By Catherine Smibert
ROME, MAY 4, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Rome is being invaded by a group of individuals who have helped protect its heart over the past 500 years — the Swiss Guards, past and present.
The week surrounding their May 6 anniversary has been filled with celebrations marking their service to the papacy and the Church. Many of those who were ever directly connected to the Guard, and even those who weren’t, have arrived from Switzerland by the busloads for this pilgrimage.
One former Swiss Guard explained the reason for this mass movement.
“For us Swiss, it’s an identifiable privilege to have this job charged only to us,” Graziano Rossi told me. “And the guards still continue to give witness back home, even when their Rome days are long gone. We even dress in our uniforms for special occasions like Corpus Christi processions, weddings or ordinations.”
Rossi served in the corps from 1989 to 1992.
“Once you’re a guard, you’re a guard for life,” he said. “It’s like a definitive calling. … You renew your vows annually and are supposed to be on the ready for action at any stage.”
Though its days tend to be quieter than those of other armies, Rossi said the relevance of the small, traditional corps is still great in the modern world.
“It may not be big, but I know it’s the most powerful army in the way it moves people from all over the world — not in a military way but a symbolic way,” he said. “We’re witnesses to the power of the presence of peaceful authority.”
Indeed, it is with a certain majesty, intelligence and respect rather than brute force and sophisticated weaponry that the Guard maintains peace and order in papal ceremonies and around the Vatican.
Rossi said that a lot of the Guard’s potency depends on a “secret weapon.”
“While in service, we have an intense spiritual life,” he revealed. “Our chaplain takes care of our personal spiritual direction. We go on beautiful retreats, have mandatory Mass requirements and are offered daily rosary and vespers.”
Rossi calls it a highly evangelical experience that is vital for the youth of his country to experience. This is why he’s a part of the recruitment teams back home.
“We take two school groups to Rome every year to soak in the spirit and see what they think about giving over some of their life to this noble calling,” he explained. “Who could pass it up?”
* * *
The theme of this year’s plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences was “Vanishing Youth? Solidarity with Children and Young People in an Age of Turbulence.” Not surprisingly, the president of the academy figured that the meeting wouldn’t be complete without the presence of, well, young people.
This is why Mary Ann Glendon invited a handful of young representatives from around the globe to participate in the five-day event. The outcome was a success, she said.
“The youth did not hesitate to raise their hands, to pose questions and make comments,” Glendon said at Tuesday’s concluding press conference at the Vatican.
“They are full of ideas that mainly challenge their elders not to give up on them — to remind us of the tremendous resource we have in the younger generation,” said the Harvard Law School professor.
One of the main concerns that the under-30 conferees cited was the breakdown of the family.
A Canadian, Patrick Fletcher, commented: “We’ve lost the culture of the parent.” Fletcher, a student at the Gregorian University, said that the family needs to be “strengthened with good policies” that help it pass on values to the next generation.
And to fight the materialism, individualism and relativism that can pervade the family unit, “we need a renewal of academia which must begin in the Catholic universities,” Fletcher added. “Too often students take classes at Catholic universities and are not presented with the Church’s teaching in either social or doctrinal areas.”
Another conferee, Alice Hochart of France, agreed that it’s possible to go beyond the problem of family breakdown if schools have good formators.
“We need to realize what is happening and get someone to take over what the family is not transmitting — our education sectors,” said Hochart, herself a teacher.
There was general agreement when Fletcher called on Catholic teachers to fearlessly present the truth to the young who are open to God.
“If this were to happen in combination with on-campus ministry and evangelical efforts, then we could see a renewal in the culture of our youth and, consequently, in the coming generations” as they become formed to lead families again.
Michelle Mueller from the United States gave an example of how an on-campus approach can tap the resources of “visionaries who admit that the adult generation has dropped the ball.”
She told the academy of a priest who set up weekly catechetical meetings which are frequented by hundreds of students at the University of Kansas.
The priest’s “secret ingredient” was to invite local businesspeople to share tips of “applied Catholicism” with the students, Mueller said.
By contrast, young people in developing nations face different kinds of problems. In poor countries they are more prone to lose their childhood altogether, due to child labor and other forms of exploitation.
“The young are instructed to work and to work hard,” Wamutu Gitahi of Kenya told the academy. Yet, Gitahi feels a sense of childlike worthiness can be gained if the community opens up to some of the ideas the young have.
Judging by an example cited by a 24-year-old Australian, James McCarthy, mountains can be moved when the young take matters into their own hands.
He recounted how young people in Sydney presented a petition with 10,000 signatures to Cardinal George Pell in 2001, asking him to support an application to the Holy See to host the World Youth Day in the Australian city.
“The bid represented the initiative and aspirations of young Catholic Australians and was not, as an initiative, the proposal of the Australian hierarchy,” McCarthy said.
All the more proof that a new generation of Catholics know how to stand up for their faith, so long as they are encouraged to.
* * *
Pictures at an Exhibition
Posters hanging around Rome remind the city of the many initiatives in memory of Pope John Paul II, a year after his death.
A case in point is an exhibition entitled “… I Stand at the Door and Knock.” It’s available for viewing every day in the foyer of the Vatican Radio offices and runs until May 11.
The multifaceted, 40-piece exhibition takes you on a journey through some of the Italian headlines that appeared after the death of the Pope. Artist Umberto Stefanelli cut out the headlines and placed them in the background of portraits of the world’s “little ones” whom John Paul II loved so much.
Stefanelli told me he achieves this three-dimensional effect through a technique called Polaroid motion transfer. “It’s a long process and one you need a lot of patience for,” he said. “But both the result and the reason make it worth it.”
The artist says he was inspired to do this work when reading over the headlines of April 3, 2005.
“It was as if I just knew that I had to pay homage to this great man in a unique artwork that could represent two key elements of his mission — traveling and the protection of the most vulnerable of our society,” Stefanelli explained.
Stefanelli said he hopes that the exhibition brings out two spectrums of life — the passion of the elderly Holy Father and the beauty of children.
“They are pictures I’ve captured in many lands,” said the renowned photographer. “But the thing that always strikes me is the power behind the eyes of these kids. In their eyes we can find so much inspiration and I want to encourage all to allow ourselves to learn from them.”
Stefanelli says that John Paul II knew the value of listening to the young and that we need to follow in his footsteps.
“Both the children and the late Holy Father are still challenging people as Jesus did,” Stefanelli told me. “They are here, knocking, and available for anyone to take notice of what they have to say forever.”
* * *
Catherine Smibert can be reached at [email protected].