Laying Down One's Life for the Pope

Memories of a Former Bodyguard of John Paul II

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JAN. 20, 2011 ( For 12 years, retired Swiss Guard Captain Roman Fringeli was fully trained and prepared to lay down his life for the Pope.

Between 1987 and 1999, he protected the soon-to-be Blessed John Paul II as one of his five personal bodyguards on papal trips — a period of duty that involved 15 apostolic voyages to Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. 

For three and a half of those years, Fringeli led the Swiss Guard contingent when John Paul travelled abroad. «If the circumstances were such, I would sacrifice myself for the Pope,» he recalled. «This was always my thinking during the trips.»

Originally from Basel in northern Switzerland, Fringeli left the ancient pontifical army over 10 years ago. But his enthusiasm remains and he is eager to share his happy — and sometimes agonising — experiences of those momentous visits. 

He vividly recalls struggling to keep back a lunging crowd in Nairobi, shouting at the military in Mozambique to prevent a mass of people from getting too close to the Pope, and facing the daunting task of protecting the Pope in front of a million-strong crowd of faithful in Seoul. 

«I remember in Rwanda, during Mass, we had a warning of an airborne terrorist attack,» he said. «Can you imagine? And that was just four years before the genocide that took place there.» 

On another papal trip he was with the Pope on an old chartered plane as it made three aborted landing attempts in Lesotho because of fog. After diverting to Johannesburg, the papal party drove the five hours to Lesotho only to arrive to the sound of gunfire as special forces rescued a group of hostages. Pope John Paul II, in the capital Maseru to beatify the missionary priest Joseph Gérard, afterward visited some of the wounded in hospital. «That was a special trip, terrible — John Paul II wanted to offer a message of peace and that happens,» Fringeli recalled. 

But perhaps his most disturbing visit was to Berlin in 1996. Anarchists protested wildly, throwing missiles at thePopemobile while others paraded naked as the Pope went past. «Suddenly, these crazy people started throwing the red balloons filled with paint at the windows of the popemobile,» remembered Fringeli who was standing at the back of the Pope’s vehicle, trying to ward the protesters off. «I was ashamed of Germany for what happened — the police allowed the crowd to get too close to the popemobile and I told them to keep them away.» 

Benedict XVI will visit Berlin in September and some are concerned the same scenario might be repeated. «You never know with Berlin,» Fringeli said. «You can expect crazy people, [but] the Pope is from Germany so that might help and it depends, maybe the police will do a better job of controlling the crowds.» He said he was surprised that the German police seemed to be afraid to stop the crowd. «They didn’t want to touch them, especially in Paderborn [the Pope’s stop prior to Berlin] — in Africa they used sticks to keep them away.» 

But in Africa, he found local security could be too tough. On John Paul II’s 1995 trip to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, he remembers seeing a mentally unstable man who had wandered in front of the popemobile. The police picked him up by his legs, let him drop to the ground «like a sack of potatoes» and then hurled him into the crowd. Fringeli still appears disturbed by it, calling it «terrible» and «a scandal.»

No gun, no vest

Vatican protection for the Pope on papal trips has traditionally been provided by two plain clothed Swiss Guards, a captain and a corporal, and three Vatican Police. The rest of the protection is given over to local authorities who usually offer the Vatican security detail the use of a car. 

During his period of service, Fringeli didn’t wear a bullet proof jacket — it would have been too heavy and «my protection was my body,» he said. Nor did he carry a weapon. «What can you do with guns and a crowd?» he said. «You would kill many people, and the same applies here in St. Peter’s Square basilica or at an audience.» 

Instead, he relied mostly on his eyesight and personal fitness. The former Swiss Guard showed me a photo of him dressed in a dark suit, walking next to John Paul II on a visit to Romania and squinting, his eyes trained on the surrounding crowds. «I’m always scanning around, looking for a sudden movement, someone running or jumping over the barricades,» he said. «That was my task.» 

I asked him what he thought of the security breach in St. Peter’s basilica during Midnight Mass in 2009, when a woman vaulted over the barriers, grabbed the Pope’s cassock, and pulled him to the ground, taking some of the procession with him. 

«You need to know that this happens in a split second,» he said. «Normally it’s the responsibility of the person on that side of the Pope, but it happened too quickly.» Fringeli said he didn’t want to teach others what to do, but instead of putting himself onto the woman, he would have tried to block her and keep her away. «It’s a mistake to put yourself onto the person as there’s a risk you’ll take the Pope down with you, which is what happened.» However, he insisted Vatican security is «very good» and better equipped than in his day.

Naturally, he has many fond memories of the late Pontiff, and is delighted at the news of his beatification. «For me John Paul II was a holy Pope — as all popes of the last two or three centuries have been,» he said. He stressed how John Paul II always said he was protected by Our Lady and that he put his survival from the attempt on his life in 1981 down to her intervention. 

«He was a messenger for peace,» he said. «Some have said it would have been better if he had stayed at the Vatican more and not travelled so much, but for the Pope these weren’t exciting trips — they had an intense schedule [that] lasted the whole day.» And he remembered how some people walked for days from Zambia to Zimbabwe just to see him. John Paul II’s 104 trips outside Italy, he said as a reminder, were also for those people, especially in poor countries, who would probably never make it to Rome. 

Fringeli fondly recalled how John Paul II would always make a point of thanking his security staff at the end of each trip. In his younger days, however, Pope John Paul II’s propensity for making spontaneous walkabouts did not always endear him to his bodyguards. «It wasn’t always easy travelling with the Pope because you didn’t know what he wanted to do that was outside of the programme,» said the former Swiss Guardsman. «But experience helps you very much.»

As for himself, Fringeli said that despite the demands of papal travel, he always found them deeply satisfying and his enthusiasm never waned. «It was strange,» he said. «During the trip you’d get tired but at the end of it, I’d always be thinking: ‘What could the next one be?’ It was like a drug.»

And he paid tribute to two key figures connected with the apostolic voyages: Cardinal Roberto Tucci, the longtime trip organizer whom he called «a great, great man,» and Camillo Cibin, the late Vatican Police bodyguard, who continued to protect the Pontiff until he was 80. 

«Without both of them,» he said, «the Pope wouldn’t have been able to make a trip.»

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at:

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