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Behind the scenes with the Swiss Guard on the eve of the swearing-in ceremony

The vice-commander of the Swiss Guard trains the young recruits.

© HLefèvre I.MEDIA

I.Media - published on 05/04/24

34 new recruits to the Swiss Guard will be sworn in on Monday by Pope Francis. We visited the barracks of the famous papal army.

The Swiss Guard barracks in the heart of the Vatican are a hive of activity. With just a short time to go before the new guards are sworn in, the soldiers of the world’s smallest army are on their toes. No detail is left to chance in preparation for the traditional ceremony on May 6.

In the weapons room, the metal breastplates that make up the mythical uniform of this army of 135 men in the service of the popes since 1506 are once again brushed with oil. In an adjoining room hang the famous gala uniforms with their blue and yellow stripes and red cuffs.

With the help of elders, the young recruits manage to don the armor, which weighs around 15 kg (33 lbs). “The weight of history,” breathes one of them, recalling that May 6 commemorates the 147 Swiss halberdiers killed by Charles V’s troops who were threatening Pope Clement VII

Young guards help their comrade to don his cuirass.
Young guards help their comrade to don his cuirass.
A Swiss Guard brushes a recruit's cuirass with oil.
A Swiss Guard brushes a recruit’s cuirass with oil.

In the Guard’s courtyard, decorated with the flags of the Swiss cantons, they rehearse the movements of the picket. Under the watchful eye of two officers, the new recruits tirelessly execute their halberd maneuvers, moving to and fro to the beat of the drums, in a synchronization that must tend to perfection.

Next Monday, the 34 soldiers will enter the courtyard of St. Damasus — one of the Vatican’s most beautiful courtyards — to the sound of trumpets as they swear allegiance to the pope. 

“In front of the flag, my brain will turn ‘off'”

“The first time I touched a halberd, it seemed impossible to do what the others did,” admits Gaël, who arrived on January 1 to serve the pontiff. Little by little, through eight 3-hour training sessions, the mechanics of the picket have gotten smooth, and the young man from the commune of Saint-Aubain is now confident of his ability to blend into the movement of the Guard.

At the age of 21, he will be one of 16 French-speaking members of the new class to step forward before the guard flag and pronounce the oath, three fingers raised to heaven. In front of his family and friends from Switzerland, the solemn moment will be charged with emotion.

“When I’m called to stand in front of the flag, my brain will turn ‘off ‘… Then it’ll come back on two minutes later, when I’m back in the ranks,” the young man predicts. 

At 21, Gaël prepares to take the oath in his gala uniform.
At 21, Gaël prepares to take the oath in his gala uniform.

Gaël discovered the barracks several years ago during a trip to Rome with his parish. “I put it aside while I finished my studies,” explains Gaël, who began to think about serving the pope while training as a carpenter. Then he applied, passed the selection process, and joined the barracks, where “the whole of Switzerland mingles,” he says with a smile. 

Trained in combat techniques

The first two months were devoted to training. First in Rome, where they were introduced to the various Guard departments and the Vatican environment, followed by intensive Italian language courses and movement and marching exercises. Then in Switzerland, in the canton of Ticino, where the young recruits were taken in hand by police instructors for weapons and self-defense training. 

Enlisted for at least 26 months in this Catholic army, young Gaël, who had never left home before, knows that he will leave Rome with new maturity. 

“The Guard’s level of training is the most important point. It allows us to guarantee service from A to Z,” agrees Corporal Eliah Cinotti, spokesman for the Guard, who arrived in Rome in 2019. “We’re trained in various combat techniques, but the Guard’s main weapon is the spoken word,” he says, stressing the importance of psychological training for the Guards. 

“At the Vatican gates, many desperate people come — people who have lost their jobs, others who perhaps want to end their lives, still others who think they are Jesus, St. Peter or St. Paul,” he recounts. “We have to be an attentive ear, listen to them, guide them, find solutions.”

Bearing witness to their Catholic faith through their service

Twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, the men of the small army protect Pope Francis and his residence, guard the official entrances to Vatican City, and provide a service of order and honor. The noncommissioned officers and officers also accompany the pontiff on his trips abroad, working closely with the Vatican Gendarmerie. 

Next Monday, the 34 new recruits will meet Pope Francis briefly before taking the oath of office. Last year, the Argentinian pontiff expressed his gratitude to these young men who discreetly protect him on a daily basis. He asked the class of 2023 to “bear witness” to their faith in their various places of service. 

“On the faces of those you meet every day, whether they be members of the Roman Curia, pilgrims, or tourists, you will find many invitations to recognize and share God’s love for everyone,” he said, giving them perspective on their mission.

ItalyPope FrancisRomeVatican
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