The Faithful Wellspring

Reintroducing the Faith to the St. Tarcissus Parish Community

A Swiss Guard recruit takes his oath during last year’s swearing-in ceremony for recruits in Paul VI hall at the Vatican May 6. New recruits are sworn in every May 6 to commemorate the day 147 Swiss Guards died saving Pope Clement VII’s life during the 1527 sack of Rome. (Source: CNS, photo/Paul Haring)

“I swear I will faithfully, loyally and honourably 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.” ~Papal Guard Commitment of Loyalty (Source: Vatican.va) 

We see them so often; whether it’s  in still images, films (fictional or non), graphic-novels or other illustrative formats, and referenced or alluded to in various written novels/stories; that they are practically unnoticed. But who are these men, attired in jester-like outfits with swords and/or halberd’s (superb weapons of a bygone-era) at their sides? Popularly, they are referred to as the Swiss Guards or Papal Guards; however, their proper title is The Pontifical Swiss Guard. Interestingly, though, they are sometimes referred to by their more obscure (antiquated) name, The Helvetians: a reference to the Helvetii who were an ancient Gallic tribe (or confederation of tribes) that inhabited lands that constitute modern-day Switzerland during (pre)Roman times. As a slight, but important (or so I consider it as such), deviation; it should be noted that as a sect of the Gauls, they were bitter enemies of Rome and often took part in raids or battles against the Republic. Unfortunately, they were badly beaten in the Battle of Bibracte (58 B.C.); their allies, the Verbigeni, fearing complete annihilation, deserted them underneath the cover of night whilst the Lingones, another set of allies, received countless warnings from Julius Caesar not to assist them or interfere in any way. As a result, and completely unsurprisingly; this forced them into surrendering and disarming the very next day to the Roman legions. Although they enjoyed a time of freedom after the aforementioned battle, rebuilding homes and communities–an action specifically encouraged by Caesar (himself) as a means of securing Rome’s borders from the marauding and vicious Germanic tribes; they were (eventually) subjugated under Roman rule and nearly extinguished after an uprising in 68/69 A.D. which took place during the civil war that ensued after the death of Nero.

Interior of St. Peter’s, Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini (Source: Wikipedia.org/Saint Louis Art Museum)

“The Swiss see the sad situation of the Church of God, Mother of Christianity, and realize how grave and dangerous it is that any tyrant, avid for wealth, can assault with impunity, the common Mother of Christianity.” ~Huldrych Zwingli

The Swiss, after the destruction of the (Western) Roman Empire and throughout the centuries thereafter, were not a very prosperous nor powerful people’s; they did not possess much in the way of natural resources or consumer goods. As a result of these gloomy prospects, they turned to providing mercenary services. It was within this line-of-work that they achieved widespread recognition; prominence; and extraordinary wealth. So sought-after and renowned–as a result of their skills, discipline, honor, and loyalty–had they become that King Louis XI of France, in 1480, created a personal regiment known as The Hundred Swiss (Cent Suisses) whom served as his personal bodyguards within the Palace walls: a distinctive role that they retained until 1817 when they were summarily replaced by units from the French Royal Guards. It was for those aforementioned attributes that the Swiss were chosen to be the bodyguards of the Holy Father. The official date of this union is cited as January 22nd, 1506 A.D.; though an alliance between the Papal States and the Swiss Confederation had been already struck in 1497 by Pope Sixtus IV whom foresaw the usefulness of utilizing their numbers for future endeavors; and it took place under the auspices of Pope Julius II who was nicknamed “The Fearsome Pope” or “The Warrior Pope” due to his offensive actions that he undertook in an effort to reclaim several territories which had been lost to the Papal States. Nevertheless this same group of noble mercenaries would be put to the ultimate test not too long after their official inauguration.

Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, after defeating and capturing King Francis I of France on February 25th, 1525 A.D.–an act that ended the Italian Wars which was fought between France and the Holy Roman Empire (H.R.E.)–turned his sights upon Rome, famously declaring that:

“I shall go into Italy and revenge myself on those who have injured me, especially on that poltroon the Pope.” (The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 A.D., Will Durant, p.616)

It was with such intentions that an army of (roughly) twenty-thousand (20,000) men–a force mainly composed of German Lutherans along with a large contingent of Spanish and (newly conquered) Italian soldiers–approached the walls of Rome: an act once considered impossible as it was believed that God (Himself) protected those very walls as well as the structures therein. Despite facing such overwhelming and dire odds; the Pontifical Guards stood their ground, which historians would refer to as the Swiss Stand–an allusion to the Last Stand of the Greek Spartans against King Xerxes I of Persia–and sacrificed themselves in an attempt to safeguard Pope Clement VII who fled down through the Passetto di Borgo and into the Castle of Sant’ Angelo. It is there that he would remain a (virtual) prisoner until surrendering on June 6th, 1527 and paying an enormous ransom of 400,000 ducats. However, during the interim, and for eight straight days and nights, terrible acts of vandalism; pillaging; sacrilege; rape; and slaughter engulfed the Pontifical States. So horrific were the atrocities committed that the population, which had previously been estimated at fifty-five thousand (55,000), dropped-down to a meager ten-thousand (10,000). Of the original one-hundred eighty-nine (189) Pontifical Guards, only forty-two (42) remained; and these few men continued to defend the Holy Father. Thus this bloody chapter in the annals of history has been known as the Sack of Rome. It is in commemoration of their sacrifice and dedication that they were given the honorific title of Defenders of the Faith and it is also the day (May 6th) when new members of the Guards are sworn-in: a ceremony which takes place in the Paul VI Audience Hall in the Vatican and is personally attended by the Pope.

“For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me. ” ~The Holy Bible (Psalm 23:4, Douay-Rheims Bible)

It is from such noble roots that the current Pontifical Guards stem from and it is with the same integrity (or so one prays) that they diligently carry-out their orders to faithfully serve and protect the Supreme Pontiff, whomever he may be and whenever it should be necessary. Of course, much has changed in the course of history, and this is true of the Guards themselves. Despite their outward appearances, as well as their seemingly ancient armory; they are, in fact, trained in their native homeland of Switzerland in the use of modern weapons and tactics, which they put into use as the world’s smallest (sovereign) police and military force. Recruits, aside from completing basic Swiss military training and obtaining certificate(s) of good conduct, must also meet additional prerequisites. They must have a professional degree or high school diploma and Swiss citizenship; they must be Catholic, single, between 19-30 years old, and (at least) 5’8.5″ [174cm] tall. As for their (current) ubiquitous uniforms, this was a (surprisingly) modern creation. Designed Created by Commandant Jules Repond in 1913-1914; their creation were heavily inspired by Raffaello’s frescoes which depicted the traditional clothing styles of the Renaissance-era. The colors, for instance, were inspired by the official colors of the renowned and infamous Medici family (red, yellow, and blue) of which Pope Julius II was a member of. Nevertheless, even these accoutrements are starting to change as an emphasis has been placed on plain-clothes guards, which has been met with an enhancement in their training, as a direct response to the assassination attempt upon St. Pope John Paul II by Mehmet Ali Ağca on May 13th, 1981.

And there, dear reader, is a summary of these noble guards and their honorable duties. Although this is in no way meant to be a definitive entry into their histories nor do I in any way profess myself to be an authority upon such topics; I wrote this solely to give you all a glimpse into the legacies of these characters, hoping that by doing so it will inspire you to go out and learn more at your own pace and leisure. Closing up this entry, I hope you enjoyed yourself as much as I enjoyed writing this for you all and I look forward to writing more in the near-future. But I can only continue to do this with your support. How can you help? You may kindly ask. Simple. Bookmark/visit this page often. Share it with others (but only if you wish). Offer constructive criticism(s)/ideas on our official Facebook page. And, most importantly, pray for our continuation as well as the renewal of our parish and its custodians, both priestly and lay alike. Finally, and perhaps a bit selfishly on my end; I ask for your prayers in health, humility, and wisdom so that I may offer more of myself to Christ and His Church. I offer you my humblest thanks in advanced. Until next time and as usual; take care, stay healthy, and God bless one-and-all!

History, Musings

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