New recruits of the Pontifical Swiss Guard stand at attention while an officer inspects their uniforms during a training session at the Vatican April 30, 2024, ahead of their swearing-in ceremony May 6. CNS photo/Lola Gomez

Mightier than the sword: Words are a Swiss Guard's best weapon

By  Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service
  • May 2, 2024

One of the oldest military corps in the world, the Pontifical Swiss Guard, has always armed itself with the best gear available in its 518 years of active service protecting the pope.

From 16th-century armaments of halberds, longswords and cannons to modern-day automatic assault rifles, Glock pistols, tasers and pepper spray, the guard's arsenal and tactical defense training have sought to be the most avant-garde to provide the best security for a high-profile, crowd-loving, globe-trotting leader.

While most tourists may only see the Swiss Guard as colorful and quaint -- standing guard at papal events and surveilling entrances into Vatican City State -- they are top-tier security specialists who actually find their most needed weapon is words.

"We have been trained in different combat techniques," as well as taken courses in psychology and situational assessment, said Corporal Eliah Cinotti, media officer of the Pontifical Swiss Guard.

But "nowadays you have to understand that the best weapon is talking. Until now we have had 100% (success) because we always manage to alleviate situations by talking," he told reporters April 30 in the courtyard behind the guards' barracks.

Thousands of people stream into St. Peter's Square, the basilica and the Paul VI Audience Hall for papal events and even more walk each day by the major entrances into the tiny city state where the guards are more at liberty to interact freely with the public.

While most passersby are inquisitive and curious, there has been "a significant increase" in the number of people experiencing some form of crisis, Corporal Cinotti said.

"There are more lonely people looking for comfort and maybe they see it in the Vatican," he said. There are also more individuals who might have some kind of psychological or mental disturbance "who come up to us and perhaps even ask for a word of comfort, a word of support."

While the 135 guards may work anywhere from six- to 12-hour days, he said the hardest part of the job is coming face-to-face, not with potential or actual troublemakers, but with those who are desperately seeking help.

Hardly distant sentinels, the guards, who are on average 22 years old, hear heart-wrenching stories from people.

Some people may have lost their job and have a large family to support, he said, or "there are people maybe who want to take their own life, and we have to stop this person from taking their life."

Others might say they absolutely must see the Holy Father, "and we cannot allow everyone into the Vatican, so we are always trying to have a solution," the corporal said. Most often people are "looking for a specific kind of help," and the Vatican is seen as a kind of "last resort."

"When we are serving the entrances we are also there to be an ear that listens, too, and it is also part of our Christian formation," he said. The Swiss Guard is open only to Swiss male citizens who have graduated from high school, served in the Swiss Army, stand at least 5 feet 8 inches tall, are under 30 years of age and are Catholic.

"The pope always says that we are a calling card for the Vatican," he said, since the guards are such highly visible and relatively accessible public-facing figures. "But more importantly we are a bit like a messenger of the Gospel on the ground."

"We are also there to be Christians," which means trying to help others, he said. "We know what to do, but in the moment also sometimes a good word or even maybe putting yourself in the person's place helps. Listening especially helps."

The fact the Vatican is "a hot spot" for so many visitors is one thing that makes the job so unique, said Renato Peter, 24, who joined the Swiss Guard in September.

Most visitors are friendly, they might have a question or want a photo or information, he said, but that means it's also difficult to see which people might be trouble. While police officers typically head out to where a specific problem has been called in, for the Swiss Guard, "the problem comes to us" with no warning.

But working "on the border" at the entrances to Vatican City State is also one of the best parts of the job, he said, as it gives him a chance to meet people from all over the world.

Peter said he decided he wanted to be a Swiss Guard when he was 12 years old when his Diocese of St. Gallen organized a trip to the Vatican for a general audience in 2012. They visited the guards' barracks in the afternoon, "and then I said, 'Yeah, that's a cool job.'"

Peter, who will be officially sworn-in as a guard with 33 other young men May 6, said he thinks "it's really great" to serve Pope Francis who has been listed a number of times by Forbes magazine as one of the "Most Powerful People" in the world and is a "spiritual mentor" to 1.39 billion Catholics around the world.

The recruit likes the camaraderie and friendships he's made, but he is not a fan of Rome's heat, which can reach 107 degrees Fahrenheit or more. It's a job where sometimes "you don't do anything, but you sweat a lot."

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