On May 6, forty new Swiss Guards took a solemn oath to “faithfully, loyally and honorably serve” Pope Francis “with all my strength, sacrificing if necessary also my life” in the pontiff’s defense. For over five hundred years such men have taken such an oath on the bloody day—May 6—when 147 did indeed sacrifice themselves on the steps of St. Peter to protect a pope fleeing the Sack of Rome in 1527.
Today the Swiss Guards carry a halberd, a lengthy steel axe-like weapon, and wear colorful clothing to please the tourists, but hidden away is a cache of more modern weapons. Every guard is trained to handle either and is quite capable of doing so. To be a guard, one must to be a practicing Roman Catholic, Swiss, single, between 19 and 30 years old and at least 1.74 meters tall.
On this day of initiation, each new guard also receives another weapon—a rosary—for, as practicing Catholics, these men believe that the pope may be protected with weapons and with faith. They are paid about $1,600 a year and get free room and board. About 95 percent of guards limit their enlistment to the required two years and then join a special group called Ex-Guardsmen Association staying in touch with former colleagues and getting together on special occasions, especially at the swearing-in ceremony of the new recruits on May 6th, for which they are invited every year.
I mention the Sack of Rome and the actions of the Swiss Guards in my latest novel, The Hidden Saint: The Sixteenth Century Church in Crisis. It’s loaded with such little tidbits of interesting history. Join my Facebook author page, like and share. goo.gl/2lWm2v