Interview with Sergeant Major Daniel Koch of the Pontifical Swiss Guard
Swiss Guard Sergeant Major Daniel Koch: Yes, of course. It seems like it was yesterday. I remember the first day very well, as we arrived late. There were six of us. It was October 1, 1992. We took the first flight from Switzerland at around 7 a.m. We arrived in Rome at around 11 a.m. If I remember well, we got some coffee or cappuccino. Then we organized ourselves to reach the Vatican. Now there is a shuttle service for new recruits, but at that time there was nothing. The appointment was at the Cortile d’Onore (the Honor Courtyard). We took a cab, and at the gate a Swiss Guard stopped us as he didn’t know us yet. He had to take all the materials, go to the armory and then to the tailor. In the afternoon some of us had to go to the barber for a haircut. I did as well…
How did you decide to become a Swiss Guard?
Koch: I made the decision on my own, but I had a friend who had always talked about entering the Pontifical Swiss Guard. I, personally, was less enthusiastic, as I had served an extended military service in Switzerland and become a corporal. I had had enough of military service. I learned that the Swiss Guard is a military corps, so I was not interested at all. But he insisted so much that I decided to ask for the documents on my own without saying anything to him. The documents arrived. I read them all. I thought, “OK,” and I put them aside. Then I read them once again. I thought it might be a good thing to serve not only the Church or the Pope, but to give a particular service to Jesus Christ. I put them aside once again. I read them again after a few days, and after the third time I decided to come here. I took all the documentation to my friend and I said that I had made a decision and if he wanted to come with me, he was welcome. “What?” he said. He was very surprised and a little confused. He had some doubts. But we entered together, on the same day, October 1, 1992. He was among those six. He didn’t like the service in the Vatican too much, unlike me. It has been an honor for me to be here for all these 20 years.
What has being a Swiss Guard brought to your life?
Koch: In these 20 years I experienced many unique moments being very close to the Holy Father. When you are a young guard, it happens that you are on your own and the Pope comes to you and exchanges a few words. Those are the moments which last for your whole lifetime. As significant was the first meeting with John Paul II in the Blessing Hall at the monthly rosary on the first Saturday. When the Pope came, our instructor presented us to him. The Pope greeted each of us personally, also me. I did not know what to say. I was touched. I had never thought that the Holy Father would come to me. That was very impressive to experience, at the beginning. That touched my heart and soul.
The first meeting with Benedict XVI was similar, though I knew him already as a cardinal. I met him the day after the election in the elevator in the Domus Sanctae Marthae. They had to renovate the papal apartment, so Pope Benedict had to live at the Domus for almost two weeks. So, we did our service there as well. One day I got on the elevator together with the Pope and his secretary, Msgr. Georg Gänswein. The Pope asked me: “How tall are you?” “190 cm,” I said. “You are very tall. To become a Swiss Guard, how tall does someone have to be?” I answered: “Only 174 cm.” “Then,” he continued, “I could not become a Swiss Guard, as I am only 171 cm tall.” I said: “Holy Father, you are always welcome with us. You can become a Swiss Guard because you have such a great heart and soul. That is what is the most important finally. Not the height.”
Only later did I realize with whom I had spoken. Not just anybody can be on the same elevator with the Holy Father…
What kind of a person is Benedict XVI from your perspective? Some in the media called him “panzer Kardinal.”
Koch: He was called “panzer Kardinal” because he was like many Germans are. Rigid. He didn’t accept some insults from others or from cardinals. He followed his line. It is right. If someone follows what Jesus said, it is always right. Certainly, it is not easy, people think differently, but the Pope has to be conservative and rigid. Otherwise it is not good for the Church. I do not always agree with what he says either. Probably, some things might be done differently. But I defend him anyway. I defend him and I say that what he says is right. This is the way we should work. This is what the young don’t understand. After two years they don’t understand what our mission is. Our mission is to defend also what the Pope says, not only his person. I’ve never had any difficulty. In Switzerland, of course, people ask me why the Pope takes so many trips and has fun visiting other countries. I answer that they are not trips, but important missions. He doesn’t travel for pleasure. I’ve always said that I do not always agree with what the Holy Father says, but I defend him with all my heart, with all the power I have.
Looking back over all these years…
Koch: There were many events, important moments in my life. The first meeting, the audience with my parents, the Holy Year, the first trip with the Pope. I also had other interesting moments.
I met Mother Teresa when she visited the Pope. He knew it would be the last time, and so did she. She had such a smile and she took my hand. There was a strong transfer of warmth from her.
