DAILY CATHOLIC     THURSDAY     May 7, 1998     vol. 9, no. 89


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The Swiss Guard, an institution that has survived the test of time!

          Listening to the radio earlier this morning we heard one commentator talking about the tragedy at the Vatican earlier this week and started poking fun at Catholics. It seems whenever there is any news out of the Vatican, news hounds and media spinmeisters take that chance to either express their ignorance on the Roman Catholic Church or take pot shots at the faith. Such was the case when an announcer we admire remarked about what a caller said in referring to the Pope as "His Pontiffness" that "well, I guess I've lost my Catholic audience." Assuming this, he then went into a joke tirade about the Church and its antiquity, poking great fun at the Swiss Guard and their uniforms. He said they're right out of the thirteenth century. Actually he missed it by nearly three centuries since they were designed in the early 1500's by none other than the master of masters Buonarroti Michelangelo. It brought to mind how few know about the history of the great Swiss Guard and the impeccable record they hold. Yes, they have had a few setbacks, including the horror of the murders inside the Vatican Monday night, but overall they enjoy a track record that puts all other armies or secret service corps to shame. In thinking about that, we decided to share the background and highlights of this elite Palace Guard with our readers who might possibly not be aware of the accomplishments of this unique corps of men, populated exclusively by Swiss Catholics.

         As we mention in today's feature, the Swiss Guard was patterned after the garrisons commanded by Captain Nicholas Von Flue who would leave the military and, through locutions and interior visions, become a hermit, fasting only on the Holy Eucharist for twenty years. He was ordained in 1947 by Pope Pius XII. It was Pope Julius II who recognized the brave valor of these Swiss mercenaries and sought permission to establish them as Vatican Palace Guards. He could not offer much in the way of monetary benefits, but he offered the opportunity to serve the Vicar of Christ up close and personal, so to speak. To no one's surprise, enough signed up that Julius put it into motion by consigning Michelangelo to dabble in fashion design. What the Renaissance sculptor and painter came up with was a masterpiece in threads. He designed tunics of blue, red and yellow that puffed out at the sleeve and below the knee, elizabethan collars for formal wear with silver Conquistador-style helmets and "turtleneck white" wraparounds with headware a slanted beret for everyday wear. For even more routine work, they don blue uniforms, keeping the puffy sleeves, pants and, of course, berets. But for formal wear, repleat with their long-handled medieval, fleur-de-lis-like halberds it looks more like something right out of Shakespeare. Just as the bard's work has continued right up to today, so also Michelangelo's touch on these uniforms is still maintained today for sentry duty and ceremonial occasions. Those chosen to protect the Pope by being at his side at all times when outside Vatican City or when he is in St. Peter's Square, turn in their sixteenth century duds for the conventional suit and tie in the same manner the United States Secret Service dresses. In fact during the Holy Father's visits you cannot often tell the difference between the secret service corps of the country the Pope is visiting from the Swiss Guard plainclothesman who accompany the Pontiff.

          In fact, it was in plainclothes that slain Swiss chief Alois Estermann rushed to John Paul II's side when he was first shot by Mehmet Ali Agca in the Square on May 13, 1981. For his valor and for his loyalty to the Pope for the past eighteen years he was rewarded by being personally chosen by John Paul II to head up this elite corp, now numbering 100 Swiss nationals. To be a member of this select Palace Guard you must be of Swiss descent, be a practicing Roman Catholic who has served the required military duty, be under thirty-years old and be over five foot eight inches tall. They must also be willing to learn the Italian language. For this they go through a grueling training and are not paid as handsomely as other mercenaries. But their rewards are very beneficial. They make up the majority of only a handful of laity who are allowed to reside inside the Vatican walls. They can best be assimilated with the palace guard at Buckingham Palace where the sentries don't blink, looking straightforward. You'll hardly ever get one to wink or smile. They take their work very, very seriously, so seriously that these loyal Swiss Guards take an oath of fidelity to the Pope that they will defend him with their life. Such was the case when Alois rushed to shield the Pope in the Popemobile in 1981. Thankfully, God didn't see fit at that time for either to be taken home and so the young Estermann served his holiness for another eighteen years. But his time came on Monday evening in his own home at the hands of one of his friends with his dearest friend, his wife of sixteen years, at his side. She was also taken at the same time. Today in our news we bring you the events in preparation for the funeral and the Holy Father's comments. He used his regular Wednesday public audience to console the rest of the loyal Swiss Guard. It was the same day that originally more recruits were to be sworn in as permanent Swiss Guards in honor of the 471st anniversary of the commemoration of the death of 147 guards who died in battle defending Pope Clement VII against Charles V's Lutheran army who sought to sack Rome. As it were, the protestant soldiers did capture Clement but he lived. In fact, up until the Papal States were dissolved and only Vatican City remained, the Swiss Guard were a force to be reckoned with. They were a potent pontifical military that the popes themselves commanded in an effort to protect their temporal power against the ravages of foreign emperors, powerful Italian and Sicilian families, the Saracens and other armies.

         Today the military prowess of the Swiss Guard is mostly ceremonial when standing sentry at all four of the main entrances to the Vatican and outside the Papal Palace and apartments, though they are all issued modern weapons as well. After all they can't carry their halberds with them wherever they go. Maybe the Estermanns would have had a better chance. But regardless of that it was their time in God's master plan. And so missing will be this loyal commander from the ranks, but the Swiss Guard will go on.

         Back to the radio commentator who finally backed off the Catholics and started a vendetta on another topic, women's fashions today and the various fashion designers who don't have a clue to what is feminine. To that we echo an "amen" and it brings home the point that fashion designers today are out of touch with reality, out of touch with what God intended for the fairer sex. But then again, they're out of sync with what the Almighty intended for the masculine wearers as well. The gay influence has badly harmed society whether we want to admit it or not and whether it's politically correct or not, it's true. The fashions of Versace, Calvin Klein, and that ilk have been anything but a contribution to society. Contrast that to Michelangelo's contributions. In fact, even though the brash commentators continue to mock the Church and make fun of the "silly uniforms" of the Swiss Guard, they must realize that fashions today are only fleeting, just as today's moral values are fleeting. What society needs today is stabilization, the kind of stability provided by the Swiss Guard, an institution that has survived the test of time.

Michael Cain, editor

May 7, 1998       volume 9, no. 89
Today's Catholic Pewpoint Editorial


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