Every year on May 6, the new members of the Swiss Guard swear allegiance to the Holy Father, making the bold promise to give everything to protect him:
“I swear I will faithfully, loyally and honorably serve the Supreme Pontiff Francis and his legitimate successors, and also dedicate myself to them with all my strength, sacrificing if necessary also my life to defend them. I assume this same commitment with regard to the Sacred College of Cardinals whenever the See is vacant. Furthermore I promise to the Commanding Captain and my other superiors, respect, fidelity and obedience. This I swear! May God and our Holy Patrons assist me!”
Chosen by Pope Julius II because of their renowned fighting ability and courage, Swiss men have been officially serving the Papacy as the Swiss Guard since 1506. Their official “birthday” is January 22, the day the first group of soldiers marched into the Vatican and received Pope Julius II’s blessing.
So why do they swear allegiance on May 6?
On May 6, 1527, Rome was sacked by the forces of Charles III. As the forces attacked from the Janniculum Hill, just to the southeast of the Vatican, the Swiss Guards gathered outside St. Peter’s basilica, ready to honor their vow to protect the Pope. The one hundred eighty-nine Guards, although accompanied by a few Roman forces, were vastly outnumbered.
A small number of guards escorted the Holy Father to safety through a secret passageway to nearby Castel Sant’Angelo. They were the only ones who would survive the fight. The commander of the Guard was captured and then brutally killed in front of his wife. One hundred forty-seven of the Guards died that day, fighting to the end.
Rome was pillaged during the next month as churches were desecrated, papal tombs looted, and papal supporters killed. Twelve thousand people lost their lives during those days, as every kind of sacrilege was committed by the troops. Raphael’s masterpiece The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament in the Vatican was defaced, parodies of religious processions were acted out, and relics and sacred vessels were destroyed.
To be a member of the Swiss Guard, you must be a Swiss citizen and a male at least 5’7″ tall who has been trained in the Swiss army. At the beginning of your service, you must be single, although Guards may marry during their time of service. Most importantly, you must be a practicing Roman Catholic of sound moral character.
Of the millions of people who see the Swiss Guard at the Papal audiences or at the entrances of Vatican City, how many know their glorious history? These men not flower pots or a nostalgic ode to the glories of the Renaissance. If anything, their traditional dress should remind us of that fateful May 6 and the sacrifices they are willing to make today for the person of the Holy Father.
We will likely never find ourselves standing between the person of the Holy Father and death. We will likely never have to know the answer to that little question stirring inside of us: Would I do the same as those Swiss Guards? Do I have the courage to be martyred?
But we do have to defend the Papacy, the Church, and our Lord Jesus Christ in much smaller ways. We have to explain the truths of the Faith to coworkers. We have to explain our religious practices to our family members. We have to defend the teachings of the Church and live them out in the public square. Perhaps some days that seems harder than facing Spanish soldiers on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. Do we have the fortitude to be soldiers for Christ?
Pray for the courage to live and speak the way the Lord needs you to do today. Pray for all those who protect our Holy Father. At this time in history, the threat against the Pope and the Church of Rome is just as real as it was in 1527. The next time you see the Swiss Guard, whether in person, on television, or in pictures, remember their courage and say a prayer for the safety of our Holy Father.