There is one day a year when Vatican City and the streets around the smallest country in the world become a little Switzerland. You can hear the German Swiss language with its characteristic accent everywhere. The day is May 6, when new recruits of the Pontifical Swiss Guard swear to serve the Pope “faithfully, loyally and honorably.” This year the Corps commemorated the 500th anniversary of the death of the Pope who founded them, Pope Julius II. An annual meeting of former Swiss Guards will take place this year in Lausanne where Julius was a bishop.

The swearing-in ceremony has become an impressive 3-day event covered by the media from around the world. The ancient Swiss quarter in the Vatican becomes very busy and crowded. Former guards come from Switzerland to help the Corps. For days on end there is a souvenir shop where the products are all about the Swiss Guard: a USB thumb drive in a form of a guard, wine with a Swiss Guard label, rosaries with the initials of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, a Swiss Guard calendar, a Swiss Guard umbrella, etc. Every year, one of the cantons of the Swiss Confederation is invited to give a concert and aperitif with local specialties. This time it was the small and less-known but very rich Canton of Zug, famous for its cherries. Among the special guests was the president of the Swiss Confederation, Ueli Maurer.

In the past, the ceremony had a simpler, more internal character. People did not travel as much as today, so parents and friends were rarely present. But two things have remained unchanged: the deep emotions and the unique memories. The emotions and memories were the same for those who took the oath this year as for those who took it many years ago, like Stefan Meier (31 years ago), Werner Steinmann (41 years ago) or Anton Holenstein (59 years ago).

“Of course, it is hard to describe the emotions,” Swiss Guard Manuel Steinmann, who started his service in February and was one of 35 new recruits (and the fourth in his family) who took the oath on May 6. “It was a day I will never forget, a day I prepared for with great intensity spiritually, with the chaplain, and in the drills with the instructor. We, all of the 35 guards who were sworn in, have taken an oath to serve the Pope and his legitimate successors faithfully, loyally and honorably, if necessary also risking our own lives. Moreover, we swore respect, fidelity and obedience to our superiors. I must say that personally I felt almost nothing of what was around me, at least at the moment of the swearing-in. The audience with the Holy Father was of course very beautiful, especially since my parents had a chance to greet Pope Francis and exchange a few words with him.”

Steinmann’s association with the Swiss Guard began with his uncle, Werner Steinmann, who was a guard under Pope Paul VI. “Pope Paul VI was truly very nice and very serious at the same time,” the elder Steinmann said. “He was a very intelligent man who carried out an immense task with the Second Vatican Council. He also closed the Palatine Guard and the Noble Guard, leaving only the Swiss Guard. It was a great honor for us.”

On May 6, it rained heavily, so the swearing-in ceremony could not be held outside in the San Damaso Courtyard; it had to take place in the Paul VI Hall. Today, these are the only two places where a swearing-in ceremony may take place, but in the past there were also others: in the courtyard of the Belvedere, in Piazza San Martino next to the Swiss Guard Chapel, or simply in the small Cortile d’Onore inside the Swiss quarters.

Four decades ago the swearing-in was different. “I remember that on that day we were alone, just the guards,” the elder Steinmann said. “There were almost no guests. Even my parents did not come. There was no tradition that parents would come to Rome for the ceremony. We were truly alone, just us. We were lucky to have beautiful weather, not like this year. For 15 years the weather was always beautiful and the ceremony could always be held in the Cortile San Damaso. Now, there have been three years in the last several when we couldn’t. What a pity. Also, in those days we had a Mass in the morning, but not in the basilica. We celebrated it in our chapel, because there was enough space for all of us. The swearing-in itself was at 5 p.m., as it is today.

“I have very special memories of the swearing-in. The first year, when I took the oath, there was no band, because the Guard did not have a band. One year later, precisely 40 years ago, for the first time after some 20 years, the Guard sent a marching band. I was one of its founders. I remember that I played the trumpet fanfares with two other guards in the St. Damasus Courtyard. There were about 12 of us in the band. Truly the minimum number of instruments. We gave a small concert in the Courtyard: two marches and two other pieces. After the ceremony, we played a concert a second time at our quarters during the aperitif.”

His nephew Manuel is not the only young Swiss man Steinmann inspired to become a Swiss Guard. Young Christoph Graf, today lieutenant colonel and vice commandant, was also inspired by him to join the Corps.