A unique moment for me was certainly the conclave. I did thirteen years of service with John Paul II, then seven with Benedict XVI. I was in a very special situation, because I could participate in many important events others could never experience. Surely, those are the days I will never forget. On the other hand, I have to say that I’ve never worked as hard as during the Conclave. It was interesting, the change between John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Toward the end, when we were notified that John Paul was leaving the papal apartment, there was still a lot of time, since he arrived in a wheelchair to the Hall or St. Peter’s Square. So we were at ease and we could drink some coffee.
Benedict was fast. As soon as he left the place, he was in the Square. We had to change our rhythm.
Then, it was interesting to be there for the 500th anniversary of the Pontifical Swiss Guard.
I made seven apostolic trips, one with John Paul II to Croatia and six with Benedict, to Poland, Brazil, Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, and Lebanon. It was the 100th trip for John Paul II and my first. There is a tradition among us that whoever goes on his first trip can greet the Pope. I said: “We have to celebrate both. For you it is the 100th trip and for me the first. It is an honor for me.” Maybe it wasn’t the right moment for a small joke like that. Certainly, all the trips were impressive.
Has Benedict XVI visited you privately?
Koch: As a cardinal he came often to celebrate a Sunday Mass for us or on feasts like St. Martin, our patron saint. He was often with us. In Castel Gandolfo, at the beginning of his pontificate, he visited us twice in our private quarters. There everything has a smaller dimension. He stayed with us two hours. We gave him some goods from Switzerland, because he is simple. It was a very family-like meeting. Nobody spoke about the internal problems (of the Swiss Guard), which there are. He told us many stories. When he was a child, he fell off his bike and didn’t want to go back home because he felt ashamed. It was a coincidence that I did the service twice when he was there. I enjoyed having those two meetings. Now, his brother comes when he is on vacation (at Castel Gandolfo). We offer him a simple gift: a band concert.
It won’t be easy to leave the Guard?
Koch: No, because here it is very beautiful. I’ve always been treated well. I felt at home. So, it is not easy to leave. You can’t cancel 20 years after one day without any thoughts. It is not easy. On the other hand, I must say that you should know or you should understand when it is time to leave, to change, to do something else. I prepared myself mentally in recent years. I didn’t come here planning to stay 20 years. I wanted to do two years and then leave.
But the Corps kept you here…
Koch: I wanted to enter the Swiss Police. I took all the exams. That year (maybe it was a more powerful voice from above), for economic reasons there wasn’t a police academy. Then, things were changed a little bit. When they invited me six months later for another interview in Switzerland, I said I would come. Then, it was in December, just before Christmas, I was invited to try on the Swiss Guard uniform. The Commandant wanted to see the recruits in their uniforms. It made me think that maybe it’s not the right moment to leave. I was uncertain what to do. I decided to visit Padre Pio’s shrine with another guard, to listen to his voice. But Padre Pio didn’t bring an end to my uncertainty. So, I had the impression that I should stay a little longer. I called the Police to say I wasn’t coming. And I ended up staying here 20 years…
Now, you are going to help the poor in the Philippines…
Koch: Yes, now I’m going to make another life. I make myself available for the poor. If I can help giving only a smile, it is already a lot. What I’m going to give to the poor, certainly I’ll receive back many times over. I’m convinced I have made the right decision. I’m leaving an old way to start a new one. For me, this is an important challenge.
How did the Holy Father react to your decision when he met you at your farewell audience?
Koch: He was very glad that I am going on a humanitarian mission, another service for the Church. Suddenly, he said to me what a pity that I’m not going to Switzerland, “because,” he said, “Switzerland too needs a mission.” It was a very nice meeting. I wanted to tell him about things I had experienced during my 20 years: the canonization of Padre Pio, the beatification of Mother Teresa, the Holy Year, etc. I was able to sit like a president in front of his desk in his private library. The Pope’s personal photographer told me he had never seen this since he began taking photos, that a guard could sit down in this way…
What will you miss the most from your service in the Vatican?
Koch: I’ll be far away from the Holy Father. Before, I was always with him, and now I’ll have to watch him on TV. There is also the difference in time zones. I’ll miss many things: the Holy Father, family, friends… But, I’m sure I have made the right decision. The Church there is very healthy: 93% of the population is Catholic, and they have a very simple but deep faith. When there is a Mass, it is celebrated in a simple manner, but you feel warmth around you. There, nobody watches the time. For a Sunday Mass they put on the most beautiful clothes they have, even if only a T-shirt and jeans. I also want to participate in parish life. I met the Archbishop of Cebu. He is very proud that a Swiss Guard decided to come to the Philippines after service in the Vatican. He said that the doors of his house are always open for me.