The work schedule of the Swiss Guards is rigorous: all day and all night, in turns, the 100 or so Guards stand vigilant around Vatican City to protect the Pope and the central offices of the Church. There are six days of service, then three days “in reserve” (servizio di riserva). This is the regular work schedule of a single Swiss Guard in the Pope’s service. That regular rhythm, sometimes monotonous, changes in summer when the Pope is not in Rome but at his summer palace at Castel Gandolfo. During the summer, there is time not only for military formation, but also for cultural and spiritual formation, including trips outside the Vatican.
The short trips are usually no longer than a few hours to visit places in Rome or near the Eternal City, like Assisi. Then, once a year, the Swiss Guard participates in a military pilgrimage to Lourdes, officially representing the Pope and the Holy See. This is the only trip when the Guards can wear their colorful uniforms outside the Vatican and which is financed by the Holy See; in other cases, the Guards have to pay out of their own pockets or find sponsors.
Since 2006, the Jubilee of 500 years since the foundation of the corps in 1506, each two years the Swiss Guards go for a more intensive three-day trip to farther destinations. “We always go to a place which has a meaning and particular reason for a Swiss Guard to be there,” the chaplain of the corps, Msgr. Alain de Raemy, said. “These trips are open to those who are willing to come. We don’t force anybody. Their aim is to promote a spirit of fellowship and they always have spiritual elements.”
Adds Corporal Urs Breitenmoser: “These are unique moments when we can come to know and ‘discover’ each other better. We came back from the trip tired but happy that we had had a unique experience together.”
The first trip in 2006 took them to Tours, the city in France where St. Martin, one of the three patron saints of the Swiss Guard, was a bishop.
The second trip, in 2008, was to San Giovanni Rotondo and Gargano on the occasion of the display of St. Padre Pio’s body.
The third trip, in 2010, was very special: to Bavaria to see the places where Pope Benedict was born and grew up and to meet people who knew him personally. That trip helped the younger Guards especially to know the personality of the Pope better, giving them an opportunity to talk with people who knew the Pope when he was younger and to create personal and emotional ties with the Pope.
In July, the Guards went on their fourth trip, this time to Szombathely, Hungary, where their patron, St. Martin, was born. The visit was in response to an invitation from the local bishop, András Veres. In addition, the Guards visited the capital city of Slovakia, Bratislava, especially the Greek-Catholic Church there, and the capital city of Austria, Vienna, to meet Garde Wien, the Austrian president’s guards.
Szombathely literally means “place of Saturday” (from the Hungarian szombat, Saturday, and hely, place). The veneration of St. Martin is reviving in his native city after a long period of Communism, when professing the faith was prohibited. On their arrival, the Guards, accompanied by Bishop Veres, went right to the church which, according to tradition, is built on the ruins of the house where St. Martin was born. There the Guards entrusted themselves to the protection of their patron. They also prayed at the Chapel of St. Martin in the Cathedral of Szombathely before relics of the saint, and visited a small museum of St. Martin. The second destination was Bratislava, with the goal of getting to know the Greek-Catholic Church. The Guards participated in a Mass celebrated by the bishop of the place, Peter Rusnák, in the Greek-Catholic rite which derives from the Byzantine tradition. “For our young guards it was a discovery that in our Church there is such a variety,” Msgr. de Raemy said. The program in the Slovakian capital city also included short meetings with the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Mario Giordana; the Latin bishop of Bratislava, Archbishop Stanislav Zvolenký; and the bishop of the military ordinariate, František Rábek.
The Swiss Guards also met their colleagues from the Guard of Honor of the President of the Slovakian Republic with their commander, Colonel Miroslav Išván. They were permitted to visit the President’s Palace, which is normally not open to the public. The president’s guards offered a show to their Swiss guests including a military parade.
The last destination was Vienna, which they reached from Bratislava on board a ship across the Danube River. They came to meet the Garde Wien, the corps of the president of the Austrian Republic, with whom contact has been established over some years. (The motto of this exchange is “From Guards to Guards.”)
Two groups of Guards met with the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, at his residence. The Guards also visited Heiligenkreuz Abbey with its splendid Cistercian monastery. The visit was also an occasion to meet Austria’s military bishop, Christian Werner, and Peter Stephan Zurbriggen, a Swiss archbishop who is the apostolic nuncio to Austria. They also visited Stephansdom (the Cathedral of St. Steven) and the Goldener Saal (Gold Hall) of the Opera Theatre of Vienna.
The visit to Hungary and Slovakia gave the Swiss an idea of a “post-Communist” reality unknown from their own experience in Switzerland.
They visited a small museum showing the Communist border of electric wire which once divided Hungary from Austria. This museum is the private initiative of a former border guard who does not want that sad part of his history to be forgotten. “He told us many dramatic stories,” Corporal Urs Breitenmoser said. “For our young members, that period is almost prehistory. The visit left a strong impression on us. In Hungary, we saw how prisoners were kept by the Communist government. We saw the difference between Switzerland and the countries of Eastern Europe. We could see the conditions of people’s lives there today. The differences between Western and the Eastern, post-Communist reality were very shocking for a younger generation.”
This year’s trip was organized by Major Sergeant Daniel Koch in coordination with the Guard’s chaplain. Plans for the 2014 Swiss Guard trip are still open.