“The swearing-in ceremony in the 1950s was always in the Belvedere Square,” Anton Holenstein, who entered the Swiss Guard in December 1953, and took the oath in May 1954, recalled. “My father was present among about 500 other people, the Vatican diplomatic corps, officials, monsignors, cardinals and bishops. Rome was rather more dirty than today. The traffic wasn’t so intense and the entrance to the Vatican wasn’t at the St. Anna Gate, but at the end of the Braccio Carlo Magno. There wasn’t a parking lot in the Belvedere.”

Sixty years ago, life was different. Young Anton thought about emigrating to Canada, but as a tourist guide he met a girlfriend and after two and a half years he went back to Switzerland. He changed his profession after being a baker, joining the Swiss national railway, and he retired as stationmaster in Stäfa.

“Today the guards can afford to travel to many far-away places,” he said. “In the 1950s, the monthly salary was 45,000 Italian lire, including breakfast and lunch. But we were happy!”

Holenstein decided to become a Swiss Guard when he was 12, after reading Die Schweizergarde, a history of the Guard. “I decided to enter the Corps after my military service,” he said. “None of my relatives had ever served in the Vatican. When I was 19, I wrote to the commandant of the Guard, and he answered me that first I needed to complete my military service, then apply once again. I received all the documents, and later I sent them to Rome.

“At 7 p.m. one evening, I left by train from Zurich,” he recalled. “I reached Rome at about 9 a.m. the next morning. A sergeant was waiting for us new recruits at the Termini train station. We trained for about 14 days with Corporal Ebener before we began to serve duty at the various stations, which were at St. Anna’s Gate, the Bronze Doors, Carlo Magno, the Clementine Hall, the Swiss Hall, in front of the Papal Apartments and the Zecca dello Stato (State Mint).”

How was Pope Pius XII for the guards? “He never looked at us. We greeted him, but he looked straight ahead.”

Among former guards who come every year for the swearing-in ceremony is Stefan Meier, who joined the Corps when he was 21. Meier has become well-known as a photographer. Over the years, walking in and near the Vatican at all hours, from dawn to dusk, he was able to take thousands of breathtaking photographs which are in his private collection. Some have been printed in Inside the Vatican magazine. “Yesterday it rained, and the ceremony took place at the Paul VI Hall,” Meier said. “By coincidence, in 1982 when I took the oath, it was also raining, so the ceremony also took place in the Paul VI Hall. Later, for 20 years, it always took place in the San Damaso Courtyard. It never rained. In the past few years, because it has rained several times, it has taken place in the Paul VI Hall.”

Was it an emotional moment? “Of course it was,” Meier said. “All the people were looking at me. Then, we had to say correctly the words of the oath. I played in the band. I played the tuba. There was also a concert. I was very nervous about playing in front of everyone, but it was beautiful.

“What was different at that time was that the Mass was celebrated by John Paul II in the Vatican Gardens at the Lourdes Grotto. The morning was beautiful; it rained later in the afternoon. John Paul II celebrated Mass for us every year till 1998. After that, he didn’t feel very well. So, in his name he sent a substitute from the Vatican secretariat of state.”

The Mass was also celebrated in the Sala Reggia (Regal Room), two times in the Sistine Chapel, and many times in the Hall of Benedictions. In 2006, when the Corps was celebrating the 500th anniversary of its foundation, the Mass took place in St. Peter’s Basilica and the Pope was present.

In recent years, it has always been Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, who has celebrated the morning Mass on the day of swearing-in. Due to the large number of family members, guests and friends this year, the Mass took place at the Altar of the Chair of St. Peter (behind the main altar reserved for the Pope and his delegate). In his homily, Bertone highlighted the eminent role of women for the Swiss Guard, like Elisabetta Klinler, wife of the commandant Kaspar Röist, gravely wounded during the Sack of Rome, one of the 147 Swiss Guards who lost their lives in defense of Pope Clement VII. Also in times of peace, there have been many women, wives and daughters of Swiss Guard officers who received the right to marry, who through the centuries, at the cost of many sacrifices, made possible the loyal service of their husbands.

This year, marked by the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in February, the Swiss Guard’s service has been marked by unexpected and historic changes. Among those who were there was Manuel. “When I heard that Pope Benedict XVI had resigned, at first I couldn’t believe it. I was serving him and I expected to take my oath under him. The days of the Conclave were very busy. In the end, it was worth it, because the new Pope Francis is and will be a good Pope for our Church.”

The new Pope received the Corps in two groups on May 2 and 3 at his morning Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, and on May 6 for the traditional private audience for the new recruits and their parents. “I thank you in a special way for your families, which benevolently accepted your choice to live this service in the Vatican, and I encourage you with their love and prayer,” the Pope said at the audience for the new recruits. “Your service is a witness to Christ who calls you to be authentic men and true Christians.”

Facebook Comments