In 2016, the Pontifical Swiss Guards celebrated 510 years of loyal service to the Pope. Every year on May 6, new recruits are sworn into service in the Vatican, an event witnessed by thousands of visitors.
When I first saw the Swiss Guards of the Vatican ten years ago, like many other tourists who had never seen them before, I was intrigued by their nature. Clad in colorful uniforms as if they were still living in the Renaissance, they also did not look like the rest of the Romans.
Instead of the dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin tone of the charming Italians, these young men were clearly lighter-skinned, sometimes blond, often blue-eyed, and most of the time just standing still.
I met my husband on that trip to Rome. He was, at the time, in the service of the Swiss Guard. Mind you, we did not meet when he was standing still or in uniform. But I did get briefed on the origins of the guards.
And since the Pontifical Swiss Guards or Guardia Svizzera Pontificia, celebrates their 510th anniversary of service to the Pope this year, let's have a short history lesson to commemorate.
History of the Swiss Guards
The Pontifical Swiss Guards is the last-standing mercenary company of Switzerland. After the founding of the Confederation in the 13th century, when fighting as mercenaries was a common occupation, many Swiss men regularly enlisted as hired mercenaries for foreign lords.
Because of their fighting tactics, the Swiss became known as loyal and indestructible troops. They often joined brief campaigns in the summer months, to later return home paid and ready for the winter months ahead.
By the time Pope Julius II was elected pope in 1503, knowing of their reputation, he immediately requested their services. The contract was finalized in 1505.
January 22, 1506, marks the foundation day of the Swiss Guard. On this day, 150 Swiss mercenaries, led by a commander from the canton of Uri, entered the Vatican for the first time to be blessed by the Pope.
Why May 6 is a Swiss Celebration in Rome
Although this day is celebrated today by a humble church service, the more popular annual ceremony is held on May 6. On this faithful day in 1527, during the Sack of Rome, mercenaries stormed the Vatican. No less than 147 of the 189 Swiss Guards died protecting the Pope as he fled to escape through the Passetto (secret passage) to Castel Saint'Angelo.
After the surrender, twelve of the remaining 42 chose to join the Papal Guard and their former enemies, the German and Spanish mercenaries. But it was not until 300 years later when the Papal State and its Papal Guard were abolished, and only the Pontifical Swiss Guards remained.
From that day onwards, the Swiss Guards have been solely responsible for protecting the Pope and his residence in the Vatican and his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. To commemorate the sacrifice of the Swiss Guards on that fated day in 1527, the swearing-in ceremony of 30-some new Halberdiers is held on May 6 each year.
This tradition remembers the past and reinforces their ongoing commitment to protect the Papacy.
The ceremony is held in German, the language spoken by the majority of the guards, and the following oath is read to them aloud by the Chaplain of the Guard:
"I swear I will faithfully, loyally and honourably serve the Supreme Pontiff Francis 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 recruit is summoned and marches alone to the Swiss Guards' regimental flag to confirm the oath.
He clutches the flag in his left hand, holds out his right hand with three fingers open to symbolize the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and declares:
"I, (name), swear I will observe faithfully, loyally and honorably all that has now been read out to me! May God and his saints assist me!"