under the loggia of the Holy Father. Despite the change of venue, however, the spirits of the new guards were not dampened.

«I love the Swiss Guard. I love the discipline. I love the mission of the Swiss Guard to protect the Pope,» said Halberdier Gautier Porot, a 20-year-old native of Geneva who took up service in February and pronounced his oath of loyalty to the Pope on May 6.

«I came here as a boy and saw these big guys with the beautiful uniforms and wanted to be like them, and now, here I am,» Porot said.

The Swiss Guard is the corps that protects the Pope and the College of Cardinals. They were founded by Pope Julius II in 1506 and are preparing to celebrate their 500th anniversary in two years time.

«People think of us as a tourist attraction for photo-ops,» observed Porot. «But the Guard was here before Bramante laid the foundation stone for the new St. Peter’s.»

The corps is 110 men strong and the troops live in barracks immediately inside the St. Anne’s Gate of Vatican City. As the name suggests, the guards are all Swiss but from various cantons, so they speak French, Italian, German or Romansh, a Swiss dialect. The majority of the guards come from the German-speaking cantons so the principal language in the barracks is German with some French mixed in.

Asked if the many languages cause tensions in such a confined setting, Porot stated, «The Swiss are very patriotic. We speak four languages but are united.»

The young recruits, generally between the ages of 18 and 25, all have done their obligatory military service in Switzerland, although more of them find out about the Swiss Guards from their local parishes than from the military.

After the long application process — which includes written essays, medical checks and interviews, as well as the delivery of baptismal, first Communion and confirmation certificates — the chosen few can come to Rome to start recruit school, a sort of «basic training» program.

On arriving this winter, Porot received his first uniform. Not the colorful ceremonial uniforms claimed by some to be designed by Michelangelo but a gray-blue jumpsuit, which did little to keep out the cold during the 5 a.m. drills.

This became a preparation for the «really tough» period of training. Combat drills, physical training and learning the labyrinth of the Apostolic Palace formed just a part of the recruits’ lessons. Stakes are high. They are tested on the layout of the Papal Palace at the end of the month and failure means a ticket home.

They also must learn to wield the halberd, the multifunctional lance developed by the corps in the 16th century. The pointed end serves as a conventional lance, the curving crescent shape pulled riders off horses and the blade end dispatched the enemy once dismounted. A kind of early Swiss Army Knife, maxi size.

But the biggest challenge involves learning to stand still for hours at one’s post. During sentinel and honor service at Masses and other papal functions, guards are required to remain immobile. According to Porot, this means «cutting off all messages from the body to the brain.»

To motivate and spiritually support the recruits, the chaplain of the guards celebrates daily Mass for them and is always available to talk about questions and problems. «A great guy, a real lifeline at times,» said Porot.

But the real inspiration for the recruits to keep going is «seeing the Pope once, maybe twice a week,» during the audiences or Masses. «This ignites our energy. He has this aura.»

The young man who chooses to join the Guard in this day and age, however, needs an extra measure of courage as Vatican City is often noted as a potential target of terrorism.

Not for nothing does the swearing-in date fall on the same day as the Sack of Rome in 1527. On that day 16,000 mercenary troops, the Landesknechte, entered the city of Rome looting and killing all in their path. The leader, the Duke of Bourbon, carried a golden noose across his saddle with which he intended to hang the Pope.

As the Landesknechte approached the Vatican gate, most of the Swiss Guards engaged the troops in battle while the rest escorted Pope Clement VII to the Papal Fort, Castel Sant’Angelo, along a passageway in the walls. Of the 200-man guard, 147 died that day to protect Pope Clement.

While admitting that they «thought a lot about the danger during Easter time» as the Vatican had been deemed a high-risk area, «worrying about it, you just stop living,» Porot said.

«If we have to die, we die. Just like they did in 1527,» he added. «We have to honor and respect their memories. That’s what we swear to, that’s what we do. Protect the Pope.»

* * *

A Krakow Chronicle

Tuesday marked John Paul II’s 84th birthday. Several bishops, dignitaries and the Prime Minister of Portugal personally extended their best wishes. Throughout the day, groups in St. Peter’s square would erupt in a chorus of «Happy Birthday» to the amazement of passers-by.

The Holy Father chose to commemorate this day by presenting another landmark in this prolific and prodigious pontificate, his new book, «Arise! Let Us Go!» released in Italian, Polish, Spanish, German and French. (English readers will have to wait another month.)

The book picks up where the autobiographical «Gift and Mystery» left off, offering reflections from his episcopal nomination in 1958 to the Second Vatican Council.

The title is taken from Mark 14:42 when Jesus wakes the apostles for the third time in the Garden of Gethsemane telling them «the hour has come» and that «he that betrays me is at hand.»

In the book, John Paul II shares memories from this rich period of his life. Threads of humor enliven the pages. When told that he had been appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow at age 38, Karol Wojtyla demurred. «Your Eminence, I’m too young!» The wise archbishop, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, answered: «That is a failing that you will be freed from soon enough.»

