An interview with Christoph Graf, new Commander of the Swiss Guard.
What are the projects of the new Commander?
Christoph Graf: For me it is important that the Guards feel at home here, because they are young people who leave their homes, their families and their homeland to serve voluntarily for the Pope and the Church for two years. We have to give them a home away from home and do all we can so that they feel content here. This is our goal. As for the rest, I think my predecessor left the Guard well-organized and efficient. So, I don’t think I need to change a lot.
What about the enrollment?
We have an office in Switzerland which chooses appropriate people for the service. I participate only in the final interview.
I’ve noticed that in this kind of service it is necessary to have faith. Today the situation has changed from what it was 20 years ago; parents no longer go to church. For this reason, we have to pay more attention to whether there is a relation to the Church. This is very important for me. If there is no relation with the Church, why do they come to us? We should always ask for their underlying motivation. If one is looking only for adventure, we are the wrong place. The same is true if one wishes to enter only for military reasons. We want people who serve the Pope and the Church with conviction.
Does this discourage young Swiss men from coming here?
Maybe, but one must be convinced. One who is sworn in on May 6 without faith may find it difficult to operate in an extreme situation.
What does it mean to you to be the “Pope’s Protector”?
I’ve been always satisfied with all the positions I have had at the Swiss Guard. I’ve never dreamed of becoming the Commander. Now I am in this position. It is a great challenge and a new responsibility. There isn’t anything more beautiful than serving next to the Vicar of Christ.
Pope Francis is known for his long greetings with the faithful in St. Peter’s Square during the general audiences…
He is a Pope who can be touched. He likes to be close to people.
This is for sure a new thing. Even non-believers admire him. I am sure that he will be able to change the world thanks to his tenacity.
How are relations with the Guards? Stories have appeared…
It is the media who create those stories. Some of them are true, others not. The Pope has good relations with the Guard, but his private life should not be revealed to the media.
Pope Francis is the first Pope to shake the hand of the Guard who salutes him…
In the past, a Guard could never talk to the Pope. From time to time, John Paul II and Benedict XVI greeted us. We never start conversations with Pope Francis, but he comes up to the Guards, greets them and sometimes talks to them. It is a very paternal relationship. It is beautiful to talk with the Pope. The Holy Father talks not only with the Guards but also with other Vatican employees. Indeed, he went to eat at the Vatican workers’ dining hall. It is beautiful that he wants to meet ordinary workers.
You strongly opposed the opinion that the Pope wants to dissolve the Swiss Guard…
Word had it that on the occasion of Commander Anrig’s farewell, the Corps would be dissolved. The Pope respects the Swiss Guard and has never thought of its dissolution. I am positive.
The Guards accompany Archbishop Krajewski, who distributes food to the poor. Is it becoming your new task?
No, but it gives the young a good opportunity to get to know another reality. Together with our chaplain we accompany His Excellency to the Termini and Tiburtina Stations with food for the poor. Such meetings with those who have nothing are sometimes necessary. They are helpful to change a way of life…
You witnessed the resignation of Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis…
I think that the resignation of Pope Benedict was as shocking for the Guard as it was for others. We couldn’t believe it, but we understood that his health condition did not allow him to bear the responsibility for the Church.
The most moving moment took place in Castel Gandolfo. I was on duty that day in the Pope’s summer residence. Pope Benedict arrived in a helicopter and the most touching moment was the closure of the wooden door at 8 pm, which meant that the Swiss Guard are no longer responsible for his security. It was a sad moment but we had to accept it.
We went back to the Vatican, leaving the Pope Emeritus under the protection of the Vatican Gendarmerie. My task during the Conclave was to wait in the barracks for the election of the new Pope and proceed with an honorary picket to St. Peter’s Square. It was pouring with rain that day. I thought to myself: “Today it is raining, so for sure the Pope will not be elected.” Instead, someone called me, saying: “Here we go.” We left in our raincoats and helmets without our plumes, and when we left, it stopped raining.
You accompanied the Holy Father during his trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. What memories do you have?
The most beautiful memory is the crowds and their enthusiasm and joy when seeing the Pope. This made the biggest impression.
Christians in Sri Lanka are in the minority. The distance between the airport and the nunciature is 28 km, and crowds gathered along that distance on either side of the road. These were not only Christians, but also Hindus and Buddhists. Cardinal Ranjith said that Christians were those that greet by shouting, while Hindus and Buddhists only wave.
In the Philippines, I saw crowds like I had never seen before. At the nunciature I felt pain in my ears. Their joy when meeting the Pope was visible in their eyes.
Neither Sri Lanka nor the Philippines are rich countries. In Europe you don’t see this any longer. People aren’t so joyful any longer; they are sad. Not many are interested in the faith; most only in their work and careers. One who has faith shows it to others. It is touching. Their elation gives power to us, too.
Later, the afflicted people in Tacloban also showed their joy. For sure, most of them had lost at least one family member. Still, they believe in God, who gives them strength to overcome the hardships of their past.
What living conditions did you encounter there?
They still live in makeshift houses. I think they live in fear. I learned that that area is ravaged by about 15 typhoons a year. To live in such conditions you need strong faith. The reality is bleak. I saw destroyed houses which had not been rebuilt. During his visit, the Pope met a family of fishermen. Unfortunately, there was so much mud that he could not enter their house. They laid some wood on the ground and he met them outside the house. How can one possibly live in such conditions? It is unimaginable that a European, used to big and comfortable, luxurious houses, could live in such a way…
When we arrived in Tacloban, the wind was already very strong and it was raining. It was impressive to see that people would not leave. They wanted to be close to the Pope. Then the wind grew stronger and we had to leave before 1 o’clock.
Father Lombardi said that without that rain the visit would have been different.
My sentiments exactly. I told one photographer that it was boring to see only the sun. The picture is more interesting when it rains, too. Everything there was under the rain: the Pope and the people. The rain was strong so the Pope had to put something on. His raincoat was almost a sign of his solidarity: “I am one of you.” We were all wet. At the beginning, we paid attention so that the coat would not get too wet. In time, we understood it was impossible. I got a shower when the papamobile was leaving. This is our job: come rain or shine, we have to make sure that nothing happens to the Holy Father. So, these are the consequences we face.
What is your mission today?
The Swiss Guard is a small Corps. There are only 110 of us. Every year 30-35 young men join us and another 30-35 leave. I believe our task is to form these young people who come from Switzerland with little faith. So, when they leave the Guard, they can bear witness and set an example in small things like going to Mass every Sunday or going to confession. We do not want to form the Guards only as security agents. Some of them have discovered here their priestly or religious vocation.
It is hard to find new recruits. It will be ever more complicated.
I believe that faith is necessary if one wants to be a Swiss Guard. One has to realize whom he serves: the Church, the Pope, but ultimately they serve the Lord. Do they still believe in the Lord? It will be ever more difficult, but I hope our chaplain is able to explain that to the Guards.
For me, it gives me satisfaction when they return to our homeland as good Christians. I believe this is a very important task of the Guard today.