The Holy Father uses words of appreciation for his many friends and helpers over the years, among them, Don Jozef Kurzeja, «the heroic priest» who assisted him during the «battle for the church» at Nowa Huta, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, «faithful friend.» There are also fond references to Pope Paul VI.

The stirring last chapter, «God and Courage,» hearkens to his famous mantra, «Be not afraid.» Reflecting on martyrs old and new, from St. Stanislaus of Krakow to St. Maximilian Kolbe, with a touching recognition of the sacrifice of Cardinal François Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân, he draws strength from thoughts of the Holy Land and his voyages there.

* * *

Digging the Forum

Visitors to Rome often ask me if there is anything left to excavate in this city. There are indeed enormous stretches of the city that simply cannot be excavated because the Senate or the Prime Minister’s residence is sitting on them, but nonetheless, a great deal of work has yet to be done.

I was fortunate enough to spend a morning with two archaeologists who are heading up one of the most exciting excavations of recent years, the Forum of the emperor Trajan.

Marcus Ulpius Nerva Trajan reigned from A.D. 98 to 117. The first non-Italian to become emperor (he was Spanish), Trajan turned out to be one of the most dynamic rulers of Rome. Conquering Dacia, Parthia and Upper Mesopotamia (modern Romania, Armenia and Iran) he poured the war booty into renovating

With the help of the celebrated architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, Trajan constructed the Forum that bears his name, an immense complex east of the Roman Forum. Needing huge amounts of space, builders dug out a section of the Quirinal Hill, shoring up the space with a semi-circular hall. Nearby stood Trajan’s markets, the world’s first department store.

In addition to libraries, temples and a giant equestrian statue (the great hall was 586 feet long, the open square 380 by 312 feet), Trajan added a novelty in monumental architecture to his Forum, a 98-foot-high honorary column, decorated from top to bottom with a continuous bas-relief sculpture portraying the battles and events leading up to Trajan’s victories.

The result was a monumental complex so amazing it was deemed one of the wonders of the world. The grandeur of the Forum continued to make an impact even after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476.

In his «Golden Legend,» Jacopo da Voragine tells of Pope Gregory the Great who was so moved while walking through the Forum that he prayed for the salvation of Trajan’s soul. (As the story goes, Gregory was successful but was warned not to pray for damned souls any more.)

The centuries were not kind to the site: Its marble was stripped, sewers exposed to be reused as kilns, the column became a tourist attraction, and earthquakes brought many of the gigantic structures to the ground.

The French began excavating the Forum in 1811, but it wasn’t until Mussolini’s day that a serious exploration took place. A vast amount of the Forum was uncovered from 1928 to 1934.

Mussolini, however, at this point did an unexpected thing. He re-erected a few columns from the great hall and then covered up the excavation to build a road, the Fori Imperiali down the center of it. The avenue was intended as a parade ground for the Italian troops with the Colosseum as a backdrop and the Imperial Forums as a cornice.

From 1998 to 2000, professor James Packer of Northwestern University and author of «The Forum of Trajan in Rome» and Roberto Meneghini of the Rome Superintendent’s Office have been working on the excavation and reconstruction of this site. Furthermore, they are slated to begin new excavations in the neighboring Forum of Augustus this fall.

Unearthing the areas covered by Mussolini, as well as excavating the as-yet uncovered parts of the complex, their findings have reopened debates regarding the structure of the Forum.

Meneghini found the remains of the base of the Trajan’s equestrian statue, not in the expected place in the center of the square, but against a tripartite wall, seemingly designed like a stage setting. It seems that the statue was set up with a theatrical backdrop showing an evolution in forum planning.

«Already the Column of Trajan is an absolute novelty,» said Meneghini. «If we only had the base and no column, we would find it hard to believe that the architect had thought of such a thing.»

This Forum appears to have been full of surprises. During the dig, Meneghini also found the remains of a 40-foot column lying exactly where it had fallen.

«This sort of stone came only from Numidia, and was imported by the Romans,» he explained. The size of the columns, of solid Numidian yellow stone, must have amazed visitors. All the other columns that have been found of this stone are much smaller.

The archaeologists also unearthed the 13th-century Church of St. Urban as well as the hospital of the Knights of Jerusalem (now known as the Knights of Malta) from around the same time.

Here began the lively debate between the American archaeologist and the Italian. Packer thinks the church and hospital should be removed to allow further exploration of the principal monument: the Forum. Meneghini believes that these buildings are precious evidence of the evolution of Rome and deserve to remain.

An international conference will be held to determine the fate of these two stubborn medieval relics. St. Urban and the Knights are no strangers to adversity, however. St. Urban was martyred under Diocletian, and the Knights withstood the Great Siege of Malta.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome Campus. She can be reached at

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